Sunday, 17 January 2010

Policies not posters

In a seminar I chaired at the Fabians conference yesterday I asked Peter Kellner of YouGov whether it was possible to judge what was the more effective form of political campaigning: the Conservatives spending millions on billboards of an airbrushed David Cameron, or Labour supporters parodying it with the pics, which have now received considerable coverage in the mainstream media. His response was that it's difficult to judge, and that 90% of the money spent by the political parties during election campaigns is a complete waste of money anyway. Leaflets go in the bin, billboards are forgotten, etc, etc.

Also, much of this propaganda is directed at people who have already made up their minds how to vote anyway.... Which is why Voter ID/ phone bank work, and then targeted mailings are by far the best use of funds rather than blanket coverage of a constituency. (Not something those with the Ashcroft millions behind them have to worry about though - they can just bombard everyone.)

The received wisdom about billboard campaigns in the past was that what mattered wasn't the billboard itself, but the press/TV coverage it got when it was unveiled. As Peter Kellner pointed out, the only Conservative billboard people remember from the 1997 campaign was the 'Demon Eyes' picture of Tony Blair. And yet there was only ever the one poster; it wasn't a campaign that was rolled out on billboards across the country. You will probably be able to find people who can "remember" seeing the poster, but they won't have; they'll have seen the press coverage.

During my brief stint working for the Labour Party during the 2001 election I remember having trouble explaining this to the Electoral Commission, when we were discussing election spend with them. They were convinced that a 'billboard campaign' would have cost millions, whereas the truth is, most of them only get a very limited run. The current Cameron campaign, which really has been rolled out nationwide, is the exception, not the rule. And yes, people notice the posters, but are they more or less likely to vote Conservative as a result? I doubt it actually makes any difference at all, unless the ad agencies find a campaign that really hits home.

At the coming election Labour has a choice - should it spend its limited funds on targeted mailings, phone banks, battle buses, party political broadcasts, new media campaigns: all those things which genuinely connect with voters? Or should it splash out on billboards instead? My reckoning is we might see one or two limited poster campaigns, to get across a particular message on a particular day, perhaps in a particular location, but we won't be following the Conservative example.


diana smith said...


It should almost be a challenge to show how much can be done with very little money.

I have loved the creativity that has been triggered by the #mydavidcameron spoof poster campaigns.

Have done a few myself. It is a good way of focusing the anger!

The more tools we can put out there for people to generate their own campaign material the better.

Tom said...

Can't blame you really. If Brown was my leader I wouldn't be plastering images of him all over the nation's billboards either.

Better to stick to your negative campaigning. It's inspiring.

Anonymous said...

Very hard to tell what hits home and what doesn't. Where I live, people are so anti "cold call" that many will slam the door in the face of anyone "on the doorstep" irrespective of what they're peddling.

I know several people who won't vote for a party that can't be bothered asking them in person though.

I suspect most leaflets go straight in the bin though, and I suspect most emails will too (my own emails from Labour Party & various Labour sources are often tagged as 'junk mail' ).

I personally can think of nothing much more intrusive and irritating than a text on my mobile from a political party - but I confess that I hadn't thought of Barack Obama's idea of texting voters on the day of the election to get out the vote. A master stroke.

Two particular billboard campaigns stick in my mind : The "Labour isn't working" poster which I think was a key element in securing Margaret Thatcher's first term;

the other - in a very different sense, was a poster run by Wrangler Jeans - showing a topless man harvesting wheat whilst wearing Wrangler Jeans. It went out a couple of days after the US bombing of Libya, caught anti-American sentiment at it's highest and ensured Levi's dominance, over Wrangler for a long time.

Iain said...

Utter balony - if you had the cash you would spend it - why keep taking us all for fools - Labour is broke in the same way it has bankrupted the country it has bankrupted itself

You cant afford the media so you wont use it - or else you know the election is lost so there is no point is spending money on it - rather have something to use when back in opposition.

Anonymous said...

The focus of political campaigning needs to be entering a discussion with voters rather than pure broadcasting. Internet based campaigning will become more and more critical as a process that involves a conversation - not sure how much it will affect this election, starting too late to engage many people.
Most campaigning will be focussed on identifying and motivating supporters rather than changing peoples' minds.

Bristol Dave said...

Guido has pointed out something you should know about the pics.

And I have to say I'm with Tom on this, the main reason the Labour campaign team wouldn't roll out billboards, airbrushed Cameron aside, is because they know (as I'm sure you do Kerry) that posters of Gordon Brown's miserable visage (or even worse, "fake smile" Gordon) would be complete and utter electoral suicide. The only person who doesn't recognise this, of course, would be Gordon himself. Probably why they're against the idea of billboards, as once he got wind of it, he'd demand that he was on them in the same way Cameron was.

I can't help but wonder how effective any campaigning from any party will be in this election. Depressingly, it seems like most people in this country would vote for a freshly-laid turd so long as it was wearing the right colour rosette (and that goes for rosettes and parties of any colour).

I can't wait until prospective politicians start knocking on my door (if it happens) - they'll wish they never did. So far I've had "fake newspapers" from both the Labour and the Conservative candidates, both went in the bin. I can't help but feel that's where all of these leaflets end up, with varying degrees of digestion of their contents.

Kerry said...

A billboard campaign doesn't have to feature any politicians at all, most people agree that the Tories "Labour isn't working" 1979 poster was one of the most effective campaigns (though hugely ironic given the massive increase we saw in unemployment under the Tory govt elected as a result), and that didn't have any politicians in it.

Oh, and the Guido story has been comprehensively dealt with on the mydavidcameron site - yes, the spoof posters have been airbrushed further, but the original one was airbrushed too, Cameron himself hasn't denied that.

The Provisional BBC said...

Maybe we could gain positive press coverage by announcing that we will not be using billboards at all in the upcoming election, playing into narratives about substance vs PR-friendly guff; us being the underdogs etc etc. After all, the mydavidcameron stuff has shown we can generate column inches through using images without needing to spend on billboards at all. We could even produce posters that people could download and flypost etc if we really wanted to go for the underdog thing big time!

Bristol Dave said...

I did laugh out loud at this one though:

Kerry said...

Dave, can I just issue you with notice that I'm not going to post any further links to that site... because I don't like it. Same pic is on, which I do like!

Idle Tom said...

Dave, mydavid cameron airbrushed the airbrushing? No s sherlock, i thought that was part of the point. My david cameron have said they wont be satirising the next tory poster, knowing its had its day. Still, this hasnt the tories from making their own p-poor fake poster sites. What will be next? The posters have already been turned into a 3d game ( and other copy sites are springing up.