The crude words used to woo ignorant voters

None of us likes to admit that political posters swing votes; they are crass compared with the wit, irony and self-mockery of other advertising
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The Independent Online
Does political advertising work? Those who study the black arts of advertising alchemy offer convincing evidence that it does.

Last week we learned that Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party had their contract abruptly terminated by Mori following an attempt to engineer more palatable opinion polling results. Mori's Bob Worcester thought it unethical, and that was that. But the story highlighted the catastrophic results so far of the Referendum Party - 0.5 per cent in the polls, despite all that advertising.

Ah, you might say, the solid British voter is not for sale. Yeomen of England are not swayed by the mere flim-flam of advertising, unlike American voters, of whom Perrow and Forbes bought large numbers. You would, alas, be wrong.

However, at first glance advertising sales in the six months to December might suggest, deceptively, that voters have not been swayed. The Referendum Party spent pounds 2.2m on posters and press space, gaining only 0.5 per cent support. The Tories spent pounds 0.5m, availing them nought but a paltry 32 per cent. Labour has spent pounds 1.1m, half-way between the other two, and they sit on a very comfortable 50 per cent. The LibDems have spent nothing - well, pounds 1,601 - yet they have 13 per cent, which is 26 times more than Sir James.

Does that prove that advertising is a waste of money? None of us likes to feel that political advertising sways us, because it is so dumb. These days the rest of advertising is sophisticated, self-mocking, teasing; it breathes wit, irony and sassiness. Set side by side with it on billboards, political advertising looks crass.

But then, it is expected to work only on a very small number of people. Eighty per cent know how they will vote - not just at this, but at the next election. "It's aimed at those who are not in the least interested in politics and wish it would go away," says Bob Worcester, because those who switch off all television politics cannot escape posters. "If just 0.5 per cent of Tory voters at the last election had swung to the second party in their constituency, we would have had a hung parliament." This is something that terrified Tory MPs, facing eviction from marginal seats, are well aware of: just a few don't-know-don't-care floaters can tip the balance.

In 1992 there was a small swing to the Tories at the last moment. How much difference did advertising make? The Tories spent more in that week than all of Procter and Gamble and Unilever put together. The sheer weight of the Double Whammy had its effect.

Poster-selling has become extraordinarily sophisticated. The big companies offer their sites in highly refined packages: Maiden Outdoor, which sells to all the parties, can offer a "family pack" of sites aimed at housewives and children near schools, toy shops and supermarkets. There is a "captains of industry" pack, targeted at major commuter routes, while their "leisure pack" sells sites aimed at the young - near clubs, cinemas, pubs and other youth venues.

Posters work if they reinforce what people already partly think. That is why Double Whammy swung votes while Demon Eyes did not. Currently, 3,001 Tory posters nationwide read "New Labour New Taxes/New Job Losses" etc, featuring the blood-red tear. That, Worcester says, is the right pitch, a negative campaign against the front-runners.

Labour currently has 1,500 posters with an almost identically mendacious message: "Next Tory Tax? pounds 10.50 a week VAT on Food. Enough is Enough." But Worcester says Labour is getting it wrong. Labour has all but won the election so they have nothing to gain from negative campaigning. They should be offering a message of hope, a lifting of the spirits, aspirational and inspirational.

But what of Sir James's pounds 20m? Is he spending his money in vain? No, because he has already achieved precisely what he always wanted. He has frightened the Tory party into turning xenophobically anti-Europe and he has tilted public opinion alarmingly. A short time ago the likes of Douglas Hurd were saying, loftily, that referendums are not the British way, but both Labour and Conservatives have eaten their words since then. Both sound distinctly more anti-European than they did a year ago. A poll for the European movement last month showed that one-third of voters now want out of Europe altogether. Like it or not, we have been bought.

Tory Euro-sceptics were able to push the leadership only because the colour of Goldsmith's money scared the life out of a party already on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Goldsmith's money has purchased Major's and Rifkind's new line that it is "very unlikely" that Britain will join the single currency. Labour, too, has been towed some way along in the Goldsmith wake.

Where, now, is the advertising campaign on the other side? British industrialists with a vital interest in a positive European policy still seem to think that it is enough to make occasional speeches to the CBI and talk to ministers behind the scenes. But politicians in this fevered atmosphere will not be moved by mere British interests: they will be moved only by electoral interest. In what looks dangerously like a national stampede for the European Exit, the only way to change the politicians' minds is to persuade the people.

The captains of industry would be the best persuaders: even the third of voters who say they want to leave Europe say they wouldn't if they were persuaded that it would be against our economic interest. They are also the most ignorant, the very ones best reached by posters: the more people know about the EU, the more European they are. So now is the time for business to put money up front, fast, for a serious public campaign in support of closer ties with Europe - now, before the election. It would pull the Tories back from the brink of Europhobia and shift the whole tone of the debate.

The European Movement is about to start advertising, but it has a puny budget of pounds 0.5m, 40 times less than Sir James's. So, where is your money, Bob Ayling of British Airways, Sir Ian Vallance of British Telecom, Dick Giordano of British Gas, Richard Branson of Virgin? (Answers on a poster, please.)

Andreas Whittam Smith's column will return next Monday.