Page last updated at 15:12 GMT, Thursday, 8 April 2010 16:12 UK

Spoof wars: Election ad battle's getting surreal

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Barely 48 hours in and this is already shaping up to be the most surreal election campaign ever.

The Miliband brothers unveil Labour's latest ad
Labour thought they were on to a winner with their latest ad

When the man bidding to be the next prime minister can round off a campaign rally by shouting "fire up that Quattro" you know are you entering strange new waters.

But David Cameron knew exactly what he was doing on Tuesday night.

He was not getting ready for a quick getaway in an eighties muscle car (as anyone familiar with TV character Gene Hunt might have assumed).

He was doing what everybody at this election is doing - he was spoofing. Or to be strictly accurate he was spoofing a spoof.

He was taking a Labour election poster unveiled a few days earlier, which portrayed him as hard- drinking, chain-smoking TV detective Gene Hunt, leaning on the bonnet of an Audi Quattro, and throwing it right back in Labour's face.

Conservative Home ad
Tory bloggers quickly seized on the retro theme

It turns out that far from being a dire warning of a return to a dark decade of dole queues and soaring interest rates, the image of Gene Hunt, drenched as it is in the manly whiff of Blue Stratos and political incorrectness, was just what the Tory leader needed to take a little of the shine off his ultra-smooth Notting Hill image.

All of a sudden, Mr Cameron had a new catchphrase.

The debacle may have left some ad industry veterans muttering into their Martinis that this is what you get when you allow competition winners to do your advertising (the Labour poster was created by 24-year-old Jacob Quagliozzi a Labour supporter from St Albans, who entered a contest on the party's website).

But this election has been all about amateur advertising - and some of it has been very effective.

Just look at what online spoofers did with the Conservatives' professionally-produced "We can't go on like this" billboard at the turn of the year.

Boomerang effect

The beauty of amateur ads is that they can be more playful, and a lot less responsible, than those sanctioned and approved by the party machines.

Spoof Tory posters
But Labour supporters had just much fun with this earlier Tory poster

The Guardian's April Fool joke - a Labour election poster featuring a menacing picture of Gordon Brown with the strapline "Step outside posh boy. Vote Labour. Or Else." being a case in point. It was probably a tad too silly to be used as an official

election poster but within hours of it appearing, John Prescott was calling for it to be made into a T-shirt (the newspaper duly obliged).

No wonder the Conservatives seized on Labour's Gene Hunt poster with such glee.

Tory bloggers immediately piled in with images of Gordon Brown as a dodgy 1970s-style sleazeball, leaning on the bonnet of an Austin Maxi - a potent symbol of Labour's failed industrial policies of the past.

Spoof Lib Dem ad
And now the Lib Dems are getting in on the act

The Lib Dems have also got in on the spoofing act, with the launch of an election site for the fictional Labservative Party, headed by Gorvid Camerown.

It is unlikely anyone will mistake this for a real party, but it does get full marks for a truly child-frightening YouTube clip which sees Tory and Labour leaders of the past morph into each other.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s advertising was the Conservative Party's not-so-secret weapon. Labour were generally reckoned to be hopeless at it - a result in part of their quaint mistrust of slick, capitalist ad men.

The Conservatives' decision to bring the Saatchi brothers' agency back into the fold for this election provoked much speculation that Mr Cameron was about to go negative in a big way.

Their initial effort - a picture of a grinning Gordon Brown, with the taglines like "I let 80,000 criminals out early vote for me" - seems fairly spoof-proof.

But they will no doubt be treading very carefully to avoid the boomerang effect.

Imagine what mischievous Photoshop bandits could have done with some of the great Tory attack ads of the past, such as the infamous "demon eyes" poster from 1997 or 1979's "Labour isn't working"?

It is enough to give Soho's finest sleepless nights.



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