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

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In praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution