In 1978 a poster appeared in the high streets of Britain. Placed by Saatchi & Saatchi for the Conservatives, it showed a long line of workless Britons under the line 'Labour Isn't Working'. That poster is now widely considered to have been responsible for the Tories' electoral victory the following year.
Impressive work for 48 pieces of paper. In fact, so impressive that the three major parties have been trying to repeat the feat ever since. But the law of diminishing returns is at work and this simplistic approach to political communication is now woefully inadequate.
Public resistance to heavy messaging has grown, and for politics ... there is no guarantee that the rewards of a well-funded ... and well-executed ad concept will outweigh the risks.€
This note of scepticism, perhaps surprisingly, comes from Alistair Campbell and he's talking about the election just called. What's more, he's right.
In fact, he's a little late. In 1997 the Conservatives piled in with 'New Labour, New Danger' and Blair's demon eyes; very memorable, but ultimately meaningless, a complete failure and 13 years ago.
Clearly, the parties now have more communications, marketing and press advice than you'd find at a D&AD dinner dance and yet, big posters, PPBs and press releases seem to comprise the most imaginative route they can muster. This is not only achingly predictable, it's rather a shame. In this media saturated age, the passion, ambition and verve generated by an election campaign should be throwing up advertising strategies and messages as sharp and poignant as that 1978 poster at least once every hour. But alas, it seems the budgets and efforts have, once again, been assigned to highly predictable posters and direct mail.
There's some very lumpy complacency in play here. One supposes the Tory campaign office thought hijacking Labour's Cameron as Gene Hunt image and chucking it back at Brown was a stroke of witty genius, but they were looking in the wrong place. In the post-modern, post-Banksy field of outdoor messaging, there is an unintended but important audience reaction to political posters €“ vandalism. And when one of your valuable voters defaces your wall mounted announcement with anything beyond a graffiti tag, they have done more than earn their place on a thousand Twitter feeds. They have given would-be ministers a potential hotline to the electorate's heart. They have shown their hand and passed the parties an opportunity to address some uncomfortable issues. This defacing of official communications should be seen as focus grouping in the raw, at least one voter silently shouting his hopes and fears. ￼ If Cameron is scratching his lustrous locks, troubled by the lack of a likely landslide, he could do a lot worse than examine the sentiments of this 'redesigned' bit of electioneering in central London.
A word, too, about straplines and a little quiz. Match the line to the party:
'A future fair for all'
'Change that works for you, building a fairer Britain'
'Year for change'
For the record, it's Labour, Lib Dem, Tory. Not that it matters. In some strange twist of neuro-psychology, they leave your brain the second you look away from them. Just try it. And if you ever wanted to know what copywriting by committee looks like, the Lib Dems have just satisfied your curiosity in a way that will never be bettered. These mottos are the very worst examples of watery weak branding and in the real, commercial world would have been rejected in a heartbeat.
Naturally, if the competing parties were left to build their own communication strategies and creative work, we would expect nothing less than an absolute debacle (these are politicians after all). But they hire agencies, consultants, PRs and spinners by the truckload - so it's quite astonishing the creative work emanating from the campaigns is so anodyne, so cowardly and so devoid of emotional impact.
I am sure I will never find myself in the unhappy position of having to persuade the beleaguered public to opt for one cabal of career politicians over another. But in the event, I honestly think jettisoning adverts, leaflets and slogans (I'd probably retain PPBs) and spending the budget on policy research, manifesto crafting and actually encouraging voter participation would be excellent advice. Telling people you had done it would probably play very well and attract votes.
You could even put it on a poster.
(With huge thanks to Jess for the Cameron poster photo.)
Magnus Shaw, copywriter, blogger and consultant - www.magnusshaw.co.uk