Pushing the polls

Right up to the wire, the Government was rejecting the idea of free mailshots for all London mayoral candidates, but it is pumping £4m into advertising to combat voter apathy. Can an ad campaign draw voters and is it speaking to them in a lang

Labour has expressed fears that Internet companies and youth brands could exploit campaign rules for May’s London Mayor elections as it fights opposition moves in the House of Lords to give all candidates free mailshots.

A free one-off mailshot is normally offered to candidates in parliamentary elections – but the Government has rejected the idea for the London contest.

It claims unscrupulous companies such as dot-coms and youth brands could take advantage of the facility to gain cheap publicity.

Some Labour MPs have criticised the Government’s stance and opposition peers challenged it in the Lords this week, as they voted on a bill to create a Greater London Authority.

If the Lords were to reject the bill, it would delay the May 4 elections by weeks, which is eventually unthinkable for the Government.

Labour has estimated that a London-wide drop would cost £750,000 per candidate, compared with £10,000 to register each. The party fears that a free mailshot could encourage up to 20 more candidates to join the race, bringing the total bill to £15m.

But as Marketing Week was going to press, a Labour party spokesman said the Government was standing firm on the issue. “It doesn’t take a genius to work out how a free mailshot could be used for commercial purposes. Organisations have used elections in the past to gain free publicity.

“We are opposed to the free mailshot in principle. It is about electing a representative for London, not giving companies cheap publicity.”

The mayoral election could be delayed by weeks because the Government is refusing free direct mail facilities for candidates. But some see the move as another attempt by Labour to silence maverick MP Ken Livingstone, who is considering mounting an independent campaign to become mayor.

Amid concern that the election contest may turn into a white elephant with low voter turnout, ad agency WCRS has been handed a task which may prove even harder than keeping Livingstone quiet.

The Government has given WCRS a £4m budget to persuade Londoners to ignore the in-fighting which has threatened to turn the contest into a farce and go to the polling stations on May 4.

WCRS’ campaign carries the slogan “It’s the biggest job in London – you choose who gets it”, but they may find selling the idea to an apathetic electorate is an even harder task than running the city.

The double-edged sword for Labour is that while its preferred candidate Dobson has won the nomination, public interest in the race may hinge on whether Livingstone also stands.

Observers feel the electorate will only be stirred to vote if “Red Ken” throws his hat into the ring – whether it is to punish Labour with a “yes to Ken” or to keep him out.

After the recent Welsh Assembly fiasco, the Government is counting on the contest to bolster its flagging programme of constitutional reform. The £4m budget equates to 81 pence for each of the city’s five million electors.

Contrast that sum with the £1m spending limit for mayoral candidates and the £5m cap on party outlay at general elections, and it becomes clear how serious Labour is about making the contest work.

Turnout at elections has been on a downward trend for the past decade. The 1997 general election figure of 71 per cent was the lowest since the Second World War.

The Government’s flagship Scottish Assembly elections persuaded only 58 per cent of electors to vote. In Wales, turnout was only 46 per cent.

Turnout reached a peak of 48 per cent in local elections in London in 1990. But by 1998 the figure had fallen to 34.7 per cent – the lowest in the city for 35 years.

Observers believe the Government is pinning its hopes on a turnout of at least 50 per cent – but according to pollsters, they shouldn’t hold their breath. In a MORI poll for The Mail on Sunday (October 14 to 16 1999), only 38 per cent of Londoners questioned said they were certain to vote at the election.

Faced with the task of reversing this trend, WCRS has created an integrated campaign with the Government’s London office to highlight the importance of voting.

Posters featuring the campaign slogan and asterisk logo have already appeared in 1,500 sites across London. The asterisk highlights the responsibilities of the Mayor and 25-seat London Assembly across many aspects of London life – including its direct control over policing and transport.

TV ads will follow on March 1, with a second wave of the poster campaign planned for the Underground later next month.

The “It’s the biggest job in London” slogan features on 17 million tube tickets and postcards, beer mats and a blimp which is hovering above the city. Leaflets will be dropped at every home in the city, explaining the finer details of when and how people can vote. WCRS has also created the Government’s mayoral election Website.

WCRS account director Jo Cave says: “The most important thing is to make sure the message to get out and vote is known to everyone. We aim to make people aware that this election will change their lives on a day-to-day basis.

“This is a unique election, because voters have to fill in four boxes on two ballot sheets. It’s our job to tell them exactly how and when to vote.”

Chris Powell, chairman of BMP DDB, says: “Selling the idea of voting is always difficult. It is pretty unmemorable because you’re dealing with an abstract idea rather than a person. I don’t envy WCRS.”

Targeting the youth

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the campaign will be persuading London’s youth and diverse ethnic communities – traditionally the most apathetic voters – to place their cross.

MORI’s Mail on Sunday poll showed only 29 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds were certain to vote, against 41 per cent of 35- to 54-year-olds.

The same survey revealed only 28 per cent of non-white London voters interviewed would definitely vote on May 4, compared with 40 per cent of whites.

WCRS has created ads to target young and ethnic voters through magazines including The Voice, New Nation and Eastern Eye, and radio stations such as Choice and Kiss FM. And at the Trafalgar Square launch of the asterisk campaign on February 15, rapper Charles Bailey sang “Don’t Forget to Vote”, accompanied by young dancers.

The Government last week instructed St Luke’s to create a “non-patronising” campaign after the agency won its latest drug awareness business and is looking for WCRS to adopt a similar tone in its voting campaign.

WCRS’ Cave says: “When we target younger voters through their publications, we’ll endeavour to speak to them in their language, so they understand why it’s important to vote.”

Ogilvy & Mather account director Steve Goodwin is a specialist in campaign extension techniques and devised the Government’s recent Minimum Wage advertising. The campaign, which he claims was the first Government campaign to specifically target ethnic minorities, surpassed its targets for response rates.

Goodwin says: “It is not only about big TV campaigns and billboards. You have to find non-traditional media channels to reach people.

“The message has to be fairly simple and positive in tone. There might even be a case for using role models and celebrities to reach the youth audience and minorities – as long as they are credible figures.”

But some observers doubt whether the rap-and-dance approach will be seen as anything other than patronising by London’s younger voters.

Andy Saunders, founder of PR agency Velocity Communications, who is acting as PR and marketing consultant for independent candidate and Sex Pistols impressario Malcolm McLaren, is unimpressed by WCRS’ efforts to reach the youth.

Saunders says: “If you are going to do that stuff you have to be credible. The ‘Rock The Vote’ campaign in the US was successful because it used MTV’s marketing expertise and pulling power.

“But what we have seen so far in London is awful. It is like your dad coming into your bedroom saying, ‘This has got a good beat’. Young people want to be spoken to as human beings, not patronised.”

BMP DDB’s Powell, who helped devise the “Use your vote” campaign with the Ministry of Sound nightclub in the run-up to the 1997 general election, says: “There was an awful ‘Rock the Vote’ campaign in the UK which was meant to be youth-oriented but had establishment figures behind it. In general, young people don’t want to vote and that didn’t help.”

Sheila Thomas, a reporter on black publication New Nation, says about rapper Bailey’s efforts: “I don’t think he will galvanise voters. People like the music and the rap but they are not linking it with politics. It is just entertainment.”

The election will feature early voting, an electronic counting system and a new electoral system as the Government tries to ensure a high turnout. Voters will cast two votes for their first and second choice for mayor and will also have two votes to choose assembly members – one for 14 constituency candidates and another for the remaining 11 members, who will be selected from a party list.

But the feeling is that only the names on the polling card will be important and the high-profile ad campaign will have little influence on the number of votes cast.

As the candidates gear up for the launch of their campaigns, they are conscious that the effort needed to get their own message across to the disparate voter groups will need to be as concerted as the Government’s campaign.

Individual issues

Ceri Evans, campaign director for Conservative candidate Stephen Norris, says his campaign will focus on transport, crime and education policies by targeting groups which care most about the individual issues.

Evans says: “I don’t think £4m is a huge amount to make an impact on a city the size of London. But people will only vote if the candidates have something useful to offer them.

“If you’re targeting young people, it’s much better to address issues that affect them directly – for example how the Tube will be improved so they can get to work on time – rather than saying how good the new Oasis album is.

“We feel the election will be about personalised policies rather than personalities. The contest would be sparkier if Livingstone was involved.

“But people will vote on how the candidates’ policies affect them as an independent voice for London. For Norris, it is ‘what needs to be done’. For Livingstone, it would be ‘what do I fancy doing’.”

Neither Dobson’s nor Livingstone’s offices would return Marketing Week’s calls, nor would the Lib Dems’ Susan Kramer.

The Government’s plans to extend the elected mayor system to cities across the UK could also stand or fall by the popularity of the London contest.

Liberal Democrat councillor Richard Kemp was among the majority of members on Liverpool City Council who voted against a report from the independent Liverpool Democracy Commission calling for an elected mayor in the city.

Kemp says: “Spending £4m on a campaign to tell people to vote is an admission from the Government that turnout will be low.

“It’s a waste of money. People already realise there’s an election – they just think politicians don’t take any notice of them and don’t see the point in voting. Advertising won’t change that fundamental viewpoint.”

When all the votes are counted, the level of turnout on May 4 – and the success of the idea of having a mayoral election – may simply come down to the names on the ballot paper. But if turnout slumps, the winner could be left without a convincing mandate to make decisions affecting millions of Londoners.

If the success of the contest really does hang on the strength of its personalities rather than policies, the Government’s £4m campaign will have been a waste of money.

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