If There's No Money in It, Why Do the Agencies Want to Get Political? ; Claire Beale ++ on Advertising

Article excerpt

ordon Brown is not the most promising brief, but you can bet that ad agencies will be scrambling over themselves this week to get on to the pitch for the Labour Party's advertising account.

Don't assume that this enthusiasm is because adland is rampantly red. Or because Brown is a shoo-in and agencies like to be on the winning team. And it's not about the money, of course. Political parties have bastard demands - they want a big idea that costs small, can be inflated by some nifty PR, and swings the national vote - allied to microscopic budgets.

No, the real reason that ad agencies go ga-ga over a political account is because it's a status symbol. Political ads can make an agency famous, attract new business and impress existing clients. Look what "Labour Isn't Working" and the Thatcher relationship did for Saatchi & Saatchi. No wonder agencies are drooling at the prospect.

But can political ads really influence the voters? Will Brown find an agency that can woo the floaters? The only public research into the issue of political advertising's impact found that it persuades only between 1.2 and 1.5 per cent of voters to change their political allegiance.

And earlier this year a Government-ordered inquiry into political adverts declared that poster campaigns - the stalwart of the political parties' publicity machine - are a waste of money; they don't influence most voters.

So why bother? Well, as all advertisers know, if your rival is advertising you can't just sit back and do nothing. If everyone's advertising that might be a zero sum game, but that's usually better than the alternative: letting your opponent take the initiative and make all the noise.

In truth, political ads are about creating PR, getting talked about. But the real trick is to get talked about in positive tones. Remember the Tories' 1997 Demon Eyes campaign, portraying Tony Blair as evil? It was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority and generally came to be considered a significant misfire: people saw it as a nasty and baseless personal attack and it won Blair some sympathy.

But whichever agency Labour chooses - and it is talking to an eclectic bunch - the challenge will be as much about selling Brown as it will be about selling Labour. For that reason, it will be one of the most interesting political advertising briefs for quite some time.

Remember Second Life? Six months ago it was the happening place to be online, at least for advertisers keen to prove that they were at the cutting edge of commercialism. Now it seems that some of the early advertiser advocates are admitting what the cynics said all along: Second Life is not the rich commercial frontier it once seemed.

Take American Apparel, one of the trailblazers with its virtual clothing store where you could make real-life purchases. Except that the store was often painfully empty of customers, which has done nothing for the brand's credibility. So AA is now scaling back its Second Life plans and clocking the whole experience up to "learning".

Mind you, Coca-Cola remains committed. It's just launched a contest for avatars to create a virtual vending machine that can be installed in key sites around Second Life. But I suspect Coke is more excited about the vending machine idea than the rest of us. Apparently, the company was not exactly deluged with entries. Enough said.

There's a lesson here Second Life advertisers could do well to learn. Why should we be inherently interested in designing vending machines, or in browsing through really quite dull virtual shops? "Build it and they will come"? Phooey. When we go online we want to have fun, be entertained. If advertisers can do that they'll win permission to sell us something along the way, but so many Second Life brands just don't seem to get that trade-off.

Even in a comfortably established commercial environment like television, advertisers still have to create engaging ads if they want consumers to pay attention. …