Normally, the firing of the general election starting gun is a terrifying sound to executives of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). It signals a retreat to the bunker, accompanied by flak jacket and tin helmet. For there are two certainties about election advertising. The first is that politicians will unscrupulously break all the rules which the ASA and other regulatory bodies strive to uphold against commercial trespassers. That is to say, they will lie – about themselves and their opponents – and be given carte blanche to do so. The second is that the ASA will be taken to task for deplorable double standards by aggrieved members of the public, even though it has no jurisdiction whatsoever over politicians.
Normally. This election, however, is likely to prove an exception because of the chaotic nature of its marketing offerings. The truth is, the politicians have been wrong-footed. They have already shot their bolts, and pretty ineffectual they were too.
As usual, outdoor has been the most popular medium of expression: but if politicians thought they were on to a cheap option, they will now be ruing their lack of foresight.
Labour will have to be content, for the time being, with its lacklustre Economic Disaster II campaign, featuring Messrs Hague and Portillo. It’s proving a bit of a disaster itself, not least because of the impossibility of cancelling 2,500 poster sites, booked for the first part of April, which is far too early for the June election cycle. Even were they to cancel, the cost would be prohibitive on account of the short notice. Worse, Labour will have to pay a massive premium – or face the humiliation of back-street sites – if it is to achieve reasonable exposure when it actually matters: in the weeks immediately preceding June 7. The outdoor companies are simply not going to roll over for politicians when business (exceptionally, in the current media climate) is so buoyant.
One further turn of the screw is the advertising spending cap, which kicks in for the first time this year. It limits the main political parties to &£14m expenditure apiece, raising the alarming possibility that money will be in short supply just when it’s needed most.
This is a grim scenario for Labour, but blacker still for the Tories. By all accounts they will have trouble just meeting the expenditure limit, let alone exceeding it. Such is the dire state of Central Office’s exchequer.
The Tories should not despair. Electoral marketing expenditure is rarely a reliable guide to the outcome of a general election, as 1997 all too clearly showed. In any case, the electoral agenda has moved on from that predicated in existing political campaigns. Labour will, for the present, take comfort in a 15-point poll lead. But the longer the mismanaged foot and mouth crisis drags on, the easier it will become for its opponents to subvert its agenda by plunging all the carefully prepared rhetoric about economic competence into an acid bath of criticism over its current leadership failure.
No marketing strategy, however carefully prepared, can be proof against the adverse force of “events”.