The June 7 British general election is being fought on the streets. Not in the street-brawling sense, though Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott did land a left jab on an egg-throwing protester early in the campaign, but more in the long-handled-brush-and-a-bucket-of-paste sense. Thanks to the ban on paid political TV commercials, the main focus for parties' money and creativity is on billboards and roadside posters—which is good news for Tony Blair's Labor Party, which has legions of creative friends and is still the only British party that really understands how to spin.
Labor's strategy has been to conjure unhappy memories of recent Conservative administrations—especially the Thatcher years—with spoof movie posters that suggest the grim consequences of a Conservative return to power. Thus "Economic Disaster II—coming to a home, hospital, school and business near you," which stars Tory leader William Hague and shadow chancellor Michael Portillo as the Reservoir Dogs-esque Mr. Boom and Mr. Bust, and "The Repossessed—No home is safe from spiralling Tory interest rates," a schlock horror pic with Hague and Portillo as zombies. The message is simple and clearly focused on the economy, but it's overlaid with a layer of wit and sophistication that hasn't been seen in British political ads before, where the rule has been to keep it nice and simple. These are ads for the media-savvy, not the man on the street, even though that's exactly where they're sited.
Sophisticated mockery is deftly used in a third poster that shows a young William Hague dressed in a vintage tweed jacket, with a smug grin and a full head of hair. (Hague, who's 40, has been bald for most of his political career.) The tag line is: "Someone didn't do his homework." The ideological substance is Conservative tax policy, but voters with long memories will remember Hague's precocious tribute to Margaret Thatcher when, aged 16, he became the youngest person to address the Conservative Party Conference. It can't have seemed natural at the time, and viewing the film now it's just freaky.
Last week, Labor unveiled a get-out-the-vote poster that combines mockery with Thatcher-bashing. Next to a composite image of William Hague's face and Margaret Thatcher's hair is the tag line "Get out and vote. Or they get in." It's hard to imagine a U.S. candidate dressing his opponent in drag at the height of the campaign.
Things are not so easy on the other side of the fence. Although the Tories invented the modern political campaign as far as the United Kingdom is concerned (see 1979's "Labour Isn't Working"), they now seem to have lost their touch.
A poster of a pregnant Tony Blair has the line "Four years' hard Labour—and he still hasn't delivered." A neat piece to keen observers who will recognize it as a tribute to a classic mid-1970s pro-birth-control ad (scroll to the bottom of the Web page) designed by the Saatchi brothers, the men responsible for some classic Tory billboards of the Thatcher era, most famously "Labour Isn't Working." In theory, it's a smart idea, invoking the Labor Party's failure to deliver on its first-term promises. But if Blair's been pregnant for that long, he must be about to deliver soon. Not quite the message the Tories were after. And on a personal basis, it reminds viewers of Blair's virility—his fourth child was born just over a year ago, while Hague's family remains childless.
Much to the horror of the Tories' advertising agency, the party abandoned the pursuit of floating voters. Instead, it hopes to energize its base by appealing on core Conservative issues such as the prospect of Britain abandoning the pound and joining the euro. Consider the merits of this approach as shown in the "Save the Pound" poster: It lacks cleverness and sophistication; even the big "X"—still the way the British mark their ballot paper—is in the "wrong" box. Nevertheless, there's no doubt about the topic. Perhaps that makes it more effective than "Economic Disaster II"?
In the last days of the campaign, the Conservatives unveiled a new poster that many pundits interpreted as an admission of defeat. The billboard shows a pin-wielding hand hovering over a soap bubble that contains a very smug-looking Tony Blair. The message is, "Go on, burst his bubble," with the tagline: "Vote for common sense. Vote conservative." In other words, forget Europe, education, and health care; vote Tory to spoil Blair's day.
The unveiling of a new billboard inevitably becomes something of a media event, particularly for broadcasters desperate to enliven a dull election campaign with something witty or controversial. So, the posters become spot ads in their own right—and the parties don't even have to wait for a commercial break for viewers to see them. Needless to say, there are risks. A few weeks ago, with the country's press in attendance, the Tories unveiled their latest poster only to find that, because of a communications breakdown, instead of the latest Conservative message, the billboard heralded extended opening hours at a local supermarket.