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Wednesday, 21 June, 2000, 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK
Selling politics to the people

A Tory advert from the 1997 campaign. But did it help the party?
By BBC Political Correspondent Tim Franks

They were two of the most potent advertising images of recent times.

She was on billboards across the country, overjoyed and in her underwear. He was also on billboards across the country, smouldering and half in shadow.

She was Eva Herzigova declaring "Hello Boys", selling Wonderbras. He was Tony Blair, "looking presidential and sexy" according to one of his key advisers, and selling himself before the last election.

But how far do the two worlds of advertising and politics overlap?

Lord Bell: Negative advertising works
In one sense they are very different. The rules of the British Advertising Authority state that "advertisers should not unfairly attack or discredit other businesses or their products".

That, of course, is precisely what political advertising does.

Knocking copy

Lord Bell, chairman of Britain's largest puiblic relations firm Bell Pottinger, has been involved in Conservative advertising campaigns for the last 25 years.

He says that whatever Labour's claims in the run-up to the last election that it wanted to leave negative campaigning behind, the party couldn't escape the truth.

"The only evidence is that negative advertising works", he says. "It's difficult to think of 'Britain deserves Better'" - one of Labour's key slogans on billboards in 1997 - "as anything other than knocking copy."

But in another way, selling politics is like selling soap powder. You need to be prepared to grab attention in whatever way you can and to bang on ad nauseam about your product.

Now Labour and the Tories have appointed two ad agencies with reputations for being creative and a little bit naughty.

Publicity through controversy

Alex Salmond targeted as a teletubbie
Labour has chosen TBWA, the agency responsible for those iconic Wonderbra ads; the Tories have gone for Yellow M, a much smaller outfit, which is only just now setting up an office in London.

Yellow M first came to prominence two years ago during the Scottish Parliament elections for the Scottish Parliament.

The agency's job was to sell a Conservative Party that had fallen to new depths at the general election the year before.

The firm gained a reputation with a series of high-profile stunts. At a press conference they showed a poster of the leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, as "Laa-Laa" -- one of the characters from the children's show "Teletubbies".

Underneath was the slogan: "He's living in Scot-laa-laa-land".

Maybe unwittingly, Yellow M had failed to ask permission to use the Teletubbies image and so had to withdraw the advert within hours. But the publicity had been gained and the damage to the SNP leader wrought.

At the moment, though, neither Yellow M nor TBWA want to discuss their work in progress with the Tories and Labour. Party insiders talk of "creative tensions". More bluntly, they say that some of the ideas which the ad men and women are coming up with are only making them cringe.

Fear factor

So what will work at the next election?

Is selling politics like shifting beans?
Chris Powell is the chairman of BMP, one of the country's biggest ad agencies, which for years handled the Labour contract.

He says one of the biggest problems TBWA most tackle is that the government will not be facing a credible opposition at the next election.

"One problem Labour's going to have quite clearly at the next election is how do you frighten people about a Conservative opposition that doesn't look at all likely to win that next election," he says. "There lies a problem."

Tim Bell believes there may be a return to the much-discredited theme of the Tory campaign in 1997, which warned "New Labour, New Danger".

He says the problem with that slogan was that it was too prescient; only now, he says, do people understand what the dangers of this government are: "We said that Tony Blair was all things to all people, which is exactly what he is. We ran a campaign that, I suspect, if you ran it now would be very effective."

In truth, there is little evidence that advertising campaigns affect the outcomes of elections, except perhaps when the results are very close. As it is, voters are constantly bombarded with images and information.

But between now and the next election sweat will be spilled and millions will be spent by the political parties in an effort to persuade voters that only they taste sweeter, drive smoother and wash whiter.

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