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Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Battle of the image
William Hague with Thatcher hair in Labour's latest campaign poster
As Labour unveils its latest campaign poster mocking the Conservative leader William Hague, it seems the battle of the billboards is getting personal.

Have you seen the one with William Hague's balding pate crowned with Lady Thatcher's helmet hair?

No, it's not an episode of Friends, it's Labour's latest campaign poster, which suggests a Tory win will bring back the Thatcher years in spirit.

Conservative poster in 1997 campaign
Evil eyes: Withdrawn after 130 complaints
It does rather take the wind out of Prime Minister Tony Blair's promise to concentrate on "issues, not personality".

But if an effective poster is judged by column inches and airtime rather than billboard space, Labour's ad agency has come up with a humdinger.

Personality-driven posters tread a fine line between success and failure, says Graham Singleton, branding expert at Value Engineers and a 13-year veteran of the advertising business.

Public mood

"Those that work tap into what people already feel, which may be the case with this Hague poster.

"Lady Thatcher is seen, by some, as still pulling the party strings, and Hague is regarded as her chosen one - the little 16-year-old taken under her wing all those years ago. And it also plays on Hague's lack of hair."

Labour poster casting Hague and Portillo as the undead
Labour tries to appeal to voters' sense of humour
But making it personal can backfire, as with the infamous 1997 Conservative advert showing Labour's Tony Blair with demonic eyes.

That was too heavy handed for the electorate, since most people didn't regard Mr Blair as an evil threat, says Mr Singleton.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received 130 complaints about the "evil eyes" ad, and the Tories eventually withdrew it.

Advertising rules

The ASA has since relaxed the rules on political advertising.

"In advertising toothpaste, for instance, if you make a claim, you have to prove it. But with political advertising, the ASA has stepped back and said that claims are political opinion, and that people recognise them as such."

John Major and Kenneth Clarke likened to Laurel and Hardy
Not memorable? Posters only work if they tap into a common view
Also eased is the rule on using a politician's image without their consent - because they are in the public domain. But ads still cannot make it appear as if a political rival is endorsing another party.

Mr Singleton cautions against extending a bright advertising idea too far.

Whereas Labour's billboards which cast Mr Hague and Michael Portillo as the baddies in mock horror films such as Economic Disaster II raised a giggle, using the same idea in a party political broadcast fell flat, he says.

OTT is out

"Posters are expected to go over the top. But people want a more considered view, more facts and figures, in an election broadcast."

Although personalities have long been used in advertising, it's a relatively new phenomenon in political campaigning and by no means a surefire vote winner.

Tory election poster from 1979
... but the poster seemed to work
Although Margaret Thatcher was depicted as the Tin Man in 1987, and Norman Lamont as "VATman" in 1992, neither image proved to be as potent as the politician-free "Labour Isn't Working" poster, with which helped the Tories begin their 18-year reign in 1979.

"In a very boring election campaign, the new Hague poster has really livened things up. I was in a room with lots of people when it came on TV last night, and everybody laughed. Yet it also carries a very serious message."

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