Why political advertising doesn't work anymore

Political advertising isn't working
Political advertising isn't working

The unveiling of political ads used to be a big event in the run-up to an election. Huge. Campaign launches sparked wall-to-wall coverage on mainstream media, were the top story on the 10 o’clock news and became the subject of many a water-cooler conversation. 

The creatives have become part of political and cultural history. Think the "Labour isn’t working" poster, depicting an endless dole queue; the infamous Tony Blair "Demon eyes" shot; or the "Wiggy" ad, of William Hague with Margaret Thatcher’s hair, bearing the chilling caution "Be afraid, be very afraid".

Yet today’s consumers barely look up from their smartphones long enough to notice. Rob Blackie is director of social in the UK for OgilvyOne Worldwide and a former director of research for the Liberal Democrats, responsible for communicating policies to the public. As we approach the May election, Blackie says he sees "no evidence at all" that most people noticed this year’s party campaign launches, citing a recent poll supporting his hunch.

So, has political advertising lost its mojo? Are we witnessing the death of the political-party brand? Is it down to a disengaged electorate, or a media spend that simply doesn’t cut it in today’s cluttered marketing landscape?

Now there’s a million Blair clones who speak in meaningless jargon. These politicians are terrified, so they talk while saying nothing

"Yes, political brands are dying," says Blackie. "If you look at the ads of the so-called ‘golden age’ of political advertising, there was no great subtlety in them. They mainly implied it was light and happiness versus darkness and gloom. If you put them out today, the public would laugh at you. They wouldn’t be
accepted the way they were then. Today, ordinary people would deconstruct them on Facebook."

Blackie sees the main challenge for political parties as conveying complex information about their policies, in an accessible way, to a public constantly plugged in to the internet who will not be fobbed off with slogans or meaningless soundbites. He predicts that social media will be an effective way to  get the nuances of a message across, tentatively dubbing the forthcoming vote as "the Twitter election".

"The public is getting better informed and smarter by the day and politicians who keep patronising them will suffer in the long term. A 30-second YouTube clip won’t work for a complex issue. A five-minute video, on the other hand, which goes into depth, might persuade people to think differently."

The anti-advertising era

Mark Oaten, chief executive of the International Fur Federation and formerly a senior member of the Liberal Democrats, agrees. 

"The era of the big poster campaign is dead; we’ll never go back to it," he says. "If I was responsible for marketing now, I’d run an ‘anti-advertising’ campaign saying ‘We don’t want to patronise you with one bland statement. We can’t address your needs through one simple message, so ignore this ad and listen to what we say in our emails, which focus on your individual needs’."

Oaten argues that advertising that defines political brands not by what they are, but what they aren’t – the "Wiggy" ad is a prime example, defining Labour as anything but Conservative – has reached a "dead-end road". 

While he fully expects most politicians to continue to follow this well-worn path, he believes the most successful strategies will be those that "pull away from this incredible muddle, take a risk and have some fun".

Moreover, Oaten asserts that there is "shifting loyalty" among today’s voters: "It’s like a throwaway generation with throwaway allegiances." What’s important to the electorate today is not the party, but its stance on matters that individual voters hold dear. For this reason, data has become one of the most powerful tools of the political marketing trade. 

"It’s so much more sophisticated than when I started out in politics because there’s incredible data on each voter," says Oaten. "In my day, you might canvass once a year and be told by a son opening the door to ‘piss off, we all vote Labour’. Now, though, you might know that he has just signed a petition against tuition fees and his dad is against fracking, so you can be very targeted on social media or email, relating to their specific concerns."

Mad Men and Bad Men

Not everyone is convinced that there is no more mileage left in the political brand that defines itself by what it’s not, however. Sam Delaney, editor of Comedy Central and former editor of Heat magazine – and, before that, researcher at the House of Commons for Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband – has written a book called Mad Men and Bad Men

Don’t think by being nice it will make them any less likely not to kill you. Kill or be killed!

It’s about the "strange" relationship between British politics and advertising. (And yes, Sam is part of the Delaney dynasty, adland’s almost-royal family; son of Barry and nephew of Tim and Greg, all three of whom have founded eponymous agencies.)

Delaney pens a lively picture of what it was like behind the scenes of an election campaign, with politicians harangued on one side by warring admen and on the other by spinning spokesmen. "When Tony Blair was in power, he didn’t want to go on the negative. That’s true of every Prime Minister. They think ‘Hang on, can’t we celebrate our achievements?’

So when TBWA’s Trevor Beattie brought him the ‘Wiggy’ poster with the line ‘Remember to vote on Thursday or this gets in’, [Blair’s] first reaction was ‘No, we can’t do that! It’s really disrespectful! We can’t say that!’ He insisted on changing the words to ‘Be afraid, be very afraid’. Alastair Campbell [Labour director of communications] said: ‘Don’t think by being nice it will make them any less likely not to kill you. Kill or be killed!’"

In another example, Delaney cites a poster mocked up for Margaret Thatcher of the then-Labour leader Michael Foot. He was famously doddery and scruffy, and in this execution was pictured hobbling and bent over a walking stick, accompanied by the words "Even pensioners are better under the Conservatives". "Thatcher was so furious and offended by the depiction of Foot that she banned the ad," he says. 

Less communication, more meaning

The uncomfortable, unavoidable truth, according to Delaney, is that this type of political advertising works better than taking a positive line. The trick nowadays is to encourage party sympathisers to create more edgy, confrontational content so that the leader’s image isn’t tarnished by being seen as petty or puerile. "That’s what happened with the Common People Pulp song parody [video] featuring David Cameron. It wasn’t done by an official agency, so Labour could claim it wasn’t them," says Delaney.

He is also unconvinced that the public, and especially the YouTube generation, wants more detail; instead, he argues that they want fewer words, but more meaning. 

"Politicians talk almost entirely in indecipherable gobbledygook. That’s got worse," says Delaney. "In the 70s and 80s politicians were passionate and had led rich, interesting lives and had strange, compelling characters. Now there’s a million Blair clones who look and speak like marketing executives in meaningless jargon to hoodwink people. These politicians are terrified to open their mouths for fear of being pounced on for their slip-ups and errors. So they talk while saying nothing. But people, especially young people, have become attuned to that."

Politicians and their agencies could be missing a trick, say some, by declaring that traditional political advertising is dead. After all, according to many experts (not least Delaney and Oaten), there has never been such a big difference between what the main parties are offering. Surely it’s the adman’s art to distil these complex differences into clear, bold, simple statements of fewer than 140 characters, using their trademark tools of wit, charm and humour? 

The ‘golden age’ is over

One of the admen behind the "Wiggy" campaign, Johnny Hornby, now chairman and chief executive of The&Partnership, concurs. "The reason that the ‘golden age’ is over is there is so much content now that it’s a lot harder to stand out. But the media is still hungry for stories and there’s still potential to use wit and humour to captivate people. Good political advertising is about taking a truth and exposing it."

The big problem facing politicians is that years of tit-for-tat campaigning has left many voters disillusioned and disenfranchised

Nonetheless, he acknowledges that political briefs are much more challenging than they used to be, not just because of the clutter, but also because parties don’t have the same, big budgets to spend, mainstream media no longer dominates and the public is more disengaged than ever. 

"I’m not sure you can spark the passion for the cause in the same way because people have become too cynical," he adds. "But they still enjoy the personality side of campaigns. Focus groups show that voters suddenly become engaged when you have a pop at the opposition in an amusing way." 

For Hornby, the best ads tend to be "pointed, a bit nasty and cleverly done", the ultimate marker of success being when you can get the opposition’s supporters to laugh at their leaders. 

Paul Baines, professor of political marketing at Cranfield School of Management, agrees, citing the 2010 poster of Gordon Brown "looking hard" with the strapline "Step outside posh boy" as a good example. "Spoofing only works when there is a real difference between the perceived image of a person and the image that person is trying to portray," he says. "In this case, Cameron was trying to present himself as a man of the people, even though he’s a stockbroker’s son. The ad was a bit daft, but it got across something positive about Brown while hitting on a vulnerability of Cameron’s."

Ipsos Mori research suggests there is a public appetite for personality-based marketing of this nature. Traditionally in Britain, policies have been the most important deciding factor for voters, followed by leader image, then party image. However, in the last election, leader image stole pole position.

What our users want from politicians – and, by extension, from their marketers – is authenticity and competence

Baines believes that this shift was due to the "incredibly un-certain" political environment. "The solutions to the country’s problems are deeply complex," he says. "Your average person cannot solve the structural deficit, or European Union integration problems, for instance. So the public has to trust someone to do the best they can. They want less on policy and more on personality. That’s why TV debates are coming out top in terms of influencing voters."

The big problem facing politicians is that years of tit-for-tat campaigning has left many voters disillusioned and disenfranchised. Another report, by Ipsos Mori and Mumsnet, shows that the levels of satisfaction with the main party leaders is at an historic low, among women in particular.

Given that 2010’s vote was dubbed the "Mumsnet election", what advice does the parenting website’s chief executive, Justine Roberts, have for campaigners? "What our users want from politicians – and, by extension, from their marketers – is authenticity and competence," she says. Roberts believes this requires some "fundamental changes in the way they ‘do’ politics".

"The new battleground is digital," she adds. "While political parties are inherently risk-averse – they want to hone and shape their message – the digital environment demands instantaneous and informal responses. The transition will be painful for those used to setting strict controls and boundaries. But gaffes are simply a part of the new landscape; politicos will need to be prepared to make mistakes and be honest. The age of simply broadcasting messages is well and truly over, and they need to get stuck into the dialogue."

So, while many politicians are terrified of slipping on the proverbial banana skin (or eating a bacon roll awkwardly, in Miliband’s case) the consequences of not "getting stuck in" could be tantamount to political suicide. Politicians need to take decisive action and start talking. Preferably in English. Not indecipherable goobledygook.

A portrait of political Britain by Populus

Rather than group voters by traditional categories such as class, gender and religion, research company Populus has created a political typology based on shared values and outlook.*

Comfortable Nostalgia

Tend to be older, more traditional male voters, often retired homeowners. Although most financially secure, they dislike the social and cultural changes they see as altering Britain
for the worse.

Optimistic Contentment

Confident and comfortable, they are more highly educated, of a higher social grade and have higher incomes than other groups. They are patient, prudent and tolerant, but also think Britain is a soft touch. They believe people can get on if they work hard and that too much is expected from the government.

Calm Persistence

Tend to be coping rather than comfortable. They hope rather than expect things to get better, believe in strong political leadership and look to the government to help with economic growth. This group contains the greatest number of black and minority ethnic voters.

Hard-pressed Anxiety

Pessimistic and insecure, these people want more assistance from government and resent it when they think others are getting help instead of them. Many are sceptical about immigration and multiculturalism.

Long-term Despair

These are serial strugglers who feel they have little stake in the country or the economy and that no one stands up for people like them. They are more likely to describe Britain as downtrodden and angry than anyone else.

Cosmopolitan Critics

Are generally younger, more secular and single, urban-based voters. Usually highly educated, this group worries about growing inequality and the general direction the country is going in. More likely than other groups to be working in the public sector.

To take the test and see which consumer group you fall into,
see populus.livesurveys.net/P002786