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How Elite Advertisers Shaped British Politics

The way the UK understands and relates to political parties during election time has been controlled by the creative elite for the last 40 years.

by David Whelan
Feb 17 2015, 11:00pm

William Hague got a Thatcher makeover in Labour's 2001 poster. All images courtesy of Faber & Faber

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

The UK's General Election is 79 days away. For Britain's political parties, this is the time when they begin to roll out advertising campaigns that will either make or break an election.

Everybody remembers the classics, like "Labour Isn't Working," by Saatchi & Saatchi in the 1979 General Election, but not necessarily the terrible ones, such as in 2010 when Labour presented to us David Cameron, sitting on a car, looking a bit like a twat.

The way we understand and relate to a party during election time has been controlled and directed by the creative elite for the last 40 years. "The turning point for advertising and politics was in the late 70s," says Sam Delaney, author of Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising.

"A whole generation of smart, creative ad men came through, like the Saatchis, Alan Parker and Ridley Scott," he says—men who stopped making commercial advertising a hard sell and made it entertaining and compelling. "The Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher noticed that. Before that moment, political parties had used old-fashioned agencies to create ads that read like political manifestos." Not that they gave it much effort. "They didn't do much," Delaney continues. "It was: slap a slogan on a poster, that's your job done. Don't bother us with anything else."

In many ways, the intertwined relationship of advertising and politics as we know it can be laid at the feet of Thatcher and a fellow called Gordon Reece, her Director of Communications. "A flash man about town," according to Delaney, and a "duck out of water in the stuffy offices of the Conservative Central Office."

Reece had a history in television and understood that no one had ever done political advertising in the same way they had done commercial advertising. "He had the guts to hire Saatchi & Saatchi, this agency of five guys, all in their mid-twenties with long hair and who drank too much," says Delaney. The result of the partnership was the "Labour Isn't Working" campaign, and a victorious Tory party.

But it could have been so different. Labour were approached by Saatchi & Saatchi prior to their contract with the Tories to work their campaign. "They were told that Labour didn't use ad people to communicate their message," says Delaney. "It was sniffy, snobby. They didn't want these supposed superficial Flash Harrys. Labour saw them as the dangerous agents of capitalism."

It wasn't until Labour hired Peter Mandelson as their Director of Communications in 1985 that they began the slow but steady process of catching up with the 20th century. Nowadays, that communications role is absolutely crucial for maintaining party morale right up the chain, from the street pamphleteers right up to the leaders on the front bench.

"An election is a three-month war," says Delaney, as we broach the subject of Blair-era Labour. "Blair would feel nervous if he didn't see enough posters, so [Alastair] Campbell would get their driver to make a detour and drive around the streets until they saw enough Labour posters." This, apparently, continued even when Blair was Prime Minister, "which is pretty crazy," says Delaney. "They were literally just wasting time."

An ad agency's function within a party is far subtler now than just coming up with a witty one-liner and slapping it across billboard spaces along the M1. Politicians are often incomprehensible, ruddy-cheeked dullards, and it's the ad man's job to keep them in line. "Chris Patten, ex-Chairman of the Conservatives, said that the best thing they ever brought to us was discipline and focus. Political parties are complicated things," says Delaney.

What advertising brings to politics, then, is a helping hand at election times to boil down their thinking. "Left to their own devices, politicians will run a reactive campaign," says Delaney. "The ad men remind them not to just bang on about one idea over and over again."

The Conservatives' demonic Blair poster from 1997

Do we assume, then, that our major party leaders will comment on anything if they think it'll serve them in some way? That the ad men are the ones focusing their political rhetoric? Basically. "David Cameron will literally pass comment on what happened on X Factor last season," says Delaney. "He couldn't give a fuck—he'd talk about anything and everything. And around election time that's dangerous."

So what might Cameron's ad men be saying? "Stop bloody talking about EastEnders and stick to the message."

Political ad campaigns, for the most part, are trying to get at the jugular of the politically unengaged. The people who ultimately decide elections are those who live in swing constituencies, and these people are the ones most affected by advertising. Cameron could be photographed saving children from a burning house for all you or I care, he's still a twat. The BBC may run a hilarious Nigel Farage reality TV show called Fags, Pints and Nige that you love, but you'll still find his political opinions abhorrent. Ed Miliband might discover the cure to fucking cancer but nobody will give a toss because, guys, have you seen how weird he looks?

You get the drift.

"It's those 3 to 4 percent of the voters who actually have a significant say in the end result," says Delaney. "Advertising at its best helps people understand the broad sweep and express the messages of each of the parties in a very compelling, easy to understand, way."

These people don't watch Newsnight. They don't read leaders in broadsheets or party manifestos. They're not "into" politics, and, asks Delaney, "why should we expect them to know everything about the political parties that are on offer? They've got busy lives of their own. We can't expect everyone to be fully immersed in the details—that's where the campaigns come in—to inform them."

Often, this informing is done through fear—better the devil you know, and all that. There's a reason that most of the famous political ad campaigns have things like Tony Blair's eyes replaced with a demon's or featured William Hague in a Thatcher wig. "You've got to go negative," says Delaney. "Most people don't have much faith in the ability of politicians to change things for the better, so usually parties are voted in under the basis of who would make things less worse."

Thatcher: The best Client Saatchi ever had

Politicians, to their credit, don't always like this negative, personal thinking. There are numerous examples of party leaders getting offended on behalf of the opposition, presumably because—for my money—there are already enough flippin' comedians around without Cameron going on Graham Norton to impersonate Miliband "for the lolz."

"Ad men are not in the business of creating prejudices," says Delaney. "They are in the business of exploiting them. He goes on to explain a story from around the 1983 election of the Saatchis coming in with a poster of one-time Labour leader, Michael Foot, for the Tories. "He was quite an old man, in his 70s, and walked around with a walking stick. He looked like a scruffy hairbrained professor. The Saatchis had found this picture of him on Hampstead Heath looking a right state, so they put the headline over the top of it: 'Even Pensioners Are better off Under the Conservatives."

Perhaps surprisingly, Margaret Thatcher went absolutely berserk. "She called it disrespectful and undignified," says Delaney. "She was fucking furious."

Sometimes, though, such ads will be used. And, predictably, it all goes a bit tits up. In 1997, M&C Saatchi famously ran the "New Labour, New Danger" campaign with a creepy-as-all-fuck photo of Tony Blair. The public reaction was basically: "Oh. This is really weird and mean and perfectly sums up what the Tories are like." They went on to experience their worst results in the polls for 50 years.

So what does make a good political ad campaign? "Campaigns are at their best when they focus on your strongest point and what the electorate most trusts you on," says Delaney. "In 1992, John Major was talking to his Chief Election Campaign Strategist. 'What's our major strength?' he asked. And the response was, 'Well, you haven't got many... Except defense. So start a war. As soon as you do that everyone will vote for you.' Major said no and the strategist replied, 'Well you're obviously not serious about winning, then.'"

Labour's 1992 campaign posters, featuring Norman Lamont as "Vatman"

In the end, they stuck with tax. The strategy was: even if Labour talks about the NHS, ignore them and talk about tax. "In the end," says Delaney, "they squeezed over the finishing line."

The May election is, and will be, fascinating. Right up until the Scottish Referendum, Labour were sneaking along for what Delaney called "a hard-fought 1-0 by not fucking up." But, thanks to Scotland now basically becoming a one-party state, he says those plans are now "all fucked."

Television debates may be a way for Labour to claw back some lost ground, just like Nick Clegg used the inaugural ones in 2010 to worm his way into office. Unsurprisingly, Cameron, so far, has refused to get stuck in. This also has a lot to do with advertising. "I wouldn't be surprised at all if Saatchi are strongly advising David Cameron to avoid the media space," says Delaney. "They can show how incompetent you are. It suits the Conservatives that Ed Miliband is being characterized by the media as an oddball and a loon. On TV, there's only one winner. Miliband's stock is already so low, it can only go up."

What the hell is going to happen in May, then? So far, the only major campaign strategy to stick out has been Harriet Harman's divisive pink bus. "Look," says Delaney, "It seems to me that the most likely outcome for this election is a coalition of Labour-SNP-Lib Dem-Greens and struggle to sustain it." And then what? "In a few months there will be another election, when Labour and the Tories have new leaders."

An ad campaign can't do anything about that, though. Even if it is brilliant.

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