Chris Powell: Chameleon karma

Ooh, er... so Cameron has been cast as a reptile in a new piece of negative campaigning by old Demon Eyes. But is anybody wincing

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If you want political power in America today, join a focus group, half-joked President Bill Clinton. Focus groups may be powerful, but not powerful enough to prevent politicians indulging in negative campaigning. Voters hate it, or say they do. So why does it happen? Are the parties just venting their spleen and hang the consequences, or is it, despite the protestations, good strategy?

In the UK, negative campaigning in elections would be impossible if the rules that apply to all other advertisers applied to politicians. Tesco does not tell you how awful Sainsbury's is, Weetabix does not poke fun at cornflakes. It is different in the States; brands do knock their rivals and the politicians really do get stuck into doing each other down.

Political rivals are pretty much presented as crooks, quotes taken blatantly out of context and voting records partially presented. It is all pervasive at election time as so many layers of government stand for election and so much is spent on TV commercials trying to trample their opponents into the mud.

Last week's chameleon broadcast from Labour would seem twee in the US, hardly counting as "attack" advertising at all. The previous records of candidates are fine-tooth-combed to find some flaw to build on. George Dukakis's candidacy was brought down by the furlough campaign. When Dukakis was governor, an early-release scheme for prisoners had let out a man who had gone on to murder. A powerful TV advertisement showed prisoners coming out of a jail while the voice over intoned the horrifying deeds. Did you want criminals let out to murder all over the USA? John Kerry was damaged by rumours that his war record was not all he claimed.

We were all saved from Barry Goldwater becoming president by a TV commercial showing a young girl blowing the spores off a dandelion while an ominous voice counted down to a nuclear explosion and its mushroom cloud with the claim that America would not be safe with such a war- monger as president. Posters in gubernatorial race in New York cleverly made the challenger look a crook with messages such as "Governor Nelson Rockefeller has jailed 720 drug dealers; not many drug dealers will be voting for Governor Rockefeller" and so on through various criminal activities. If you were to vote for his opponents you would be in the company of a pretty seedy bunch. Richard Nixon was famously floored in 1960 with the line "Would you buy a used car from this man?"

We have not seen this level of abuse and viciousness here since the political cartoons of the 18th century. In Britain, it is not regarded as acceptable behaviour. But attacking your political opponents has a long history, going back to the ancient Greeks, who excelled at character assassination.

Winston Churchill was the master of the put-down. Clement Attlee, he said, was "a modest man with much to be modest about". He likened the prospect of a Labour government to the reign of the Gestapo. These were memorable and damaging attacks.

The problem was, they damaged Churchill. When we hear attacks, we take a view not just on the person being attacked but on the attacker, too. What kind of man makes fun of someone else's modesty and purportedly modest abilities? Someone, surely, of enormous arrogance. Why would someone liken their opponent to the Gestapo when it is obviously nothing like the Gestapo: someone becoming hysterically worried about the strength of the other side's campaign.

It is no wonder that voters don't like negative campaigning. They will tell you, unprompted, how demeaning, irritating and pathetic it all is, how it belongs in the playground. They assume that politicians go in for it because they have not anything positive to say, no policies that they are proud of, no view on the big issues facing the country. It brings the whole of politics into disrepute. It may even help explain why voting is increasingly a minority pursuit. So, back to the question, why do they do it?

Because, of course, despite the electorates' distaste, it can work. Politicians who boast about their record are boring and unbelievable. If you force a group of electors to watch a political speech right through, they will tell you it was just slagging off the other side even though, like the reality of most speeches, it was given over in the main to talking about past and proposed policies. Only a third or so was given over to warning of the dangers of the other side getting in.

It is hard to say anything memorable about the nitty gritty of policy, but a bit of cheap abuse is far more likely to stick. Public disenchantment with politics inclines people to think ill of a politician rather than to think well of the policy advocated. Voters may say they dislike personal attacks, but that does not mean they do not remember them.

In this context, it is no wonder we live in the era of the political shock jock. Charles Saatchi shared the instincts of Alastair Campbell for news. Political communication is judged by whether it makes the news. And it makes for a strong attack, as long as the aim is right.

The ability of a single picture to capture the mood and effectively finish a career illustrates this power: Neil Kinnock falling into the sea just after his election as the leader of the party, William Hague and his back-to-front baseball cap, David Steel in David Owen's top pocket on satirical TV. They all memorably distilled a pre-existing, widespread feeling.

Advertising in elections is different from commercial advertising. In business, advertising is almost the only way a brand gets to communicate with its audience, it is the only way (other than direct experience) the people get to form their impression of the brand. (And other brands do not tell you bloodcurdling tales about it either). In an election, advertising is a minor part of the whole. We see the potential prime ministers on TV every day, giving long interviews. The press analyses everything. You get to feel you really know the person. The power of advertising is much reduced and needs different thinking if it is to stand out.

And standing out is a lot easier if you attack. Negative advertising is, however, just as dangerous a weapon as personal abuse. It can work brilliantly, or blow up in your face and help your opponent.

Tony Blair as "Demon eyes" was a brilliant piece of commercial art. Voted the best print advertisement of its year by the advertising trade press. It was utterly memorable, yet completely useless. People will, of course, always believe their experience rather than someone telling them what to think. Mr Blair had been on TV a lot. People felt they knew him. He was obviously not a demon. It did not summon up a popular feeling that was there in the first place (like David Steel in David Owen's pocket). There was no resonance, just the feeling that the Tories did not understand what was going on and were out of touch.

Attacks with real substance can be enormously effective. In 1992, the Conservative poster "Labour's tax bombshell" was a powerful blow. It was a new "fact" in tune with what voters believed and feared about Labour and it was well enough grounded in John Smith's promise to spend more. The Tories only had to make the deduction that taxes would need to rise, give it a precise figure, a strong image and plaster it all over the place. Voters already felt stretched financially. They knew Labour was prone to raise taxes and here, dramatically, was the evidence. We will never know how many votes it swayed (it is unlikely that Labour would have won in any case) but it was a lesson in how effective negative campaigning can be.

In the lead-up to their 1997 landslide, a campaign I was involved in, Labour relentlessly reminded disaffected Tory voters in speeches and on posters how John Major had promised to reduce taxes but had gone on to impose "22 tax rises". Most famously, Charles Saatchi summed up popular feeling in 1978 with "Labour isn't working". And Labour scored a hit in 1991 with Norman Lamont as "VATman" as VAT was raised.

I was involved in the campaign to save the GLC from Mrs Thatcher in 1983. A considerable communications success, but toward the end we got too cocky and ran a poster accusing Mrs Thatcher of not listening to Londoners. It may seem a long way off now, but she was very popular and had just been re-elected when we ran the campaign. Instead of helping our cause it only served to remind the audience how much they preferred her to Ken. We dropped it pretty quick. There is a view that the way round the problem of public distaste with slagging is to do it but with wit, and then they won't mind. It certainly takes the sting out of the tail, but it also carries the huge danger that you end up with something ineffectual.

Dave the cuddly chameleon is a striking and memorable visual (though widely reviled in the ad industry for being thought to be lifted from a recent campaign for Capital One credit cards). Undoubtedly it has scored a hit in the news, but does it damage Cameron and the Conservatives? Does it make him seem cynical and silly, or does it reinforce our image of him as the man who rides a bike (surprisingly environmental for a Tory). Do we think he is behaving cynically or is he merely the new leader of a party previously stuck in a rut adapting to changed conditions?

I'm not sure it has the substance to do real damage. I suspect that in avoiding causing offence it has given us a rather cuddly Cameron. Maybe the Tories will start selling soft toys of this lovable, bike-riding animal?

Chris Powell was chair of the Shadow Communications Agency 1985-97

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