With the first general election of the 21st century looming, the UK’s main political parties are once again preparing to win out in the battle of the billboards.
It will be a further test of the effectiveness of political advertising in convincing wavering supporters to change sides or stay-at-home voters to go to the polls. But this is an ad battle that calls into question the theory that the more you spend the more you gain.
In the run-up to the 1997 election the Conservative Party spent £13m on poster and press advertising – £6m more than Labour – yet suffered its worst defeat ever, winning just 165 of the 659 seats.
The Liberal Democrat Party in contrast spent £100,000 on advertising and managed not only to sustain its vote share, but more than doubled its number of seats.
While the Lib Dems may lack the financial clout to generate campaigns with the impact and staying power of the Tories 1979 “Labour isn’t working” and New Labour’s 1997 “Things can only get better” campaigns, it was the only party to see support in opinion polls actually rise before the last election.
Last week, the Lib Dems announced that creative agency Banc is to handle advertising for its election campaign (MW January 11).
The move marks a reversal of the Lib Dems’ 1997 decision to create its advertising in-house, using party supporters with ad experience.
They were up against the forces of BMP DDB and M&C Saatchi, which handled advertising for New Labour and the Tories respectively.
Given the Lib Dems’ past success, it is perhaps surprising that the party has decided to enlist the services of an agency to fight the election.
A Lib Dem spokeswoman says: “Political parties are increasingly using marketing strategies to target the maximum number of people in a given period of time. While we question the effectiveness of spending millions of pounds on advertising, posters can be a succinct way of getting your message across provided you have the right policies in place.”
Banc chairman Robert Bean agrees that politicians have a better chance of getting their message across by using professionals.
“To say that having an advertising agency is ‘crucial’ is perhaps not the right word,” he says.
“It’s crucial in the same way that it is crucial to employ a hairdresser to cut your hair or an estate agent to sell your house, rather than do it yourself. By and large it is better left to people who have studied the subject to handle it.”
While political parties and advertising agencies used to make uneasy bedfellows, the dramatic impact of the Conservatives’ 1979 “Labour isn’t working” campaign, by Saatchi, made everyone aware of the strong impact that good advertising can have in electoral battles.
Since then, spending on election ad campaigns has soared – both the Tories and Labour roughly doubled their spend between 1992 and 1997. One of advertising’s main roles is to distinguish between similar products – Persil and Daz, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Labour and Conservative policies have certainly converged, and advertising has been called upon to create a difference in image.
The Lib Dems have shied away from major advertising campaigns in the past because of the expense – the going rate for a broadsheet page is around £11,000 while a reasonably sited billboard costs £500 per month. Instead, the party opted to spend the bulk of its £3m campaign funds on cheaper marketing tools such as direct mail.
This year, new funding regulations have introduced a £20m cap on party spending in the 12 months leading up to an election.
Last week, the Tories launched a £1.5m ad campaign attacking Labour’s performance, and say they expect to spend close to the limit. However, the new rules are unlikely to affect the Lib Dems who are understood to be spending roughly the same as last time.
However, some industry observers argue there is little evidence that an increase or decrease in spending makes much impact on the electorate.
BMP chairman Chris Powell, who has worked on campaigns for the Labour Party from 1974 until the last election, compares spending on political advertising to an arms race.
“If the Tories spend money on attacking Labour in their ads, the other side is going to respond by spending equal amounts of money. Whether it is actually necessary to spend that much money to have an effective campaign is irrelevant – neither side wants to be left behind in case it does make a difference.”
The fact that the record Tory spending of 1997 was followed by the party’s worst result in modern times casts doubt on the effectiveness of billboards in changing votes or persuading people to turn out.
A study of the 1997 election campaign (On message, Communicating the Campaign, Sage Publications) concludes that Labour’s campaign was not the most effective of the main political parties’ and that the £7m spent on outdoor advertising had little effect.
According to the study, it was the Lib Dems that ran the most effective campaign by sticking closely to the party’s agenda of social welfare subjects such as education, rather than resorting to negative attacks on opponents.
As the nation prepares for a political slanging match to be played out on billboards across the UK, Powell argues that the amount spent on advertising and even the quality of ads are largely redundant this time around.