'Old' media reasserts supremacy as election battle heats up

As the election campaigns reach fever pitch, Stephen Armstrong reports how traditional media such as TV and posters are replacing online mashups as the political parties' battlegrounds of choice

M&C Saatchi's latest Conservative poster campaign, to launch on Monday (26 April), focuses on benefits and National Insurance
M&C Saatchi's latest Conservative poster campaign, to launch on Monday (26 April), focuses on benefits and National Insurance

This year was supposed to be the UK's great multichannel, Obama-style election. All the political parties and most of the commentators predicted online would be the medium where the toughest battles were fought  and, in the early days, the rival poster mash-ups and Facebook campaigns did suggest that might be so.

As the parties settle in for the slog, however, and after the triumph of Nick Clegg in the first televised leadership debate, old media - from TV to posters - has reasserted its supremacy.

"That first TV debate [on ITV1] revived good old analogue media," argues PR guru Mark Borkowski, who owns Borkowski PR. "The MPs' expenses scandal means too many people can see the puppet strings in this campaign."

He adds: "The parties have yet to find a dialogue or an unmashable idea and they feel clumsy and fumbling online. Ironically, given both Labour and the Tories hired Obama election strategists, Nick Clegg won the debate because the others seemed as though they were doing political karaoke."

David Balko, commercial director of Jigsaw and former Labour account director at TBWA/London, bemoans the lack of imagination. "The usual messages are being pushed out and the leaflets coming through my door - I live in Richmond Park, one of the seats the Conservatives are targeting - contain the usual messages seen in the last five elections.

"If the political parties are to encourage people to vote in a way that The X Factor or Britain's Got Talent are capable of, I believe it will take a change in the way parties communicate to the electorate."

David Kershaw, chief executive of the Tories' creative agency M&C Saatchi, insists the tested methods still work. "It's a fallacy that online has replaced offline in terms of media communications," he says.

Back to basics

The appointment of Kershaw's agency at the end of March followed mutterings of "carnage" at the party's lead agency Euro RSCG - with one senior executive understood to have told a friend at a dinner party the campaign had made him a "broken man".

The Tories returned to their old team, which is working alongside Euro RSCG, with a strategy of buying up plenty of poster sites - the Party's media agency MPG booked more than 1,000 poster sites in marginal constituencies, with creative work switching rapidly between attack ads on Gordon Brown and personality pitches for David Cameron.

"This election will be decided by the 20% of the population in marginal seats," says Marc Mendoza, UK chief executive of MPG. "In that way, and in many other ways, it's just like the previous elections. Everyone was saying this is going to be the great digital campaign - but the vast majority of the money is still being spent on outdoor.

"The Conservative Party has had a strategy in place for 18 months and they are sticking to that strategy. The other parties came to the game very late and they're suffering all sorts of problems, from media price inflation to creative issues."

And the other parties can ill-afford to pay inflated prices. In terms of spend, there's an £18m legal limit on election expenditure, but with individual candidates allowed to spend up to £40,000 each, further sums can be channelled into local associations. The Tories have a budget of £25m, Labour about £10m and the Lib Dems far less.

Cost-cutting measures have forced Labour to operate with half the staff it had in 2005. The party turned to supporters to create attack ads - including the David Cameron Audi Quattro poster and online mash-ups of Tory posters.

Celebs like Peter Davidson, Sean Pertwee and Eddie Izzard front the election broadcasts for free, with Izzard opening his film by claiming the Tories are going "to hit us with lots of posters and adverts... because they've got shedloads of money from wealthy donors who know they will get their cash back from tax concessions".

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are riding high on the TV debates, but have two agencies working outdoor, broadcast and online: The Assembly for conventional ads and Iris for guerilla marketing. Iris created the 'Labservative' campaign - a mock political party that has been in power for 65 years of war, recession and scandal.

"People liked Nick Clegg but didn't think there was much point voting for him," explains Paul Bainsfair, Europe chief executive of Iris, who has previously worked on Tory and Labour campaigns. "We started with posters and moved online where we were kind of immune to spoofs because we were a spoof."

All the same, he agrees with Borkowski. "This election will be remembered for the debates. The televised discussions are like Pepsi and Coke having a live taste test on national TV. They'd never do it - it's uncontrollable."