The business - Patrick Hosking predicts a pre-Christmas election

The property party is finally over. This means that, in pure economic terms, the government should h

Why isn't Tony Blair calling a general election this autumn? If it is the economy that sways voters, then the Prime Minister would be foolish to wait for spring. The housing market, more than anything, determines consumer confidence and the feel-good factor; and the housing market is rapidly going "phut". Every week brings another bearish statistic - falling prices from the Halifax, sliding mortgage figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders; even some caution from estate agents.

House-hunters and speculators are already well ahead of the official industry line: in some parts of the country prospective purchasers are on strike, sitting on their hands in the hope of keener prices in a few months. The average punter with the spread-betting firm IG Index expects a 6.4 per cent slide over the next 12 months.

A 10 per cent slide from the top, say, would leave very few people in negative equity, with even fewer being repossessed. Prices would still be 10 per cent ahead of a year ago. But I suspect that even this relatively soft landing would be an unambiguous signal that the property party is over, probably for a long time.

With that will come the realisation for many that their spending has to be curbed, borrowings paid back and savings boosted. Suddenly, the Chancellor's many tax rises will not look so tolerable.

It's hard to believe that sentiment about the housing market next May will be any better than now. It needs only a small proportion of the buy-to-let army to lose their nerve, and rush for the exit, for there to be a quite sharp reversal in prices.

There may be good grounds for electoral delay. Perhaps Iraq will be looking less bloody. But, in pure economic terms, the government should hold a snap general election this side of Christmas.

"Don't you just hate being influenced?" runs the voice-over for an intriguing new TV commercial. At first, I'd no idea what it was advertising. Beautiful young people disport themselves on motorbikes in the desert. No product or service is mentioned. The lushly filmed, cliched images could be used to flog clothing, fizzy drinks, financial services or even holidays.

The voice-over, in heart-warming contrast, is an attack on the entire genre of such advertising, delivered in an engaging world-weary tone: "Haven't you had enough of being told what to do?" it goes. The message ends with a swipe at the big logo routinely plonked at the end of every such commercial. The overall tone exactly chimes with my own contempt for and fatigue with the promotion of big brands.

It's an ingenious ad. My initial thoughts were that some clever-clogs in Charlotte Street was already roughing out his awards-ceremony acceptance speech.

Alas, it turns out that the commercial is for French Connection, the clothing retailer responsible for the ghastly, puerile FCUK campaign and logo. And the adman responsible for the new campaign is also the man who coined FCUK. (Incidentally, he is Trevor Beattie of the ad agency TBWA, recently appointed by Labour to create the party's ad campaign for the next election.)

But perhaps Mr Beattie has tapped into something here. For big premium brands suddenly have the air of going through a rough time. Advertising doesn't appear to be working as well as it did. Shoppers do not seem to be so willingly influenced as they once were.

Coca-Cola, one of the world's biggest advertisers, has just put out very poor sales figures, and doesn't expect any improvement for two years. Colgate-Palmolive has issued a profits warning. Our very own Unilever (owner of Birds Eye, Findus and Dove soap) and Cadbury-Schweppes have both put out disappointing trading statements in the past few days. Nestle (Nescafe to KitKat) is also suffering from sluggish sales.

What links all these companies is their reliance on heavyweight advertising, both to boost sales and more importantly to persuade shoppers that it is worth paying a premium price over the in-house equivalents on every supermarket shelf. Somehow, the advertising and promotion doesn't seem to be working as well as it used to.

Cadbury and Unilever are both blaming the wet summer, which depressed appetites for ice cream and fizzy drinks. Coke has internal problems after a savage management cull. Maybe, as consumer confidence fades with every bearish new statistic on the housing market, shoppers are already trading down from premium products to own-label. Once sunnier times return, so will the premium brands.

But wouldn't it be nice if Mr Beattie were right: that somehow we were becoming more impervious to the messages - however brilliant or banal - that he and his peers beam out at us?

Patrick Hosking is investment editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Muslim is not a dirty word