The advertising isn’t working

When it comes to election time, why do we need to be bludgeoned with such crude visual metaphors?

I have no idea who will win the election. Looking at the advertising I can only assume that it won’t be the Conservatives and I’m going to unwisely base this piece on that assumption, splitting an infinitive in the process like the wild man of ad commentary that I am.

The Tory lead began to crumble as soon as they launched their first billboard. It was the face that did it. Generally Cameron’s face looks like it’s drawn on a balloon filled with the inner-calm of the landed gentry. In order to look serious, Dave has to concentrate. Look at the poster and mutter ‘Winston Churchill’ to yourself and you’ll see what I mean. The other problem was the line: “We can’t go on like this”. The impression left wasn’t a statesmanlike commitment to tough choices. It was as though you’d been having an affair with the leader of the opposition who, after months of blazing rows and passionate sex, had finally mustered the courage to split up with you. I don’t think that was what they were going for.

No doubt Euro RSCG did their best. Political advertising in this country has always been dire, because agencies never get a chance to practice it. Whereas in the US every position of public trust is a multi-million dollar media opportunity, over here agencies only get involved in politics once every four years. No-one knows what they’re doing, so they steal. The ‘Time for change’ meme was one such theft; lifted wholesale without regard for the fact that Obama is, in advertising terms, a totally different product. A picture of Obama makes sense of the word ‘change’ in the way that a picture of Cameron does not. The Saatchi ‘Not flash, just Gordon’ pitch line didn’t get much exposure, but it was at least based on a product insight.

And here we come to the other reason for the state of British political advertising: the Saatchi brothers, or at least the agencies that bear their name. Ever since ‘Labour isn’t working’ won the election for Margaret Thatcher (it was that line, not unemployment, that did it) they’ve been the go-to guys for all your political needs, bringing us the Labour tax bombshell, on a bombshell, and [at M&C] Tony Blair with, ooh, scary eyes. When M&C rode to the rescue for the final Saatchis vs. Saatchi showdown it produced a pair of boots stamping on the green shoots of recovery.

Why is it that the voting public, who we occasionally credit with a modicum of sophistication, intelligence even, need to be bludgeoned with visual metaphors at election time? Has M&C secretly discovered that the only people who change their votes because of adverts are also scared of being stamped on by giants?

Obviously, if the Tories do win I take it all back. The ads were classics. But I do hope next time someone gives the brief to Fallon.

‘Gordon Comstock’ blogs on advertising at

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