05 May “It doesn’t matter what ads you run, the government always gets in”
For the third time in as many years, a Prime Minister has fired the starting gun on a race to the polls.
And for government and opposition communications teams alike, that means another mad scramble to define their paymasters’ message and distil it in a way that hits home with the electorate.
Think of it as a pitch with a six week deadline, daily creative reviews and a decision at the end of it all based on what 35.5 million people think. All the while having to negotiate seething political rivalries and some of the most overblown egos on the planet.
So pretty much like every pitch you’ve ever been involved in, apart from the six week deadline.
Yet despite the time, money and column inches spent on them, every political campaign boils down to one of two propositions: ‘It’s Time for A Change’. Or ‘Don’t Rock the Boat’.
Given the binary nature of the task, it’s not surprising most of them deploy some pretty blunt instruments. Puns, both verbal and visual. Repetition. Scare tactics. Comic book comps and caricatures. Schmaltz and sentimentality.
From a creative perspective, many have a distinctly ‘studenty’ feel. Most wouldn’t make the cut in the more nuanced world of consumer brand advertising.
But perhaps, like their close cousin the political cartoon, this is no place for subtlety. Simplicity is the key. Impact the objective. We vote with our hearts, not with our heads, and it’s broad brush, gut level appeal that most often carries the day – as proven by the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The ones that work and work well are rightly famous. Yet it’s those that fail to dent public opinion or worse, backfire completely, that often live longer in the public memory.
So as the campaigning begins in earnest, here are our selected highlights – and one or two low points – from the last fifty or so years..
Kennedy for me
Preppy and upbeat, this anthem for a new Camelot serenaded John Kennedy into the Whitehouse in 1960. A nailed on earworm of a jingle that also gets the client’s name in 33 times in the course of a one minute spot.
Things took a darker turn in 1964. This commercial for incumbent Democrat President Lyndon Johnson aired only once yet is credited with helping to secure his crushing victory over Barry Goldwater. It also marks one of the earliest examples of ‘attack’ advertising, soon to become the norm.
Labour isn’t working
Saatchi & Saatchi’s first and heaviest hammer blow in four election campaigns for the Tory Party appeared in 1979. It’s rumoured Margaret Thatcher very nearly vetoed it because ‘…you should never have the other side’s name in your own poster’. The revelation that the ‘dole queue’ was actually made up of members of the Hendon Young Conservatives came too late stop the landslide.
It’s Morning in America
As folksy and full of apple pie goodness as Ronald Reagan himself, this vision of a secure, prosperous and almost exclusively white USA was written and voiced by legendary adman Hal Riney. Impossibly soppy to UK eyes and ears, it nevertheless moved America enough to return the President for his second term in office in 1984
If you want me out…
A local press ad that turned the abolition of the the Greater London Council into a national talking point in 1984. Reasoned, eloquent and utterly watertight in its argument for local democracy, it’s perhaps proof that even the best political advertising can’t sway the big debates on its own. The GLC was scrapped by act of parliament two years later.
New Labour, New Danger
In effort to scupper the newly rebranded Labour party, the soon to be outgoing Conservative government tried to put the wind up voters with this John Heartfield style collage in 1997. The ASA instructed them to withdraw the campaign after 150 complaints, stating that it made Blair look ‘dishonest and sinister’. If only they knew then…
The Great Schlep
2008 saw Barack Obama sweep into office on the back of a huge online effort to mobilise younger voters in what became known as the Facebook Election. For the first time, strategists were able to target micro issues within the wider debate, and this masterful viral campaign succeeded in tipping the polls Obama’s way in the key swing state of Florida by asking young jewish supporters to convince their grandparents to reconsider their position at the polls. Result? A 51% to 49% victory and the state’s highest elderly Jewish vote in 30 years.
The Real Donald J Trump
Fast forward 8 years, and the precision instrument of social engagement turns into a giant club in the tiny hands of a right wing, man-child billionaire. Whether or not Twitter swung it for Trump, it certainly allowed him to bypass the mainstream media and bludgeon his reductive, hate-filled message directly into the cortex of his core constituents. All the while garnering press coverage far in excess of any conventional campaign.
The Ed Stone
When Armando Iannucci was asked why there wouldn’t be another series of ‘The Thick of it’, he pointed to this disastrous 2015 own goal as proof UK politics was now officially beyond satire. Enough said