Creating fear and loathing on the campaign trail

Rubbishing the opposition will be the spin doctors' most potent weapon in the run-up to an election
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The Independent Online
During the 1864 presidential election, Abraham Lincoln was variously described as a filthy story-teller, a despot, a liar, a buffoon, a braggart, a monster, a perjurer, a robber, a swindler and a tyrant. John Major and Tony Blair may well reflect on such vicious campaigning as our own election draws close.

Advertising agencies are convinced that we are heading for a dirty election, fought out on TV and, already, on advertising hoardings. These posters give us a taste of what may be in store.

MC Saatchi and BMP DDB Needam are the two advertising agencies respectively responsible for the Conservative and Labour campaigns. Detailed briefings between the parties' campaign teams and agency account executives have already taken place.

In addition, producers of the BBC's On the Record programme have had off-the-record chats with Labour and Conservative officials and subsequently briefed the advertising agency McCann-Erickson on the parties' campaign ideas, with a view to devising mock advertising strategies.

David Warden, chairman of McCann-Erickson, who handled the "Conservative account", believes the poor poll position of the Tories leaves them no choice. "We understand they would like to deliver positive messages. But they know it - and we know - negative campaigning works. It's easier and more effective to attack your opponent. Defending your own record, warts and all, is too vulnerable."

Mr Warden, who worked in the United States for 18 years, thinks British political advertising is now standing at a line. To cross would mean the highly personal attacks, seen in recent US presidential campaigns against Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis. Focusing on Mr Hart's association with Donna Rice ended his big chance. And when George Bush's camp chose to concentrate on Mr Dukakis's record as Governor of Massachusetts, wrongly claiming that Mr Dukakis had approved weekend leave for killers and rapists, Mr Dukakis's hopes ended. As one American analyst put it: "Even if mud doesn't stick, it leaves a mark."

Choosing not to cross the line just yet, McCann's ideal Tory campaign began with a single starting point. "People who've said they won't vote Tory this time, people who say they are mad as hell: they need to be confronted with a moment of truth and asked 'Can I really do this, vote Labour?'," said Mr Warden. The theme running through the Tory poster campaign aims to "show Labour's true colour as still red".

Those working on the two briefs at McCann discovered it was far easier to knock the Conservatives. Ev Jenkins, director of account planning, organised the Labour adverts. "Reminders of 17 years of Tory government provide the best deterrent against voting them back," she said. The word "Con" provided the link. There were posters on tax contradictions, a condemned health service, and ending up with Michael Portillo as Prime Minister. The point of negative advertising here was to generate fear.

According to David Butler's Nuffield College analysis of the 1992 election, the most effective poster used the image of a flying bomb to dramatise the impact of Labour expenditure proposals with "Labour's tax bombshell". Sources at Walworth Road and in Labour's new offices near Westminster are confident they will make no mistakes this time.

In the Tory camp, one young classicist said: "We are immune from attack. Tony Blair has adopted our policies, so how can he attack us?"

Another Tory advertising consultant said agencies were always being accused of trying to sell politics like soap powder. "Look, we've all got used to New Daz and New Persil. And we're being offered New Labour. And if we win? Tony Blair will need New Improved Labour, easy as that."

t A report on negative campaigning will appear on BBC1's On The Record on Sunday.