OPINION: Political advertising is only a part of the battle for votes

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

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


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