The Government’s marketing spend hit record levels last year – and the boom looks likely to continue as New Labour launches an all-out blitz on key manifesto pledges ahead of the next election.
Labour has used advertising like no other UK government and observers believe the pace is unlikely to slow down over the next 18 months, despite accusations that HMG is using taxpayers’ money to fund party propaganda.
Two areas in particular are expected to benefit from major campaigns over the next year – drugs and crime prevention. The Central Office of Information (COI) is seeking agencies for these two initiatives (MW last week).
Spend by government departments through the COI hit a record &£105m in 1998-99, a rise of 79 per cent on the previous year.
The biggest spenders included the Department of Trade & Industry, up from &£4.9m to &£20.5m, and Education & Employment, up from &£16.3m to &£25.7m.
Although the COI’s marketing budget depends on individual departments, shadow Cabinet Office minister Andrew Landsley believes it is likely to continue at a similar level until the election. “There is no sign that spend will go down significantly over the next year,” he says. “But a lot of the advertising is aimed at impressing Number Ten as much as its target market.”
Ian McCartney, minister for state at the Cabinet Office, reacted angrily to the suggestion that the Government’s advertising might be politically motivated. “There are clear guidelines for government’s use of advertising.
“The COI helps to ensure that the guidelines are adhered to and offers advice to departments.”
McCartney adds: “Advertising is the most effective and efficient way to communicate information about major new policies or important changes in legislation to the maximum number of people as quickly as possible. To suggest that a department would advertise to impress Number Ten is complete rubbish.”
COI director-general Carol Fisher is tight-lipped about the size of this year’s budget, but she believes the Government’s money is being well spent.
Fisher says: “Ministers are well-informed about advertising. They are also prepared to go out on a limb with potentially controversial work. But there is no way they would conceive a campaign for purely political reasons. Apart from anything else, we would not allow it. The COI has the right to refuse any advertisement.”
Labour’s belief in the power of advertising probably stems from the success of its own communications strategy and its New Labour rebranding campaign.
One veteran of COI campaigns says: “This government is very advertising literate. The previous administration didn’t understand advertising and wasn’t comfortable about using it.
“The COI has sharpened its act in recent years. Each campaign is closely monitored. They have measurable objectives, which wasn’t always the case in the past.”
Labour is under pressure to deliver on drugs and crime, as its battle cry from the last election – “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” – comes back to haunt it.
Although overall recorded crime has fallen, Home Office experts are predicting a 30 per cent increase in property crime before the next election. The boom will be driven by a four per cent rise in the number of young men aged 15 to 20 – the group most likely to commit crime – and by unprecedented levels of consumer goods in homes.
Last November, Home Secretary Jack Straw launched a five-year crime reduction strategy, setting targets for police forces in key areas such as car crime, street robbery and break-ins.
The Government is believed to be ploughing &£2m-&£4m into an advertising campaign to support the grass-roots strategy, with agency pitches to be held within the next two months.
The campaign is likely to focus mainly on car crime and domestic burglary. But in stark contrast to previous advertising, it is thought there will be an attempt to address the public’s fear of crime.
In the past, crime prevention advertising has worked by scaring complacent property-owners into action, with sinister images of hyenas prowling the urban jungle or thieving jackdaws flying in through open windows. But that approach may be about to change.
One ad industry insider says: “The jackdaws and hyenas were too scary. I don’t think the Government will go down that route again. It wants to reassure people.”
If the Government can take some crumbs of comfort from falling crime figures, its anti-drugs policy has, by any measure, been a failure. The UK still has the worst record of illegal drug use in Europe and, according to the latest Home Office figures, one-third of crime in urban areas is drug-related.
The much trumpeted “drugs czar”, Keith Hellawell, has been widely criticised for being out of touch and failing to get to grips with his brief, and is now being sidelined in favour of Cabinet “enforcer” Mo Mowlam.
Part of Mowlam’s remit will be to communicate an effective anti-drugs message to the public.
The Home Office has already committed &£2.5m to a renewal of the National Drugs Helpline campaign. Pitches are due to be held this week.
Those with experience of the Government drugs policy believe another, large-scale anti-drugs campaign could be in the pipeline before the next election. One source says: “Hellawell’s zero-tolerance approach simply has not worked.
“But the Government is still anxious to be seen to be doing something in the run-up to the next election. Mowlam is making it her personal crusade, and I would expect advertising to play a part in that.”
In contrast to the preachy “just say no” approach of the Eighties and Hellawell’s ill-conceived “war on drugs”, recent anti-drugs advertising by Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters has concentrated on harm minimisation.
The award-winning Duckworth Finn ads have sought to educate existing users about the effects of a range of drugs, rather than attempt to scare potential users with horror stories.
Like the crime prevention campaign, any new drugs work is likely to be linked to wider initiatives in the community. In both cases, the Government will be careful to avoid obvious party propaganda.
But with the next election looming, the importance of being seen to be doing something about key policy issues will not be lost on the Labour spindoctors.