Does anyone take notice of election broadcasts?

In today’s media environment, political broadcasts have less impact than they used to.

It was one of the most optimistic statements of the entire election campaign. At the end of the five-minute party election broadcast by the British National Party (BNP), a caption appeared on the screen: “To view this broadcast again, visit www.bnp.org.uk.”

Watch an election broadcast more than once? Could they be serious? It’s not that many years since we were virtually forced to watch party election broadcasts because they were shown simultaneously on all channels. Now, on terrestrial television, we can flit from channel to channel to avoid them, or, in the digital world, simply stick to all the channels that don’t have to show them.

And yet, in the digital world, we can also choose to watch them again whenever we like, via broadband and the internet. The party websites have links to their own broadcasts and the BBC and Guardian Unlimited sites offer a selection (though in my experience it’s not always easy to find them and the quality, even on supposedly fast broadband speeds, is variable).

After video on demand, we now have propaganda on demand. And just as text-messaging became a canvassing tool at the last election, so mobiles will soon show the broadcasts as well.

But at this election, perhaps because of the ease with which we can avoid them, party election broadcasts have caused fewer waves than in the past. According to the ratings, the first three party broadcasts each attracted about 12 million viewers – but, as with the ad breaks, it’s not clear how many of them were actually watching. The broadcasts have certainly attracted less media coverage than in the past, when the “movies” about Kinnock, Major and Blair were defining campaign moments.

Labour’s Anthony Minghella broadcast, showing Blair and Brown as the best of friends, was widely reviewed, but mostly badly. There was excitement after Channel 4 transmitted the Greens’ election broadcast with the UK Independence Party’s subtitles, adding insult to the injury by saying that “only a small percentage of viewers would have been affected”.

Even the BNP’s broadcast got little publicity in comparison with previous elections, when its films were highly provocative and got banned or cut. A couple of articles suggested it might not be shown because of poor technical quality, though the BBC made clear all along that the problem could be fixed.

As it happens, whatever you think of the BNP and its policies, its broadcast was more watchable than many – and some viewers may well have turned to the party’s website to see it again.

The moody film, in black and white, used a folk song written by the BNP leader Nick Griffin about Corporal Fox – Frosty – who fought in the Falklands and the Gulf War and was apparently now homeless and living in a cardboard box. The theme of both the song and the broadcast was asylum seekers: “There were flats for Iraqis and the Afghans, but never a flat with my name.”

Both the Conservatives and Labour have used music powerfully, but without provoking much impact in the media. In their cinema commercial, the Tories showed pictures of Tony Blair smiling and grinning, intercut with newspaper headlines stating “Violent crime soars”, “Council Tax bills rocket”, “New asylum fiasco” and “Hospital killer bugs”.

The key was the soundtrack, from Cats: “Take that look off your face, I can see through your smile. You would love to be right, I bet you didn’t sleep good last night, couldn’t wait to bring all of that bad news to my door. Well I’ve got news for you, I knew before.”

This was trumped by the same idea from Labour, which set images of Michael Howard to music in a TV broadcast. The song was The Way We Were, or Memories: “If we had a chance to do it all again, tell me would we, could we? What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” The images were of a younger Howard, intercut with the Poll Tax riots, 3 million unemployed and Black Wednesday. The final caption read: “Can we afford to go back to the way we were?”

This was the same idea as the Conservatives’ – entertaining and provocative, but harder-hitting. Like bookends, the two ads complemented each other, but there’s been hardly any reference to them – perhaps because they were negative messages and people keep telling the politicians, the pollsters and the media that they don’t like such campaigning.

But maybe there’s another reason. The main parties have learned from their advertising advisers to cut the length of their broadcasts, from the ten-minute and five-minute epics of some years ago, to two minutes and 40 seconds, which can be more effective.

What they haven’t fully learned – in their broadcasts, at least – is the value of repetition. How many advertisers would show their commercial only once?

At least now the parties can let voters watch again if they want to.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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