Web satires trigger Tory ads rethink

Online spoofs featuring defaced poster cast doubt on shape of future campaigns

Today David Cameron and his party chairman Eric Pickles will cross the river Thames and in front of the imposing backdrop of Battersea Power Station unveil the latest campaign poster they hope will help them win the next election. Shortly afterwards someone, somewhere in cyberspace will be making a mockery of it and spreading it across the internet – where rather more people are likely to see it.

The launch of a campaign poster used to provide simple, free publicity for a political party when the image was picked up on television and in newspapers. But senior Conservatives have learned that the benefits of this old-fashioned propaganda tool are not so clear-cut in a multimedia world. Within hours of a Tory poster being revealed last week, spoof versions were circulating online – a growing trend that might eventually leave strategists from all parties wondering whether the campaign poster has had its day.

The Conservatives began a New Year campaigning blitz playing on the personality of Mr Cameron, who is seen as more popular than the party he leads. But the resulting poster, with its notorious airbrushed photograph of a smooth-skinned Tory leader saying "I will cut the deficit, not the NHS", drew such so much ridicule that the strategy had to be abandoned. Among the spoofs were Mr Cameron saying "Airbrushing you can believe in", "Tough on jobs. Tough on the causes of job" and "I'm a progressive Conservative. Please stop laughing".

Mr Cameron did not feature on the follow-up poster launched last week. Nor will he appear on today's new image, which is aimed at disillusioned Labour supporters.

Last week's poster was directed at Gordon Brown and showed a gravestone bearing the words: "RIP OFF – now Gordon wants £20,000 when you die. Don't vote for Labour's new death tax."

This was a reference to claims – roundly denied by ministers – that Labour plans a £20,000 flat rate inheritance tax to pay for the care of the elderly. Almost as soon as it was unveiled, there was web traffic on Twitter and other social sites suggesting how it could be parodied, and within hours, the 'MyDavidCameron' website had set up a facility for people to send in their versions.

Clifford Singer, creative director of the Sparkloop graphic design agency, who set up the website, said the aggressive nature of political advertising made it particularly vulnerable to humour.

"Political advertising is much more combative than other advertising, and that it leaves it open to spoofs," he said.

"It's a problem for all the parties, but it's probably more serious for the Conservatives because they have got a much bigger advertising budget."

But Dave Trotter, of Chick Smith Trott advertising agency, believes that parties can live with web-generated satire just as they have learnt to live with magazines like Private Eye. "The best political poster in the world is going to attract satire, but that's like football supporters chanting at one another."