M&C v Saatchi & Saatchi is the real election battle

The media will play such a pivotal role in the outcome of the general election that political coverage is about to grip the nation

There is only one rational explanation for the late arrival on the general election scene of M&C Saatchi – the fact that David Cameron is now in desperate trouble.

After all, he seems to have been perfectly happy with his main agency Euro RSCG until now.
The entertainment value will be enormous. Labour has the original Saatchi & Saatchi – minus The Brothers – which produced a very creative version of necessity in the slogan Not Flash, Just Gordon.

Seconds out for the real general election battle, M&C Saatchi versus Saatchi & Saatchi.

The pressing of the panic button by Cameron is wholly understandable. There has been a sudden melting of a lead so large that a year ago pollsters such as Sir Bob Worcester thought it unlikely to be overturned.

Everything is now possible and that means when the election is called on Tuesday (6 April) things are likely to become so close that advertisers, marketing men and the media really could make a difference.

Claims like “It Was The Sun Wot Won It” are normally silly and vainglorious. The media usually has a marginal role in elections, acting at best as a megaphone for swings of the public mood already in train.

A year ago, the conventional wisdom was that after 13 years, a Labour Government in the midst of the worst recession since World War Two, led by an unpopular Prime Minister who some have called a bully, was simply unelectable.

Brown also happens to be hopeless on television and was susceptible to the visceral “time for a change” argument. Surely the younger, media savvy Cameron would run rings round him in the venues where electoral battles are won and lost these days.

But suddenly, for reasons not wholly understood, Brown has at least a chance of holding on to some sort of power by his fingertips.

Now along comes M&C Saatchi, a double-edged sword, if ever there was one. Under their previous iteration they produced an historic confection -Labour Isn’t Working – which undoubtedly helped Margaret Thatcher gain power in 1979. But wasn’t the famous dole queue made up of Saatchi staff and didn’t unemployment rise subsequently?

In the days of Twitter and Facebook, do you think you could get away with a totally dodgy dole queue for more than ten minutes?

Some may think the 1997 Tony Blair “demon eyes” poster was remarkably prescient, but it was seen at the time as juvenile and was criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Their latest work had better be good – and bombproof. The speed and power of internet ridicule has accelerated exponentially, as the Euro RSCG team behind the recent “airbrushed” Cameron poster can testify.

The admen will definitely have their day and can be counted on to come up with high quality, totally outrageous, personalised abuse.

For the media, this is a groundbreaking election. It’s the first where social networking websites will play a key part as well as being the first election that will see US-style leadership debates on British TV screens. These two factors alone will keep academic researchers happy for decades.

When the election is called on Tuesday… Things are likely to become so close that advertisers, marketing men and the media really could make a difference.

Most professional observers think the leadership debates will have the greater impact, though mainly because of the opportunity for major gaffes. Indeed, you will just need a sniff of a decent gaffe for the Twitterati to spread it round the world at the speed of light.

Brown must now be regretting agreeing to take part in the debate, a decision taken when he appeared to have nothing to lose and a last throw of the dice was perfectly in order.

Rupert Murdoch must also be regretting the speed with which he jumped on the Cameron bandwagon. Usually his political touch is surer than that.

Perhaps the greatest political marketer of them all, Lord Mandelson, has yet to show his hand, or maybe we just haven’t noticed the flash of his stiletto.

Brown can handle the big economic arguments over anti-recession policies where Cameron is already on vulnerable ground. His real vulnerability, and this is where Mandy comes in, will be the effect of the Old Etonian card, subtly played. There will be nothing crude, just the subliminal message – almost an echo from the past – that this Shadow Cabinet does not, cannot understand the lives of real people in difficult times. Watch carefully and it won’t take long to spot the deployment.

Before we head off into the world of smoke and mirrors there is still some real media political business to transact this week in the shape of the Digital Economy Bill and Ofcom’s three-year dissertation on the finances of pay-TV, which could hit BSkyB hard.

Following the Ofcom report, Murdoch really will be keeping his fingers crossed that Cameron can stage a comeback in the polls and keep hispromise to clip the regulator’s wings.

As for the Digital Economy Bill, the £6 a year telephone tax to fund broadband must be safe because it was in the Budget. The £130m in funding for contestable regional television news franchises, however, is likely to fall in the horse-trading to get the second reading of the Bill away. Real Politic it must be called.

All of which gives ITV chairman Archie Norman a last-minute chance to reverse the ridiculous decision to get out of regional news in the first place.

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