PERSPECTIVE: Howard's rhetoric was well timed and well judged

Late last year I wrote about a lunch held for Campaign journalists, at which an agency boss stood up and showed, by way of an end-of-year summary, a reel of superb commercials by other agencies.

My mocking column provoked a stronger response than almost any I have written. Two days after publication I had received 30 e-mails and one hand-written letter. The breakdown of opinion was as follows. Number of people agreeing that said chief executive's stunt was tosh: 26. (Amazing, isn't it, how seeing another agency ridiculed in the trade press provokes attacks of extreme schadenfreude?) Number telling me it was outrageous that I had reported events that occurred over the lunch table: three. Number disagreeing with me: two.

Usually my mailbag is smaller, and more mixed. Here is the sort of feedback I tend to get: "I admire what you wrote last week and next week would you please reprint the following press release about my brilliant career/company/ad campaign." "Why do you hate me/us?" "From reading your coverage of (insert name of any creative/media agency here) I am convinced Campaign has a vendetta against us."

Anyway, the first blockbuster ad of 2004 could easily have provoked another mocking column from me but it's not going to. Michael Howard's 16-point political creed, published last Thursday to mark the New Year, is an exceptional political advertisement. At a minimal cost (one insertion in The Times), it was reproduced everywhere and got massive coverage.

Admittedly the tone was mostly over-the-top motherhood and apple pie stuff but this is an approach most employees of big companies are familiar with from all-staff memos. Emotional language, whether in the corporate memo or the political ad, is a kind of patois that we all accept. So Howard's "I believe that people must have every opportunity to fulfil their potential" and "I believe that every child wants security for their parents in their old age" was more than tempered by the edgier stuff.

The most striking example of the edgier stuff, in that it hints at a specific commitment, is Howard's fifth belief: "Red tape, bureaucracy, regulations, inspectorates, commissions, quangos, 'czars', units and targets came to help and protect us. But now we need protection from them. Armies of interferers don't contribute to human happiness." Nothing could set Howard apart from the interfering and regulation-crazy Labour - the party that actually feels it is appropriate to issue ad briefs about curbing anti-social behaviour - more strongly.

In fact, the ad made some strong points obliquely - "I do not believe one person's sickness is made worse by another's health," for example.

Given that Howard's first task is to win back disaffected Tories, this made great sense.

Howardism is at this stage ill-defined, and the team behind the ad obviously spent hours trying to work out what the manifesto is to consist of. For the record, those who detect the superb copywriting skills of M&C Saatchi's Jeremy Sinclair here are right and those who detect the Rockefeller plaque in New York as an inspiration for the layout would be even cleverer.

There is a real chance that if you ask people this week what a vote for the Tories means, they will snap out with an answer that reflects Howard's creed. And because the ad avoided pratfalls such as taxation or immigration, it will act as a firm base for future policies.

All in all, 2004 has had a depressing start for Britney Spears and anyone who abhors the Tories. A Happy Annulment to Britney, and to all our readers a happy and prosperous New Year.