Is it really the backbiting posters that win an election, or just good
old-fashioned politics? Even the strongest campaign may not net the
votes, Winston Fletcher claims
In his sagacious weekly column, the angelic editorial director of this
saintly journal, Dominic Mills, said future general elections will be
won by poster power (Campaign, 20 September).
‘The victors,’ he said, ‘will be those who use agencies that are great
at posters.’ So, forget policies, politicians and the ballot box -
Britain’s future governments will be chosen by which party does the best
posters. To which far from sagacious thought there is only one sagacious
response - bullshit.
Since, however, Mills’ doctrine seems to be increasingly widely shared
by political commentators, it’s important for all of us who are supposed
to know a bit about these things, to get a proper handle on political
advertising and to realise what it can achieve and what it can’t.
The first crucial fact to establish is that contrary to conventional
wisdom, political advertising was not invented by Lord Maurice and Sir
Tim in 1979 when - so mythology claims - they ran the infamous ‘Labour
isn’t working’ poster that swept Mrs Thatcher to power.
Above-the-line political advertising has been around since the early
19th century, at least. In 1832 Sir Edward Knatchbull and Sir William
Geary ran particularly lavish and feisty campaigns.
In other words, politicians are not now copying commercial advertisers,
as ignoramuses often claim. The polish is on the other boot. Commercial
advertisers are, if anything, copying politicians.
It isn’t even true that agencies and broadcast media are new to
political advertising. In the US, Eisenhower employed Ted Bates to run
his extraordinarily successful 1952 presidential campaign (‘I like
Ike’). And Harold Macmillan employed the late - and much lamented - CPV
agency to mastermind his equally successful 1959 campaign (‘Life’s
better with the Conservatives - don’t let Labour ruin it’).
What, you may be wondering, is the purpose of this trip down memory
It is to show that, throughout the Western world, sophisticated
political advertising has been around for many decades. So researchers,
academics, psephologists and a busload of boffins have had oodles of
time to investigate its effects.
No other area of marketing is as endlessly researched as politics -
think of all those polls, those articles, those books and PhD theses.
Compared with politics, grocery marketing is still in nappies.
And all the studies show the role of above-the-line advertising to be
pretty small. Like much consumer advertising, one of its principal
functions is to reinforce the loyalty of existing users (existing
A second function is to win back lapsed users (lapsed supporters).
Nobody expects it to convert many users of other brands (entrenched
opponents). So its strategic objectives are quite modest.
Incidentally, it is because most political advertising is aimed at
current and lapsed supporters that it is often negative and knocking.
Portraying your opponents as rogues and scoundrels is a lousy way of
seducing their supporters, but it’s a mighty powerful way to whip up
your own troops.
And even the most optimistic studies show the maximum extra share of the
poll achieved by political advertising is 1 per cent to 1.5 per cent of
In an election, with a photo-finish, that small margin can mean the
difference between success and failure. In politics, unlike product
marketing, you don’t get a second chance for years. So the parties throw
every penny they can into their campaigns in case, a few votes one way
or the other, make all the difference.
That’s why political advertising is far from unimportant. But don’t
overestimate its power.
Winston Fletcher is chairman of DFSD Bozell