Politicians prepare for dirty war games

The two main parties are getting back on the election campaign trail but, unlike last time, Labour is armed with a 4m budget and a full-service agency, while the Conservatives lack the old Saatchi savvy. By Tom O’Sullivan

Every General Election is always going to be the dirtiest; the most important, the most presidential – the one that shows the UK has been reduced to the gutter of electoral advertising in the US.

And every time it is true. Predictions for the next one, whether it is in the autumn of 1996 or the spring of 1997, will not be significantly different.

But this time the campaign will be fought over a longer period with more tactical advertisements; the advertising battle between the two main parties will be more financially even and it could be the last election where party political broadcasts play any significant role.

The General Election campaign effectively gets under way this weekend with the opening of the Labour Party conference in Brighton. Followed four days later by the Conservative Party jamboree in Blackpool.

Politicians are renowned double-speakers and their advisers have obviously learned a lesson or two. If so many, in all parties, claim they do not want a slanging match or a bloody personalised advertising fight, how come ads which manage to do both find their way onto posters and into print?

Few political observers expect a ballot before next autumn because the Tories are not in a position either financially or politically to fight a campaign. But the war is under way and inevitably the political abuse traded in the House of Commons or in the conference halls in the next fortnight will, in time, find its way into advertising.

All sides claim to have learned lessons from 1992. One that will not have been missed is that the Advertising Standards Authority, following complaints and a full review of the 1992 campaign, continues to exempt political parties from its code on honesty and truthfulness.

They are the only organisations with licenses to lie.

“I am concerned that we do not go down the US route of political advertising,” says Labour director of campaigns Joy Johnson, the architect of April’s now notorious party political broadcast which accused John Major of lying. “But it is propaganda and we will not be deflected from telling it as we see it.”

Privately, some Labour insiders admit that the “lying” broadcast went too far. Others are more succinct about the lesson learned from the 1992 election which the Tories dominated by creating a single-issue campaign – tax – and hammered home through its “Tax Bombshell” advertising.

“We tried to be positive with our ‘Made in Britain’ poster and that proved to be a bad idea,” says one Labour insider. “Doing something with alleged facts – the essence of the Tax Bombshell campaign – is a good example of how successful negative advertising can be.

“It was a polished and credible piece of political abuse. You can make more gains through that type of tactical manoeuvre early in the campaign, than by the trench warfare it deteriorates into during the four weeks of the campaign.”

But the political parties all follow a similar pattern when it comes to advertising and marketing. For the two years after an election the disciplines are largely ignored, the next year is taken up by a reorganisation following the findings of the post-mortem into the previous campaign and then for the final two years the parties claim to be on standby.

In this period the only real contact is through the occasional party broadcast. Now even they are being brought into question because the Conservative Party has declined two of its possible five slots this year on the grounds of cost. The language and style employed in many broadcasts puts them firmly in the Wilson era, rather than the 21st century – something which will change in the near future.

Johnson wants a more consistent advertising presence over the next 18 months. But there is a debate within the Labour Party on whether that is the best approach or if an all-out assault in the final four weeks would be more effective. It is a debate dictated by money and resources more than strategic thinking.

“We have limited resources and it is tempting to keep the powder dry and the money in the bank,” says one Labour source. “Every 1m spent in spring 1996 is one that might come in handy in the spring of 1997. But you do not build brand loyalty three weeks before somebody makes a purchasing decision.”

Much of the fight will be played out in the media which has elevated the art of spin-doctoring to mystical proportions. It was seen to great effect during the 1992 poll – six months before the election stories of the alleged cost of Labour’s tax proposals were front page news in the Daily Mail, occupied space on radio and television news and sowed the seeds which were later exploited by hard-hitting ads.

It is a classic example of limited resources being used in a skilful way to make maximum impact.

The opening shots in the 1996/97 campaign will follow a similar strategy – poster sites unveiled for the benefit of an attentive media. One poster site for half a day costs a maximum of 2,000 but the press coverage it garners is equivalent to 200,000-worth of media spend.

“It would be a shame if the 1996/97 election was simply a re-run of 1992 in terms of negative advertising,” says Labour Party adviser and Butterfield Day Devito Hockney chairman Leslie Butterfield. “I hope economic competency will dominate Labour’s electoral message and that the campaign is not just about knocking the Tories. As the party of opposition you have to communicate positive messages.”

But the next election will differ from its predecessors in several areas. For the first time Labour could have more money to spend than the Tories – the figure of 4m-plus is whispered in Labour circles at a time when Conservative HQ is still carrying an overdraft of 11.4m. Secondly, Labour is going into the election with a retained advertising agency rather than the volunteer force it has used in the past two. And third, the Tories will not have the back-up and financial patience of Saatchi & Saatchi behind them.

Butterfield Day Devito Hockney was hired in the John Smith era. Tony Blair overturned that decision and for the first time hired a retained agency, BMP DDB Needham. The two agencies now operate an uneasy partnership on creative, strategic planning and execution of the work. BMP’s first work for the Party will be unveiled tomorrow (Thursday).

But Conservative Party chairman Brian Mawhinney and director of communications Hugh Colver are still trying to extract the party from its long-term relationship with Saatchi & Saatchi and to move the account to the breakaway M&C Saatchi.

Crystal ball gazers, political scientists, and pundits of all political complexions will be trying to predict the outcome of the next election. They will say it is the most important to date, that we are likely to see the dirtiest fighting and a presidential style election with Tony Blair as JFK.

Once again those predictions will come true.v

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