David Cameron unveils this year's campaign poster. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Instant messaging: looking back on the golden age of political advertising

Sam Delaney’s Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened when British Politics Met Advertising captures forty years of politics – through posters.

Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising
Sam Delaney
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £14.99

The only rational people in politics are floating voters. To be a non-floating voter is to believe something preposterous: that one party is always right. A floater would have been right to vote for the Tories in 1979 to curb the anti-democratic power of the unions; and would be right to vote for Labour now, to avoid Osborne’s neoliberal fantasies – if it weren’t for the inspissated gloom that hangs like a cloud of soot over Ed Miliband.

Without floaters, we would live not in a democracy but in a state of permanent tribal warfare. There would also be no need for party political broadcasts, pollsters, advertising or marketing; the only figure that would matter would be the birth rate of the respective party adherents. But we do have floaters – lots of them – and so we must put up with all the manipulative wiles and harassments of the modern media.

The question then becomes: does any of it work? And, if it does, how does it work? Sam Delaney admits he began this thorough and intelligent book in the belief that political advertising is pointless but he arrives, finally, at a more subtle view. “Admen,” he concludes, “the good ones anyway, help politicians put their complicated ideas into succinct packages ... All they really want to do is help make sense of what politicians are trying to explain. And that is a deeply democratic objective.”

After some initial historical background, the story Delaney tells begins and ends with two Tory election victories, in 1979 and in 2010. This, in turn, is divided into two phases separated by Tony Blair’s Labour victory in 1997. The story is told partly through personal recollection and involvement. The author’s uncle Tim Delaney was an adman who worked on Jim Callaghan’s unwinnable 1979 campaign. There are also very good interviews with formidable figures such as Chris Patten and Norman Tebbit. Delaney is no prose stylist and the introduction is distinctly rocky but when he hits his stride his account is swift and readable.

The significance of 1979 is captured in a description of an encounter in a Soho restaurant a year earlier. Lunching on champagne and “huge spoonfuls” of caviar were Gordon Reece, the director of publicity for the Tories, and Tim Bell, the chairman of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, which Reece had just hired. One of the ensuing posters – “Labour Isn’t Working”, with its snaking dole queue – defined the new, aggressive, negative, shockingly simplified style that was to dominate British political advertising until 1997.

Did this campaign work in the sense of ensuring Margaret Thatcher’s victory? No. After the Winter of Discontent, Callaghan’s Labour was doomed – and, indeed, more doomed than anybody then realised. The party stayed out of power for 18 years.

Michael Foot’s 1983 campaign would also have been doomed even without the suicidal manifesto. The adman Johnny Wright – he appears here as witty and fatalistic – tried his best with negative poster lines such as: “Are you going to vote for Mag the knife?” It was all in vain. Now Wright believes that the effect of such advertising is indirect: it raises the morale of party workers.

What Foot’s defeat achieved was to start the process of reform that led to Blair’s 1997 victory. Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould moved in to drag Labour from the left to the centre. The advertising for the 1987 campaign (with lines such as “The country is crying out for change”) showed a muted recognition of the power of Saatchi-ism but voters were still too scared to vote for a change. It wasn’t until 1992, with Thatcher deposed, that Labour had a serious chance of winning. The Tories’ first impulse was not to hire the Saatchis: they were regarded as “divisive, egomaniacal and destructive”. But in the end, the brothers were approached and Shaun Woodward, John Major’s spin doctor, learned the S&S message: kill or be killed. They tried to terrify voters with Labour’s tax plans.

Patten, who led the campaign team, said the Saatchis helped the Tories pursue the simple logic of electioneering: “Find two or three simple arguments . . . then bash away at them until the public think they are their ideas.” Again, the effect of advertising seems to have been indirect – it was background music rather than the show itself.

The 1997 election marked the end of this phase. “The golden age of the Eighties,” writes Delaney, “with its hellzapoppin election campaigns run by hare-brained admen and gnarly old political operators, was gone.” Power was handed to shrewd manipulators such as Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. Negativity was abandoned. New Labour’s message was to be upbeat and positive. One last old-school, hare-brained adman – Trevor Beattie – injected some life into Labour’s 2001 campaign, notably with a poster showing William Hague, then the Tory leader, with Thatcher’s hair. But the Saatchi-dominated era was over.

Today I am not clear – I don’t believe anybody is – what either main party means and you can’t construct an effective one-liner out of smoke and mirrors. The election posters recently unveiled by the Tories say nothing and say it badly. A supposedly positive one shows a road going nowhere – not an attractive proposition. The other is negative, showing Miliband in an embrace with Alex Salmond, a message that takes at least two further thoughts to understand. Such complexity is the one always-fatal advertising mistake.

Delaney writes that “wonkish jargon” has replaced rhetoric and: “Political communication is in a bigger crisis now than it was 40 years ago.” Never mind. He seems to have some hopes for May 2015. Bill Muirhead, an old Saatchi hellzapopper, tells Delaney a good attack on Miliband would be to say that he stabbed his brother in the back, so “imagine what he’d do to the country”. Funny – but it wouldn’t hurt Miliband, or help the Tories. The future is with the floaters. And these days, I would guess, most of them don’t even notice the posters. 

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.