When it comes to fighting a general election, the prevailing wisdom in adland is that the publicity generated by a campaign is as important as the campaign itself. By that token Labour, in the early stages at least, has left the Conservatives for dead.
Tales of flying pigs, Michael Howard as Fagin and threats of dirty tricks have dominated the headlines and conspired to starve the Tory campaign of the vital oxygen of publicity.
All the Conservatives have managed in reply is a half-hearted poster reprising Gordon Brown's opinion of Tony Blair with a picture of the Prime Minister next to the headline "Unbelievable". "Labour must be feeling like they've received a slapping from Montgomery Burns," said one senior advertising executive this week, likening it to an assault by the malevolent but feeble plutocrat from The Simpsons.
So how precisely are the Tories going to re-ignite interest in their campaign, especially now that they have advertising mastermind Maurice Saatchi as party chairman? Well certainly not by name-calling, focusing on personalities or negative thinking, says Saatchi's deputy, Charles Hendry - apparently oblivious to the fact that that is precisely how many would describe the "Unbelievable" poster.
"Our struggle over recent years has been getting people to take interest," he admits. "People want inspiration and leadership. Knocking your opponents is wrong. It's a mistake both parties made at the last election. A negative campaign added to the disaffection and switch-off from politics. It certainly didn't inspire anyone to go out and vote."
The Tories may be on the back foot, but there is a key difference between this and the 1997 election, he argues. "Then people simply wanted to get rid of us and they didn't care who they voted for to do it. Now they would like to get rid of the Government but they will be fussy who they vote for."
In other words, in a three-way fight, it is not enough for voters to dislike the Government, the Conservatives need to offer positive reasons to vote for them. The key target group will be lapsed Tories in their thirties and forties who voted for Major in 1992, Blair in 1997, and abstained last time round. "They live in modern housing developments in outlying suburban areas. They are successful professionals with two incomes that give them a nice holiday, two cars and an expectation that their children will to go to university. Despite this, they really don't like the Government," says Hendry.
The first overtures to what sounds suspiciously like 1997's Mondeo Man are visible in the batch of posters launched early this year. The ads created by Immediate Sales, a subsidiary of the chairman's agency M&C Saatchi, use the old salesman's trick of getting people into the rhythm of saying "yes" before making their pitch.
So the posters contain largely anodyne observations that few could disagree with, such as "How hard is it to keep a hospital clean?" and "What's wrong with a little discipline in schools?". "They are an attempt to build bridges to the electorate. They invite people to say 'Yes I do agree with that but I didn't know the Tories thought that as well'," says Hendry.
Most advertising experts take the view that political posters work, not directly, but by setting an agenda which is picked up by the media and then amplified back to the electorate. However, Hendry, perhaps surprisingly given his communications background as a former executive of the PR firm Ogilvy, subscribes to a more direct model of political advertising effectiveness.
"They either reinforce impressions or they stop people and cause them to say 'I didn't know that'. At this point in the electoral cycle people are making up their minds so people are more open to persuasion and ideas," he says.
This may, however, have more to do with his feeling that the media, especially the press, is increasingly destructive in its coverage of politics. He feels strongly that the press has made a substantial contribution to the low esteem in which politics and politicians are now held. "TV is much more accurate and powerful but is less useful to political campaigners because of its obligations to provide balance," says Hendry.
His problem is, of course, as any news editor will tell you, rows, personalities and inconsistencies sell more newspapers than good news. But he is palpably angry at the treatment his party has received at the hands of the press, especially its former ally, The Times. "The press have trivialised politics and gone for the easy kills. They prefer to highlight and knock, and they've lost the bigger picture. If you go back, The Times would have had two or three pages on Parliament. Now it has a page and a half on politics but it's all personality led," he complains.
"The reports about a row between Maurice [Saatchi] and Lynton [Crosby, Tory general election campaign director] over election strategy were totally untrue. [The Times] didn't even check it with us. Our whole strategy is based on winning and we are going out to win the 165 seats we have to win to form a government."
And despite "misleading" reports to the contrary - again Hendry blames The Times - the deputy chairman says the party does have the cash to fight a national campaign: "We reckon we will be able to spend close to the maximum £20m." But at the same time he predicts that the days of huge, nationwide poster campaigns are over as the parties focus their resources on the places they will make most difference. The future, he says, lies in direct marketing and targeted mass media. "This will be from all parties' perspective a far more targeted election campaign than we've seen before. In some parts of the country you may hardly realise there's an election going on."
* The Tory party has served a writ on three Times journalists for defamation. It claims, that the trio falsely alleged that Lynton Crosby told Michael Howard that the party didn't stand a chance of winning the coming election. The case is expected to be heard in the High Court in April.Reuse content