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Friday, 16 March, 2001, 12:19 GMT
'Epoch-making' poster was clever fake
Saatchi poster
Birth of an era
The poster reckoned to have changed political advertising was an artful fake - and almost failed to make it to the billboards. The man responsible for it tells BBC News Online's Chris Horrie the story.

It was an unusual and unlikely way to make political history.

There was no feeling that we were making history. In a way it was a pretty routine job. A question of we've got to whistle something up quickly.

Poster's designer Martyn Walsh
In the summer of 1978, members of Hendon Young Conservatives answered an emergency call to turn up at a municipal park near the Welsh Harp reservoir in suburban north London.

Volunteers were told help was needed for a top secret aspect of the Tory plan to win the general election which, everyone thought, would take place in the autumn of that year.


Little more was said, beyond the fact that the volunteers would be needed for a few minutes, that they should bring their parents along and that they would be photographed standing in a line.

The plan was to photograph a "queue" of about 100 people stretching off into the distance. The picture would then be used in graphic form to suggest unemployment would get worse if voters stuck with Jim Callaghan's ailing Labour government.

Sceptical: Charles Saatchi

Immediately there was a problem. Instead of the 100 volunteers promised to the ad's designer, Martyn Walsh of Saatchi and Saatchi, fewer than 20 turned up - far too few to create the desired effect.

"It was a problem," Walsh remembers. "At one point I though briefly about calling it all off. But the deadline was very tight and it was a case of 'it's now or never - we've got to do it today'."

Rope trick

Walsh then hit upon the idea of photographing the same group of people over and over and then striping the photos together back in his studio.

A long rope was used to mark out the shape of the queue and the volunteers, over a period of hours, had to move along it in a tight group.

"Because of budget we could not use a lot of extras," Walsh remembers.

"And we could not use the real unemployed. They might have objected to appearing in Tory publicity. We wanted people who would not object - which is why we used the Young Tories. But we still made them sign a form to say they wouldn't sue us if they didn't like the result."

Bottom of the pile

The end result, after the pictures had been superimposed on each other, gave the impression of far more than one hundred people standing in a queue.

At the time, Walsh says, "there was no feeling that we were making history. In a way it was a pretty routine job - more a question of 'the election's coming, we've got to whistle something up quickly'."

Walsh claims that, even after it was completed, the ad was relegated to a minor part in the election campaign and, at one point, might have been buried or even given the chop.

Charles Saatchi was sceptical about the ad, Martyn claims.

"It was right at the bottom of the heap. A similar poster dramatising queues and waiting lists in the Health Service - 'Britain isn't getting better' was seen as more important - especially by the politicians," Walsh says, adding: "Some things never change".

But the ad, when it was released, made an enormous impact largely, Walsh believes, because Labour's Denis Healey denounced it in Parliament.

'Like soap powder'

News that people in the advert were "actors" and not genuinely unemployed had leaked and Healed said the Conservatives were dishonest, reaching a new low by "selling politics like soap-powder".

But Labour politicians were not hawk-eyed enough to spot that the basic "deceit" was compounded by using the same few people over and over. Walsh had ensured that the volunteers' faces were out of focus and could not be recognised.

Since then the tactic of putting up a deliberately controversial poster on a few bill-boards - and then reaping millions of pounds of free publicity as TV and newspapers report the fuss has become a standard and cost-effective tactic for advertisers.

Lord Thorneycroft - big claims for poster.

When the election was delayed until the spring of 1979 the Saatchis brought out a second version of the poster with the legend "Labour still isn't working".

After the election Lord Thorneycroft, Tory party treasurer at the time, claimed that the poster had "won the election for the Conservatives".

When, in the 1980s, unemployment began to soar, the poster stayed in the public spotlight - this time as a prime example of both political hypocrisy and, just as importantly, the ability of advertising to sell almost anything.

In 1999 "Labour Isn't Working" was voted poster of the century by a jury of ad people assembled by the advertising industry magazine Campaign.

"It became the benchmark for political advertising," Walsh says. "It has influenced all political advertising since and effectiveness is measured against it."

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15 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Parties fail to agree adverts code
19 Jan 01 | UK
Can adverts win elections?
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