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Friday, 19 January, 2001, 11:59 GMT
Can adverts win elections?
The Conservative 'Demon Eyes' poster with pound signs over the eyes
Does spending on political advertising make a difference?
The Conservative Party will soon be 5m better off, following a huge donation to its election campaign fund. But can adverts win elections?

Stuart Wheeler is giving 5m from his gambling empire fortune to the Tory Party. He says the money offers William Hague a "really good chance" of winning the general election - hotly-tipped for May.

Tory leader William Hague
"Cheers, Stuart. Pure genius."
But how much can the advertising campaign which the donation will fund really "even the odds", when even Mr Wheeler's own IG betting index predicts Labour will win as many as 168 seats more than the Tories? Do posters really reach those floating voters party strategists dream of?

The recent cycle of elections in the United States saw an estimated $4bn spent on campaigning, arguably to little conclusive result.

Indeed, the high-water mark of the presidential ad campaigns came when George Bush became embroiled in controversy when it seemed one of his TV slots was subliminally branding Al Gore a "rat".

Ad and subtract

Political ads are just as likely to backfire as win over voters, says Graham Singleton, branding expert at Value Engineers and a 13-year veteran of the advertising business.

"All advertising has an effect. But to have a positive effect a political campaign needs the right 'creative' and needs to say the right things, things which are in tune with what people are thinking."

George W Bush
"The hat? Money well spent."
The Tories' 1979 "Labour isn't working" poster is regarded as a classic. The Saatchi advert, showing the snaking line of a dole queue, is said to have galvanised public concern over unemployment.

But on the other hand the infamous 1997 Conservative advert showing Labour's Tony Blair with demonic eyes was too heavy handed for the electorate, says Mr Singleton.

"People are very media savvy and like to make up their own minds about things. Telling them Tony Blair was a demon, when everyone thought he was a fairly decent bloke, didn't go down very well."

Washed out

Selling a political party is not like selling a washing powder. Slogans and imagery which will whip the faithful into a lather may well leave the general public cold.

"The people at party HQ might have loved the 'Demon Eyes' poster, but how much are they in touch with the people in the street," say Mr Singleton, the man behind ad campaigns for Guinness, Pirelli and Britain's armed forces.

PM Tony Blair
Even demonic eyes need rest
The Tories spent 20m to Labour's 14m during the last general election campaign, and yet still got soundly beaten at the ballot box.

Analysts, including the boss of the MORI polling firm, Robert Worcester, suggest Mr Blair "lost" the campaign battle - shedding voters to the Liberal Democrats - but had won the war against the Tories long before the election was called.

Were the Tories not lagging so far behind in the polls, Mr Wheeler's gift might have paid for some decisive advertising, says Mr Singleton.

Poster taints

"For posters to make a real difference something would have to happen to make Labour unpopular, something like the return of the fuel protests."

A "burst" of topical posters playing on such a weakness could "prove very influential", he says.

However, like oil tankers, national advertising campaigns cannot turn on a sixpence.

Billboard space is easier and cheaper to find the earlier it is booked. With only Number 10 sure when the election will be, Labour has the planning advantage.

Conservative ad from summer 2000
Could anything fuel Tory hopes?
The ruling party is already reportedly buying up prime advertising space for April. Opponents could well be left with "dross" or relying on the goodwill of more conventional advertisers to move their posters.

Mr Wheeler's 5m is relatively small beer in the world of TV advertising - it would just about buy a decent brace of British commercials or three 30-second slots during the Holy Grail of US advertising, the Superbowl.

However, it is quite sufficient for a "national heavyweight burst" of posters - a campaign at perhaps three times the intensity one might expect from, say, a toothpaste maker.

But an effective poster is measured not in billboard space, but in newspaper column inches.

Making the leaders

"Editorial coverage is worth more than the ad. It is seen as being more neutral, or less clearly biased. When an ad is discussed it has a greater influence on people's opinions."

During the Scottish parliamentary race, the Tories unveiled a poster comparing Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond to the Teletubby Laa-Laa.

Laa-Laa the Teletubby
Is it too laa-laa-late for a Tory ad campaign?
Though the poster quickly fell foul of copyright laws, its short outing is estimated to have generated 200,000 of media coverage - only slightly less than the Scottish Tories entire campaign budget.

Yellow M, the agency behind the poster and now hired by William Hague, proved you can get people talking without breaking the bank.

But it also showed that even an advert which gets people talking can only do so much. In the Scottish parliamentary election, the Tories were beaten both by Labour and Mr Salmond's SNP.

See also:

18 Jan 01 | UK Politics
I gain nothing - 5m Tory donor
18 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Stuart Wheeler: 5 million man
05 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Party donations under fire
12 Sep 00 | Election news
Democrats smell campaign rat
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