How a great ad can lose you the election

Comedian Rory Bremner introduces a panel of political heavyweights today for a discussion on what we should expect from this year’s election campaign. So how far is advertising really likely to affect the way we choose to vote?

Listen,’ I said, staring at the copy in front of me. ‘The one thing I don’t want is to win a prize for the advertising and lose in a landslide.’

In the 1997 election, part of my job was to help approve the ad campaign on posters and in newspapers. We spent millions of pounds on it. We won a prize for the advertising and lost in a landslide.

The copy I was looking at when I expressed my concern was creatively brilliant. A picture of Tony Blair with a pair of red eyes staring out from behind the place where Mr Blair’s ordinary eyes would normally have been. The image became famous. So did the slogan – ‘New Labour, New Danger’.

Yet it undoubtedly did us more harm than good. So what was wrong with it? One possibility is that there was nothing wrong with it, but that good ads don’t make any difference in politics. I don’t agree. Without the ability to use television, of course there are limits to the impact it can make. But a well-designed message can still help a good deal.

What about ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ in 1979? Or Lyndon B Johnson’s devastating nuclear trigger campaign against Barry Goldwater in 1964? Another thought is that negative campaigning doesn’t work. Voters don’t like it. That sounds correct. After all, you frequently hear the voters say that they wish their politicians weren’t always knocking each other.

Again, I don’t agree. People are loss averse. They are more keenly aware of losses that are threatened than of gains they might make. They also are more likely to believe they are going to lose something as a result of political action than that they are going to gain. So, yes, a hard-hitting negative campaign does come at a price. People are a bit annoyed by the negativity. But this price is often worth paying, since the negative message can work.

This is more true in America, where there is a pure two-party system (so if you persuade someone not to vote Democrat, there is only the Republican left). And particularly in Australia, where voting is compulsory (so that you can’t respond to the negativity simply by staying at home). But it is true enough here to make it worth doing.

Yet there is a rider to this and it is critical to understanding why our New Labour, New Danger campaign didn’t work.

In order to activate people’s loss aversion, they have to be persuaded there is something that they have that is worth losing. More than that, they have to be persuaded that they are in real danger of losing it.

The New Labour, New Danger campaign didn’t pass either of these tests.

Perhaps the first one was impossible to pass. People did say that the economy was strong, but they did not believe that this had been the result of government action. This meant they did not believe they stood to lose it if there was a change of government.

The second test should have been easier. Yet Tony Blair did what he could to deny the Conservatives the ability to make a charge of danger stick. As a result, we were left floundering when trying to explain what the new danger of New Labour was.

One of the most important functions of political campaigns is that they force the parties to define their message tightly. This is the reason that you can often tell the story of elections through the advertising. If parties can’t agree their core message or if it doesn’t work, you will see it first in the ad campaign.

The entire story, for instance, of the alternative vote referendum campaign can be told by the fact that the Yes campaign chose an advertising idea – that AV would clean up politics – that research showed from the beginning was simply never going to work.

And the story of the 2015 campaign? It may be that it will turn on whether the Tory campaign – a recovering economy, don’t let Labour wreck it – has put its fingers on people’s fears, or reveals, as Labour argues, that voters don’t feel the economy is recovering for them.

Hear more at today’s ‘Cutting Through The Spin – Bremner, Blunkett, Fox And Kennedy Talk’ panel session.