Election 2005: The Rules of Political Advertising

Article excerpt

As the election draws closer, the parties' ad campaigns are intensifying. But their activity lacks the power of a central, unifying theme, writes Professor Nicholas O'Shaughnessy.

Political advertising has had some famous victories. After Margaret Thatcher swept to power in 1979, Labour, perhaps somewhat speciously, suggested that Saatchi & Saatchi's unitary theme of 'Labour isn't working' had won the election for the Conservatives. Almost two decades later, as it retook control, Labour's 1997 'It's time for a change' campaign focused and condensed, via its use of imagery, the unarticulated frustrations of the British people.

Hard evidence for the effectiveness of political advertising is mixed.

Historically, 50% of British viewers switch off party-political broadcasts.

Furthermore, the public claims not to be influenced: in 1987, fewer than 2% of voters said they had been swayed by press ads or posters.

Those who dismiss political advertising out of hand are misguided, though.

US research has shown that the attitudes of heavy TV viewers - those with a lower level of income and education - are more influenced than light viewers, and are precisely the audience politicians are seeking. Other research claims voters often forget where a message came from and erroneously attribute it to a news programme; further studies claim that political advertising is more effective telling people which issues to think about, rather than what to think.

With the development of a 'classless society', voters have become more promiscuous in their political allegiances, and advertising has assumed greater significance, offering parties the chance to persuade the electorate through an idealised perspective of both party and candidate.

Chasing margins

Advertising also gives parties the chance to retrieve defaulting groups.

Labour has women trouble - and knows it; young mothers are planning to desert the party in droves over the Iraq war. The Blair-Brown 'Africa' broadcast, in which the duo drink orange juice and recite platitudes about the need to 'solve' poverty in Africa, is aimed at them.

Elections are often about small margins and it is here that advertising grows in importance; in a close campaign, it can sway the non-committed. According to Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde, 10% of voters do not know which way they will vote and a third of those who do are still uncertain. Others argue the election lies in the hands of only 800,000-1m undecided voters resident in 100 constituencies.

So, how does political advertising work? It is important to understand the lack of interest in politics among the majority of the electorate, whether it is caused by alienation or apathy. For them, advertising is an act of trespass on the consciousness: the consumer of political information is primarily an inadvertent one, force-fed images and facts that are intrusive.

Rules of resonance

Probably the best insight into the workings of political advertising can be gained from US guru Tony Schwartz, who created the 1964 'Daisy' ad against the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, in which a little girl counting flower petals morphed into a nuclear explosion.

Schwartz called this 'resonance theory'. The ad is designed to use the viewer as a 'workforce', bringing to the fore what is already in their mind, but making them participate in the activity.

This resonance is epitomised by the Tories' 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?' ads. It allows the unspeakable to be thought, and permits a high degree of identification between voter and embattled party. Using handwriting to convey the key points is intended as a symbol of intimacy.

However, to be really effective, campaigns must be coherent, and this is where the Conservatives' and Labour's work is failing: it is not that the individual advertising is tame, rather that its overall impression is fragmented. …