How to get ahead in election advertising, part one

Graham Hinton, chairman of the Bates Dorland advertising agency, rates the campaign ads of the week.

ON A poster you get only a few words to put across the client's brief. So the first posters of the election campaign proper tell us a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of the briefs the two main parties are working to, and give some pretty heavy signals of the treats in store before polling day.

Both Labour and Conservative this week produced curiously simple new ads. What strikes me about the two offerings is how familiar the appeals are.

Labour's is a low-key rerun of Harold Wilson's 1964 campaign, presenting a fresh, hopeful alternative to a tired government like a fresh, hopeful alternative to washday blues. The ads are simple to the point of baldness, though pleasant enough. The team is clearly trying to avoid any hint of spindoctory. Safety first (as ever with New Labour), but they don't have to win the election; they have to avoid losing it.

The Conservatives are back with the well-trodden "Britain's booming, don't let Labour blow it" (aka, you've never had it so good). In previous outings, this has sometimes worked (Thatcher, various) and sometimes not (Macmillan), depending on the level of mood for change and the acceptability of the opposition. But if the Conservatives' party political broadcast last Monday is anything to go by, we can expect more of the "Labour can't be trusted to run a whist drive" element in upcoming ads than a celebration of economic success. This late in the day, the only real card they have to play is Doubt.

There is a spookily calm confidence surrounding the Labour advertising team - in contrast to the politicians' performance this week. Rumours abound that Labour has got its ads all printed and ready to go; they know what they plan to say and when. But we still know surprisingly little about the individuals that make up Labour's team and any disagreements they might have (until last week's sudden departure of its creative director, Pete Gatley). By contrast the Tories remain a reassuringly noisy and fractious bunch.

The Tories are not short of good ideas or talented people; they just seem unable to contain their glee at their own cleverness. As a result, last week's chicken stunt, which might really have wrong-footed Blair & co if it had surprised him, was signalled so heavily in advance that all manner of human wildlife was assembled to see him off.

Meanwhile, New Labour's simple message smiles, detergent-bright and crystal- clear, from the hoardings. This advertising election will get much dirtier yet.

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