Does political advertising have any effect on the outcomes of elections in the UK?
That is the question that Sam Delaney attempts to answer in this highly entertaining review of advertising and politics in Britain since the 1950s.
The book is largely based around interviews with key participants – those within the Conservative and Labour parties who were responsible at various times for their advertising campaigns – and those on the agency side who advised on strategy and creative.
One of the by products of this “from the horses mouth” approach is the wealth of colourful anecdotes that emerge (and one of the most entertaining aspects of the book).
Take the case of James Scott. As Delaney describes him: “With his rakish demeanour, E-Type Jag and seemingly ever-present entourage of beautiful models, Scott appeared to have lived the archetypal swinging-sixties lifestyle. I had devoured his raucous memoir, Fast and Louche, some years ago, in which he recounted his experiences working for Edward Heath’s 1970 election campaign team. This was exactly the sort of incongruous meeting of minds that fascinated me: a proto-Austin Powers type in a fast car helping the post-war generation’s most strait-laced would-be prime minister get his hands on the keys to Number 10.”
After a rather uninspiring first meeting with Heath’s campaign team, Scott decides to liven things up for the next one. In his own words: “First I went to Fortnum and Mason and ordered some canapés and decent wine for everyone, which I thought might help loosen them all up. Then, for safety, I visited my former nanny’s home, where I stashed my box of contraband.”
Inside the box was a bottle of Methedrine that Scott had stockpiled just before the drug went out of production in 1966. Prior to the meeting, Scott ground several of the amphetamine tablets to a fine powder and sprinkled them over the expensive canapés. “It wasn’t much, just enough to make them slightly more enthusiastic. But what I didn’t account for was the appetite of Heath and (Willaim) Whitelaw. They couldn’t stop scoffing the food! By the end of the meeting we couldn’t get rid of them, they were so animated. I was actually rather worried about Heath, who was very flushed in the face, with speckles of saliva forming at the corners of his mouth.”
The book also provides some useful perspective on the accepted wisdom around certain key milestones in political advertising. Any mention of Margaret Thatcher’s first victory in 1979 immediately invokes memories of Saatchi’s now infamous Labour’s Not Working poster (of course, the person who actually came up with the idea, Andrew Rutherford, is largely forgotten whereas Maurice and Charles took the credit). Bob Worcester (founder of research firm MORI) recollects that the Labour ad campaign at the time had far more impact (and the man behind those Labour ads was Tim Delaney, the author’s uncle). However, the history of political advertising most definitely belongs to the winners.
For those with a leaning towards PR and communications, it is interesting to note that a classic Saatchi tactic was to simply use a poster to act as a vehicle for creating journalistic interest around a key issue. It would seem that many of the famous posters created over the years were only ever shown in very limited number of physical locations. The number of people who actually saw the posters in situ would have been tiny. However, the poster itself provided fodder for journalists who obligingly provided acres of coverage and generated the awareness levels required.
Do ads win campaigns?
What is interesting is that many of the politicians said at the time (and still do maintain) that they felt that the advertising had a little or no impact on the eventual outcome of the elections. For example, Conversatives Cecil Parkinson and Chris Patten, both seemed to feel that a lot of money could have been saved instead of lining the pockets of ad agencies.
However, Delaney’s conclusion is that the politicians who take this view are wrong.
As he asserts: “Despite the advances made since 1979, political communication is probably in a bigger crisis now than it was forty years ago. Modern politicians seem to speak almost entirely in bafflingly wonkish jargon. They have lost all grip on the importance of rhetoric that explains to, and resonates with, ordinary people; they seem terrified that saying anything that makes sense will leave them exposed to attack. And so they fall over themselves to say nothing.”
He continues: “Parkinson, like many politicians, was unable to step back and see how advertising had dovetailed with politics in a broader sense. It wasn’t just about making posters to win votes; it was about refining the often horrendous and impenetrable thoughts, messages, technicalities and processes of the political world into a palatable form. In studying all of these elections campaigns I had, at times, witnessed two very contrasting mindsets working in perfect harmony: the complexity and nuance of politics, and the succinct practicality of advertising. What admen bring to politics is a tunnel vision based on pragmatism. Politicians, usually more complex in their thinking than admen, will always struggle with that sort of mental discipline.”
Ultimately, Mad Men and Bad Men is an excellent analysis of the way in which politics and advertising have become inextricably woven together, through the eyes of the very people who made that that happen.