Advertising: how did it influence this election?

Poster campaigns may have been overshadowed by new media, such as Twitter, and the televised debates

Back in September 2007, barely two months into his prime ministership, Gordon Brown did the unthinkable. He hired Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising agency that for three decades had been synonymous with iconic Tory advertising. For the unelected Brown it was a defining moment in his attempts to distance himself from the spin of the Tony Blair era and establish himself as a credible, if unglamorous, leader: Saatchi's first task was to produce a poster with the line "Not flash, just Gordon".

Calling in the Saatchi troops was an audacious move for the new PM, and a symbolic challenge to the opposition, which was then in the middle of its own hunt for an advertising agency. By spring, the Tories had hit back with their own advertising coup, drafting in M&C Saatchi – the agency which houses what's left of the crack ad team that brought Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979 with the legendary "Labour isn't Working" poster. With M&C working alongside the Tory's other agency Euro RSCG and with the Liberal Democrats appointing Iris to handle its communications, advertising has been a key weapon in this campaign.

But after months of strategising, portfolios (and wastepaper baskets) full of creative ideas, and millions of pounds spent buying advertising space, did this election's ads really influence the outcome? From David Cameron's baby smooth face on the Tory poster campaign back in January, mercilessly spoofed by Labour supporters on the internet who accused the Tory leader of airbrushing his policies as well as his picture, to Gordon Brown's disturbing grin alongside lines like "I took billions from pensions, vote for me" and the Lib Dem's mock party, the Labservatives, will any of it have made a difference?

Privately, the advertising agencies involved in these campaigns will admit that their role is to provide material – images, sound-bites, policy memes, speeches – to generate debate, not to come up with a killer ad that changes the course of the election. Though that would have been nice. This has not been an election of iconic advertising, of cut-through, game-changing creativity. It has been an election of stunts, online parodies and fast turn-around, knee-jerk ads that have made the most of the speed and flexibility of digital posters and the internet.

As far as the big ad campaigns go, this has not been a high-spending election. Communications budgets for both the Labour party and the Lib Dems have been, even on the most generous of estimates, in the very low millions of pounds, enough for only a handful of key poster sites and a smattering of press ads from which they have hoped to generate PR in the national media. Only the Conservatives have enjoyed a more generous marketing purse, with as much as £25m to spend on ads.

With tiny budgets and new technology opening up new ways of building relationships with voters, this has inevitably been dubbed the social media election. All parties have used their websites, email marketing, Facebook and Twitter to amplify policy messages, engage with voters and mobilise support.

Opinions on how important social media has been in shifting public opinion vary. One ad executive working on the election campaigns admitted that, for all the hype and the noise, the impact of social media has remained a sideshow. But David Jones, the global chief executive of Euro RSCG, insists that "the transparency, authenticity and speed of new media has transformed this election, it has cascaded word of mouth". Yet he admits "in the main, real people have done a better job at social media than the parties themselves have", pointing to the fact that Sarah Brown, a fluent Tweeter, neglected to mention anything about "Bigotgate" and that Nick Clegg, also a Twitter fan, didn't Tweet about his success in the debates. "The transparency and authenticity is not something most have understood," Jones says.

In fact, this has been an election campaign dominated by negative messaging, played out to best effect in traditional media with the sort of poster and press advertising that is increasingly dubbed old-fashioned by a digitally obsessed communications industry.

But if this election has taught the parties' communications strategists and their advertising agency partners anything, it's the power of television. There's no doubt that all the time and money spent on advertising has been overshadowed by the impact of the televised debates. The unpredictability of those events has been a watershed for political advertising, says M&C Saatchi's global chief executive and election advertising veteran Moray MacLennan. "After the first debate, the entire landscape changed, probably forever," he said.

Ad agencies were put on alert after each programme, working through the night to rewrite ads and tweak messaging in line with the tenor of the debate. For an ad industry still used to a more leisurely pace of weeks (or even months) rather than hours from strategic briefing to creative execution, this new style of election campaigning has been a painful baptism. One advertising executive working on the campaign admitted this week that the experience had left him "a broken man".

Tweets of the day

Stephen Fry "As artist Pauline Amos puts it: 'Put down your xbox and put an x in the box.' Vote if you haven't!"

Jimmy Carr "Went to vote & saw Alan Davies – they didn't have a VIP booth, I asked. Have you voted? You have to or you can't complain for 5 years."

Jemima Khan "Didn't vote for the party which invaded a foreign country for no reason, lied about it, made us an international pariah, then bankrupted us."

Shappi Khorsandi "I am a child of Thatcher. She was a horrible mum. I'm off to vote and hope this beautiful, amazing country won't be Tory in the morning."

Ben Clarke "Three things if you choose not to vote today: 1) DON'T COMPLAIN. EVER. 2) Voter apathy gives the BNP more power. 3) See 1) again."

Alex Wood "Remember, everytime someone votes for David Cameron, a puppy dies."

Richard Madeley "In reply to numerous Qs about 2morrow, I still can't decide. I truly think Lab, under Gord, is knackered (& I voted Lab last 3 times). Jeez... abed."

Bridget Fox "Aah – just spoken with 93yr old lady whose voted for me, says she's been waiting all her life to get a Liberal MP. Moved to tears!"

Carl Maxim "First Time Voter? Free condoms are available at all polling stations. Just ask the lady at the door."

Lily Allen "Come on the reds!"

Tracy-Ann Oberman "Morning. Election day. Whoo hoo. Indecision and anxiety here I come. How long can one anxe in the booth before they make you come out?"

Pixie Lott "is off to vote! whos with meeeeeeeee"

Paul Seiji "just did my duty and voted... only takes 5 minutes and now i feel warm inside"

Zoe South "I've just voted. Current MP's a Tory, so I took David Cameron's advice and voted for change."

Tracey Thorn "When I voted earlier I gave a secret smile to the Labour rep on my way out. May pop back throughout the day and do a thumbs up. Wink at him."

Dave Gorman "Whoever you vote for today, stay engaged in politics after the election. You never know, it might make it easier to choose next time."

Paloma Faith "I just voted. not telling who for but it defo wasn't tory"

Gill McLellan "That's the busiest I've seen the polling station. Hopefully means there'll be a good turnout..."

Compiled by Tom Brookes-Pollock