Intelligent political advertising? Pigs might fly

by Stephen Tall on February 1, 2005

Michael_Howard_Hypnotist-vi

A fair old rumpus has been raised by Labour’s election posters depicting Michael Howard as a Fagin-esque miser, and super-imposing his head, and that of his Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, onto two flying pigs.

Howard_Labor_Pigs_Fly
Labour election strategists say the message is simple: Tory sums don’t add up, so key services will be cut. Critics argue there is an altogether more distasteful agenda at play: both Mr Howard and Mr Letwin are Jewish, and the association with unclean porcines and unscrupulous usurers is little more than anti-Semitic.

The debate has achieved little, it seems to me. Those who are broadly sympathetic to Labour will give them the benefit of the doubt. They will either view them as the work of some callow advertising youth with no sense of history, and only a tangential relationship to Labour; or they will feel the row has been gotten out of all proportion, and that no offence was intended, and, therefore, none should be taken.

Those who are generally antipathetic will argue that the posters, unconsciously or not, mimic Nazi imagery, playing on Jewish racial stereotypes; and that this should have been crystal clear to Labour’s high command, particularly as the posters were unveiled in the week when the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust was commemorated.

I’ve reproduced the posters here, so judge for yourselves. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the flying pigs poster is inoffensive to anyone not looking to be offended, but that the Howard-as-Shylock image displays reckless indifference to its casual caricature: it beggars belief that no-one considered the latent anti-Semitic connotations.

I’m sure many of Labour’s prominent Jewish donors, recruited by Mr Blair’s chief fundraiser, Lord Levy (himself Jewish), will have left their party in little doubt as to their views. Equally, I suspect Labour MPs in Hendon, Ilford North and Finchley & Golders Green – marginal constituencies with large Jewish populations – will wonder at the damage it may do Labour.

What seems to have been disregarded amid the froth and bubble is – leaving to one side any racialist overtones – how pitifully, mindlessly, depressingly vacant these adverts are. Now I suspect that Labour’s advertising gurus may regard that as a back-handed compliment. As Graham Singleton, branding expert at Value Engineers, remarked of the 2001 vintage of general election ads, “Posters are expected to go over the top.” How depressing.

I am not so Luddite as to believe that you can convey a sophisticated, nuanced thesis-antithesis-synthesis approach to public policy on a billboard. The image must be clear, the slogan punchy, the message simple. However, I think advertising which is so explicitly negative and personal achieves nothing except further to disengage the public from the mud-slinging ‘yah-boo-sucks’-style of party politics.

Perhaps I’m naïve. Perhaps this kind of advertising is exactly what the public is yearning for. Perhaps they do really enjoy the theatrical sparring of Prime Minister’s Questions. Perhaps they love the gladiatorial combat of grown men (and few women) wrestling each other in desperate, craven pursuit of popular approbation. Perhaps. But I don’t think so.

It is just this party political bickering which gives the public the perfect excuse to zone out, to scream a plague on both your houses, to abstain in despair, to shrug their shoulders at the hypocrisy, or, worst of all, to join in.

It is this heat-without-light campaigning which makes good people look at politics, and say, “That’s not for me.”

It is this the-closer-we-get-the-louder-we-must-shout level of debate which is killing politics.

Good political advertising – by which I mean posters which make people think, which strike a chord, which don’t snidely mock, which take for granted the electorate’s intelligence, which refuse to pander to prejudice, and disdain personal abuse – can work. In fact, I’m convinced they’re the only ones which work.

Labour Isn't Working

Two of my favourites are pictured here. The first, the famous Saatchi ‘Labour isn’t working’ ad of 1979, may seem, in retrospect, quite breathtaking in its sheer effrontery: after all, this is a Conservative poster attacking Labour’s poor unemployment track record, a record trounced by Margaret Thatcher. Yet its punning caption captured a moment in time when a failing, tired, broken Government was unable to offer the country hope.

Kennedy election poster
The other, used by the Lib Dems in 2001, is unforgettable precisely because it is impossible to remember. By self-consciously eschewing any attempt to talk down to the electorate, it carves out a distinctive niche, surprising the reader with its distinct and deliberate arms-length distancing from the other parties’ intense yelling: a subvertisement, in fact. It’s highly successful because it re-inforces the Lib Dem ‘brand’ – civilised, tolerant, caring, intelligent – and invites the public to share these values.

Labour’s PR cock-up illustrates a much wider, and more profound malaise in UK politics: an inability – worse, an unwillingness – to raise the level of debate, to engage with the electorate, to regard them as intelligent.