Book Review from the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘Mad Men & Bad Men: When British Politics Met Advertising’, by Sam Delaney. Faber & Faber £9.99.
Political advertising is not allowed on radio and TV in the UK, but is permitted on posters, in the press and on-line. Party political broadcasts do not count as advertising, though advertising gurus work on them. Political ads are not subject to the advertising code, so do not need to be honest and truthful. Here Sam Delaney examines the contribution of advertising to politics, based mainly on interviews with admen and a few politicians. A couple of adwomen get brief mentions.
Saatchi & Saatchi are well known for their work on Conservative Party posters and election broadcasts. It worked both ways, though, as the political impact helped make the agency very successful. Delaney opens, however, by recalling an interview that Maurice Saatchi gave when Thatcher died, in which he claimed that the agency had not really done very much, and that presentation was not all that important in politics. Maybe this just illustrates the common adage that the adman should never take credit for the client’s success, since it is all down to the quality of the product (whether shampoo or a political party). Of course sometimes admen do claim that they played a central role. Possibly the truth is that advertising and presentation are crucial in close elections, such as that of 1992, but not otherwise.
The Conservatives have nearly always had far more money to spend on advertising than Labour, and Tory ads have often been rather more brutal than those of Labour. Perhaps the best-known political slogan was ‘Labour isn’t working’ from 1978. Complaints about this led to even more publicity for the Tories and the poster containing it. The ‘Labour’s tax bombshell’ poster from 1992 had a comparable impact, despite being not entirely accurate. Big ad agencies have been reluctant to be associated with Labour, on the grounds that their corporate clients might not approve, so their links have sometimes had to be kept secret.
One of the book’s themes is the way the balance of power between admen and politicians has changed over time. Originally admen were very much in the back seat, and Callaghan only consulted them after making decisions. But gradually they became more central, softening Thatcher’s image, for instance, and influencing which topics were given most importance in campaigns. The emphasis on criticising opponents rather than presenting a party’s own achievements and promises remains, but admen and their agencies now seem to have less of a role.
After reviewing the 2015 General Election campaign, Delaney writes, ‘It is hard to see why or to what end political parties will ever employ ad agencies again.’ This does not mean the end of political advertising, but a big change in how it is carried out. In April 2015 the Conservatives were spending £100,000 a month just on Facebook advertising. The use of social media has now become central, together with ads targeted at specific groups of voters (such as voters in marginal seats, or women who might be thinking of voting UKIP rather than Conservative). A lot of money has been spent in building up a database of actual and potential Tory voters, partly based on the causes people supported in petitions on change.org. Just as all advertising has become slicker and more ‘professional’, the same applies to its political cousin.
There is no mention of admen in Anthony King’s Who Governs Britain?. It can hardly be argued that the admen are among those who govern, but they clearly sway people’s opinions and that shows the influence wielded by money.