Election 2015

Election 2015: The death of the campaign poster

Conservative election poster
Image caption The poster that started it all...

The parties keep launching election posters but when was the last time you actually saw one in the street? Are we witnessing the death of political advertising?

It all started with a group of young Conservatives in a car park in North London.

There had been memorable general election posters before 1978's "Labour isn't working" but it was that image of a queue of unemployed people - actually the teenage children of Hendon Tory Party members - with a simple, but clever, tagline, plastered across a giant billboard, that changed the whole game.

Suddenly, campaign ads, which had previously been modestly-proportioned fly-poster style efforts became 48 sheet billboards displayed in prominent High Street locations, where they could compete for eyeballs with major consumer brands.

Parties began to be marketed like baked beans or soap powder.

Or, more specifically, cigarettes.

Sinister conspiracy

Saatchi and Saatchi, which created Labour Isn't Working, also had tobacco company Gallaher's Silk Cut account. They quickly realised that political parties faced the same advertising challenge as the tobacco giant.

"They thought this is another brand that cannot be advertised legally on television," says Graham Stuart Deakin, a lecturer in design at Plymouth University.

"So why not advertise it in the same way, on large poster sites? Gallaher had large poster holdings, which they retained.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Party propaganda is more mobile these days
Image copyright PA
Image caption Or rendered in pixels rather than paper and paste

"The Conservative Party was not as anti-smoking as it is now, and so Gallaher, through Saatchis, gave them some of their sites."

Labour was initially incensed by the Saatchi poster - seeing it as a product of a sinister capitalist conspiracy - but by the mid-1980s they had their own roster of Labour-friendly ad men.

The advertising arms race between the two parties - smaller rivals could rarely afford to compete with the millions being spent by Labour and the Tories - spawned a golden age of political advertising.

The biggest names in British advertising had a new arena in which to do battle, with posters like the Tories' Demon Eyes, in 1997, or the Labour's 2001 poster depicting William Hague morphing into Margaret Thatcher grabbing headlines and attention.

But that era has now largely come to an end.

Poster splurge

The parties still hold poster launches for the benefit of the media but the images they unveil are rarely seen in public again.

The ads might be driven around for a couple of hours on the side of a van, but they are created specifically to be shared on social media - and to provide a backdrop for the launch of a policy or election message.

Labour launched its 2015 election campaign in Stratford, East London, in the time-honoured way, with a hard hitting new poster attacking the Conservatives.

But instead of being rolled out across the nation's billboards, it was displayed on a single digital advertising hoarding next to the A21 for a few hours before disappearing for good.

Just like in 2010, the party is not spending any money on billboard advertising, according to a Labour source.

Image caption This 1992 Conservative poster has been much imitated
Image copyright PA
Image caption Labour's hair-raising effort from 2001 heralds the birth of the photoshopped image in politics

Individual candidates can choose to put up Labour posters but they have to pay for them out of their own campaign funds.

The Conservatives have also scaled back the traditional 48 sheet billboard in favour of social media and digital advertising, although there are rumours the party has booked sites around the country for a poster splurge later on in the campaign.

Morale boost

Ditching outdoor posters makes perfect sense from a campaigning point of view - they are expensive and their effectiveness is notoriously hard to measure.

Labour Isn't Working only appeared on 20 billboards across the UK. It didn't win the 1979 election for Margaret Thatcher.

But, its fans would argue, that was not the point. The poster generated acres of newspaper coverage, gave a morale boost to the Tory troops, made the opposition furious and lived on in the party's mythology for decades to come.

And that, says Chris Burgess, the curator of "Election! Britain votes!" an exhibition of election memorabilia at the People's History Museum in Manchester, is the real value of posters and why they will never die out.

The interplay between words and images, which has "rich history" in British politics, can get a message across - and set the mood of a campaign - far more effectively than any speech.


Classic election posters

Image copyright Getty Images

"It's interesting that both Labour and the Conservatives were using similar language in their posters at this time. Both were claiming things would be 'better' with them. It really shows that there actually wasn't much difference between them at this time," says University of Nottingham politics lecturer Steve Fielding of this 1959 Labour poster.

See more classic election posters reviewed here by Professor Fielding.


Digital ads can do this just as well as posters, he argues, but they tend to be "cobbled together" on the hoof, in reaction to events and are often little more than crude attacks on rival parties.

In some ways, says Mr Burgess, this is a return to the pre-war era, when the parties produced "incredibly vitriolic" posters, often by the leading political cartoonists of the day. The 1950s and 1960s saw a reduction in negative campaigning, he adds.

The big advantage of rapid fire digital ads, says Josh Krichefski, chief operating officer of media-buying giant MediaCom, is that the parties are not stuck with one message for the entire campaign, however well-crafted and clever it might be.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Advertising vans make it easier for smaller parties to compete
Image copyright PA
Image caption Particularly if they get creative with the backdrop

"They don't just have to hang their hats on one thing and hope it works," says Mr Krichefski,.

"They can try different approaches and respond to what their opponents are saying, rather than having to rely on one line to last three months."

'Window signs'

But the disappearance of political ads from the streets means it is sometimes hard to tell if a general election is happening at all.

"You are not seeing as many window signs either, or garden signs. Throughout the 2000s that is something that the parties have pushed quite hard," says Chris Burgess.

Smaller parties, UKIP and the Greens in particular, have deployed billboard ads to good effect in by-elections and marginal seats but they are normally linked to local candidates.

Image copyright BBC News
Image caption Is Labour's pastiche of the famous Saatchi poster the ultimate tribute?

Labour recently unveiled its own take on Labour Isn't Working - depicting a queue of people outside a waiting room, with the legend: "The doctor can't see you now".

It was, naturally, a digital only production but the fact that it was spoofing a poster that is nearly 40 years old demonstrates the enduring power of that campaign.

None of the images released so far in this election are likely to last as long.

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