Separating the man from mayor

Fact one: in democracies, money as well as charisma is critical to electoral success. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, easily outspent his rivals in the recent California gubernatorial contest. Fact two: in democracies, politicians are not supposed to achieve electoral success by abusing public funds, as France’s former premier Alain Juppé is alleged to have done.

While all this may seem stultifyingly obvious, the blurred reality of public office is often a lot less so. Take, for example, the vexed issue of public sector marketing expenditure. Under a Labour government, self-evidently committed to expanding public services, spend on advertising (to take the most easy to monitor segment) has rocketed, to the extent that COI Communications – which co-ordinates that spend – is now second only to Procter & Gamble as the advertising industry’s biggest client. Ergo, argue the critics (usually politically motivated), there must be some unseemly connection between the two trends.

It was presumably just such thinking which led to the pillaging of recent Nielsen Media Research figures for an interesting nugget of information. Add Greater London Authority and Transport for London ratecard ad spend figures together for the 12 months to August 31, 2003, and you get £18.5m. It’s a figure adjacent to that spent on top brands such as Persil or Lloyds TSB during the same period and, incidentally, represents a 218 per cent increase on collective spending the previous year. The significance, of course, is that the GLA and TfL are wholly or partly the responsibility of the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. Next spring, Livingstone just happens to be up for re-election.

A surge in expenditure is not in doubt – even the mayor’s office confirms it, though it uses the more holistic figure of £50m, which counts in all marketing services. What is closely contested is the motivation behind the multiplying expenditure. Friends of the mayor point to a plethora of special public service initiatives, principally the congestion charge, which require an upfront, high-intensity message if they are to be effectively implemented. Next year, for instance, we can expect considerable marketing activity behind the Oyster smartcard. Taken together, the spend does indeed add up; but we are encouraged to believe that it supports highly disparate issues – which cannot in any way be compared with the monolithic targeted spending behind a Persil.

Up to a point this argument is valid, though it does not alter the fact that the shadowy ‘master brand’ behind all this activity is the Mayor of London. Whether it’s Livingstone or anyone else in situ, the holder of the office is going to benefit from the halo effect of having his or her achievements magnified by commercial messages.

Necessarily, incumbent politicians are judged upon their record of public service. The issue is whether this record is in some way being puffed up or distorted with taxpayers’ money. Livingstone’s enemies claim it is, and they point to what they call deliberate overspending in the run-up to the election. Equally, it’s undeniable that Livingstone, unlike many of his breed, is a masterly tactician who understands the use of marketing in maximising achievement. In the end, voters will decide whether that achievement is real or illusory.

Cover Story, page 24

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