Making hogwash of political campaigns

Will new financial restrictions on election marketing lead the parties to cut creative corners and opt for dirty tactics?

Restrictions on campaign expenditure introduced by the Government mean political party marketing in the coming General Election is likely to be cheaper and nastier than ever.

The return of Downing Street communications chief Alastair Campbell to Labour’s election machine has raised fears that campaigning will become even more negative and personal.

His influence has already been felt: it has emerged that Labour’s “anti-Semitic” posters, which caused controversy last week, were not the brainchild of the party’s ad agency TBWA/London, but were dreamed up by communications gurus Campbell and Philip Gould.

It is surprising that having the talents of TBWA creative director Trevor Beattie at their disposal, Labour did not make better use of them. Instead they have scored a “brand own goal”, in the words of one rival, with the clumsy and offensive posters, which lacked what advertising sources say is the light touch that an experienced advertiser could have given them.

The Labour Party claims the ads were created through a joint effort of various people and a spokeswoman says that “no names have been put to them”. But a source says: “Trevor didn’t write those, they were concepts that Alastair and Philip came up with.”

One poster featured the faces of Tory leader Michael Howard and shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin imposed on winged pigs, with the caption: “The day the Tory sums add up”.

A second showed Mr Howard in a pose that critics argued was designed to make him look like Fagin, the sinister Dickens character (and a Jewish stereotype) in Oliver Twist.

Some Jewish observers believe the ads used anti-Semitic images and subtly made the link that Howard and Letwin are of Jewish descent. Labour dismisses this, saying the executions were “anti-Tory” rather than anti-Semitic. But the Conservatives point to a speech by Labour chairman Ian McCartney last year in which he likened Letwin to Fagin. McCartney claimed he was unaware either Letwin or Fagin was Jewish.

Many believe the affair could damage Labour and signals that election campaigning is set to plumb new depths of negativity and personality assassination.

Will Harris, former Conservative Party marketing director (though not himself a committed Tory voter), says: “Someone has clearly messed up, but I don’t believe it was intentional.” Even so, he thinks it was a serious misjudgement that could damage Labour: “Imagine if a brand had made such a hash – the brand would have faced a backlash.”

A Liberal Democrat marketing source believes there was intentional anti-Jewish sentiment involved: “Labour has deliberately played the anti-Semitic card and has played it early. I can’t believe [party officials] didn’t work that out or didn’t realise that these ads would offend.”

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives are above stirring up fears about race in their election campaigns. Last week, Labour election co-ordinator Alan Milburn unveiled Labour’s General Election slogan “Britain: Forward, not back”. He outlined Labour’s election strategy as focusing on the economy, public services and “tackling crime and asylum abuse”. Lumping these two unconnected issues together, associating asylum seekers with crime, seems an attempt to stir up xenophobia. Labour has also announced a crackdown on immigration in response to Tory proposals to limit immigration.

In truth, advertising and campaigning for this election will have to work harder than before because restrictions on election spending have come into force. Electoral rules introduced in February 2001 mean this is the first full general election campaign in which spending is capped at £30,000 per constituency contested in the 365 days before the election.

Both Labour and the Conservatives are trying to keep costs down. For the European elections, the Tories asked members of the public to send in ideas for ad campaigns, narrowed them down to two and used them as posters. Labour is putting a series of poster ideas on its website and asking people to vote on their favourites. The winners could be chosen to spearhead the party’s campaign.

As any marketer knows, the cheaper the campaign the more direct it has to be. Highlighting the negative is easier and cheaper than trying to accentuate the positive. The occasional nature of General Elections means most people do not think about which party to vote for until the few months before election day, so parties have only a short time to make an impact.

In an election where the outcome seems clear – another Labour win – the parties will have to try hard to rouse the electorate’s interest or they risk seeing turn-out continue to slide – if it dips below the 59 per cent mark of the last General Election, politicians fear their mandate will lose legitimacy. Party marketing is crucial to shaking the public out of their electoral fatigue, and if it has to employ dirty tactics to do so, party members may just consider it fair game.

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