Advertising: Attempts to nail political zeitgeist just don't ad up

It's 30 years since the Saatchis snatched the political initiative for the Conservatives. But the current Tory media onslaught isn't having the same effect, argues Mark Sellek

It may pass as a mere footnote in the history of political advertising, but just in case you hadn't noticed, the Conservatives have spent the past month bombarding us with a succession of advertisements and pseudo media events.

There are 10 adverts on the nation's billboards and in the national press, augmented by an online offensive: Conservative TV is up and running on Facebook, and there are pages on MySpace and Bebo. There's even a video made by the director of the film Layer Cake, Matthew Vaughn.

"We believe this campaign shows the Conservatives' commitment to new politics. Our posters, advertisements and the brilliant new film show that we have the fresh ideas and thinking to bring real change to Britain," says the party chairman Caroline Spelman on the party's website.

Yet, as the Tories await the payoff for their £500,000 outlay, they may like to reflect on an notable date in their calendar.

It's 30 years since the Tories employed Maurice and Charles Saatchi to run their advertising. It was a brilliant appointment; the Saatchis were only middle-ranking executives at the time, but the 1978 poster of a snaking dole queue under the slogan "Labour isn't working" (below) was voted poster advertisement of the century by the trade magazine Campaign. It kick-started Margaret Thatcher's march to Downing Street, spearheaded by the revolutionary realignment of C2 blue-collar workers from Labour to the Tories. The grainy misery delineated in the poster spoke directly to them. It also altered the nature of political advertising for ever.

However, smile at the anniversary they should not. All political ad campaigns since have been haunted by the spectre of "Labour isn't working". No other jingle, slogan or rallying cry by any party has come close to being as gloriously ubiquitous.

The electorate has seldom engaged with political advertising since. A dozen or so vastly inferior imitations – the "demon eyes" poster (made by M&C Saatchi) left us cold; "Go on, burst his bubble" (produced by Yellow M) – left us yawning. Nothing was more likely to reinforce the perception that Michael Howard was a mythical creature from an infernal region of Transylvania than to suggest that he and us shared some kind of parapsychological bond. "Are you thinking what we're thinking?", apart from being a bit weird, was possibly the weakest of recent electoral ads, suggesting as it did that a wink and a nudge to the electorate was all that was required to turn the country blue again.

Labour has hardly unveiled anything more impressive, even unimaginatively parodying the original at one point, with the timid (TBWA/London-produced) "Britain is working".

Since 1978, then, there's been more chance that an advertising campaign will backfire than succeed. Studies support the thesis that expensive negative advertising benefits no one: when the nasty party put out a negative ad, in the eyes of the electorate they just get nastier.

Construct a campaign around something like "New Labour, New Danger", and all you do is drive up the belief that politics possesses not an ounce of goodness.

In any case, we are naturally resistant to political advertising in the UK and immune to the special-interest politics that plagues the US political system.

A judicious warning though: log on to Conservative TV and watch the leader of the opposition cooing to rent-a-crowd pensioners about the importance of the rural post office.

The current view for political ads to be part of prime-time television, booked between The Bill and Emmerdale, is not a welcome one: if the Cameron scene doesn't pall, the thought of Jeremy Clarkson, say, being hired for commercial campaigns by lobbyists for the motor industry surely must.

And the current campaign orchestrated by Perfect Day. To take two random samples: "Labour's giving criminals a break", and BAD IDEA– see what they did there – well they're hardly seizing the zeitgeist. But these ads merely tell us what we already know about the Tories: that they've always had a bankable image on law and order and civil liberties.

In order to work, creative political media has to come wrapped in a believable narrative. The Saatchi's cultivated the Thatcher brand based on an ABC neo-liberal message: the credo of the Laffer Curve, concerning tax cuts and optimal tax rates, was sold to the public on the back of campaigns such as Tell Sid (created by Young and Rubicam).

An account of the Tory's endeavours since the last election contains no such narrative arc. Just a sprinkling of environmental platitudes and a peppering of announcements on immigration to appease the baffled grass-roots faithful. It makes New Labour's nebulous third way seem like a watertight philosophy

As Cameron strains to achieve the Blairite urbanity that had Worcester woman swooning back in the day, he invited the cameras into his home, again, to film him feeding his children, again – he might like to note Jim Callaghan's response to the Thatcher media offensive of 1978-79: "I don't intend to end this campaign packaged as a breakfast cereal."

Cameron has courted the media from the outset but while a less formal, open-collared style of politics may score him a few extra points, the stark truth is that, just like the Labour government in 1978, the current Tory ad campaign isn't working.

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