How did political parties use advertising in the 2015 general election campaign?

Below is an article that I wrote for Market Leader; the strategic marketing journal for business leaders.  I’m reproducing the unedited version with permission of Market Leader.  To subscribe to their publication visit © Copyright Warc and The Marketing Society.

Marketing commentators who scorn political advertising don’t understand how it really works, writes Benedict Pringle.

The marketing industry love to pour scorn on political advertising and this general election has been no different.  There have been countless articles in the trade press doing down the promotional efforts of the political parties, all featuring a version of the headline “political advertising isn’t working”.

The argument begins “you hardly see any billboards anywhere anymore”.  This is shortly followed by “and when you do they’re not half as good as they used to be”.  And then it concludes “but anyway, there’s so much political coverage everywhere – the adverts don’t make a blind bit of difference.”

Perhaps it’s our way of rebelling against our political masters: a retort for the endless regulatory missiles aimed at our sector.  Such behaviour is understandable.  However the arguments proffered betray a lack of understanding about why and how political parties use advertising.

Political advertising does not begin and end with the billboard – though they are great fun – and the primary objective is very often not ‘influence undecided voters in target seats’.  There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it is not “not working” and political advertising in fact made a crucial difference in the result of the 2015 UK general election.

Political advertising was employed in the general election in five ways: (1) As PR stunts to steer the media narrative around the election; (2) As a tool to motivate activists; (3) A device to demotivate opposition supporters; (4) A way to interfere with the competitors’ strategies; (5) A mechanism for influencing undecided voters.

Political advertising that controlled the media narrative

The media narrative around an election – the ‘air war’ – is widely regarded to be the most significant factor in the result of the election as it colours the information that the electorate use to decide which way to vote.

You win the air war by bombarding newsrooms with ideas for stories, films and photos.  When journalists are scratching their heads deciding what to put on the evening news, or are lacking ideas for tomorrow morning’s headlines, a new advertisement from one of the parties is a gift.

Political parties therefore use political advertisements to try and build their election narrative through the media.

The Conservative Party very successfully used political advertisements to influence the media, particularly around the prospect of  a Labour / SNP Coalition; something that wasn’t a significant topic of media discussion until the Conservatives began their advertising on the subject.  Indeed M&C Saatchi ran an advertisement in Campaign Magazine the week after polling day which demonstrated the impact on news headlines of their ‘Miliband in Salmond’s pocket’ poster.

M&C Saatchi proof pocket miliband salmond media coverage

Political advertising as a tool to motivate activists

Have you ever been canvassing for a party or cause?  I have.  I can tell you it is, by and large, a pretty thankless task.  Knocking on strangers’ doors and trying to talk to strike a reasonable, polite and hopefully persuasive conversation about politics is fairly tiresome.

However political parties, particularly those with less cash to spend, are very reliant on activists to deliver their message to constituents and encourage people to head to the polls.

So political parties use email, social media and their websites to distribute political advertising to their supporter base to try and inspire them to volunteer their time and energy.  The Liberal Democrats, through tweeting images like the one below, weren’t hoping to win votes directly, they were hoping to get their activists to turn up to the next canvassing session.

Lib Dems stability decency unity

Political advertising as a device to demotivate opposition supporters

Political parties also try and encourage the supporters of their opponents to stay at home rather than go out campaign.  One way of doing that is to disseminate advertising that depresses the life out of would-be activists.

The Conservatives were certainly employing this tactic when they began their attacks on a possible SNP / Labour coalition.  The Conservatives were very aware that for most of 2014 Scottish Labour supporters spent every free moment out campaigning against those trying to break up the United Kingdom.  The Tories anticipated that Labour activists in Scotland would deeply be unimpressed that their enemies in the referendum campaign were going to be offered a seat around the Cabinet table by their own side.

When the Conservatives were banging the drum about a possible pact Scottish Labour activist stocks depleted at the same time as the number of SNP supporters – buoyed by the possible prospect of government – increased dramatically.

Salmond Miliband Call The Tune poster

Political advertising as a way to interfere with the competitor’s strategies

Every day of the campaign that you can divert your opponents away from their scheduled ‘grid’ is a good day and advertising is a useful tool to knock your opposition off track.

That was certainly the Labour Party’s ambition with their VAT related attack.  The Conservatives had made no mention of any intention to raise that tax, but the Labour Party wanted to prevent the Tories from pursuing their SNP-related agenda and so released this poster at a press conference.


Political advertising as a mechanism for influencing undecided voters

The way in which most political advertising is judged is the direct impact that it has on the people who decide elections: floating voters in marginal seats.

The main channel through which political advertising is delivered to this audience is via direct mail.  Direct mail rarely gets a mention in coverage of political campaigns, but it is the area in which the parties spend the most money.  During the 2010 election, for example, the Conservatives spent £5.83million – over a third of their whole campaign budget – on direct mail.

This inverse relationship between the actual importance of an election campaign technique and the amount of media coverage devoted to it is known as ‘Cowley’s Law of Campaigning’ (named after political scientist Philip Cowley who first observed the phenomenon).

The Conservatives very cleverly varied the content of the direct mail depending on the seat they were targeting.  For example, in villages around West Yorkshire the party led with a “Save the Greenbelt” message but in areas where UKIP was strong they focused on the choice between Miliband and Cameron to try and dissuade protests votes.

The Conservatives also used YouTube pre-roll and Facebook advertising to deliver video content designed to appeal to carefully chosen demographics in the key marginal seats; this was a ‘first’ for a UK general election and is a tactic that will no doubt grow in volume and sophistication in the future.

But it wasn’t just direct mail and digital video that parties used, there was also some good old fashioned posters.

The Conservatives spent significant sums of money on outdoor media in the 80 marginal seats that they targeted in their “40:40” strategy which involved attacking 40 seats (particularly those held by the Lib Dems) while defending a further 40 marginals, mostly against Labour.


The majority of these posters were on the subject of a possible SNP / Labour Coalition and it seems they had the desired effect; the Labour Party’s internal pollster said in his post-election analysis that the posters proved very successful at “catalyzing pre-existing doubts about Labour”.

And there’s evidence to suggest that it was the Conservatives campaign tactics and spending muscle in the marginal seats that made the difference in the result; Labour’s share of the vote in England went up by 3.6 % overall but was down by 0.7% in the most important battleground seats where the Conservatives concentrated their communications activity.  Political advertising is alive and working well.

Who is Ivan Massow?

Ivan Massow is hoping to become the Conservative Party’s candidate for London Mayor.

His campaign are running paid-for ads on social media sites that push users to YouTube where they can watch an animated campaign video in the style of artist Julian Opie, the bloke who did that Blur album cover (Massow is an art collector so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to wonder if the video is by Opie himself).

In the film Massow is positioned as a political outsider.  The video, narrated by Massow, informs viewers that the candidate is gay, a former alcoholic and dyslexic.  This candid approach feels very unexpected and the viewer immediately feels a warmth to him.  Massow goes on to attest to being a candidate who understands normal peoples’ lives, takes the tube, hates traffic and gets fed up with the governing elite.

His position is clearly articulated, it’s differentiating and the production values are good.  No mention of the political party which he is hoping to represent, however.

The viewer, having been intrigued by the refreshing tone of the video and the lack of political affiliation, when invited to click through at the end of the video, will likely go and have a look at his website.  On the homepage, there is no mention of his political party.

The viewer, probably now a little suspicious searches online for something like “who is Ivan Massow” at which point they are met with a raft of articles by the mainstream media that confirm he is indeed a Conservative and which call into significant question a huge number of the things that Ivan has just told them in his film.  For example:

He’s a millionaire businessman – does he really “understand the issues that normal people face”?

He lives in a town house in Oxford Circus – is he honestly “someone who takes the tube”?

He used to share a home with Michael Gove and Nick Boles, both prominent Ministers in the Conservative government – can he possibly “hate politics as normal”?

The viewer is left feeling like they’ve been led on a merry dance and that Massow is guilty of the exact sort of inauthentic bullshit that he claims to be standing against.

I’m sure Massow is very different to what most people perceive as a ‘typical Tory’ and in that sense he is entirely justified in positioning himself as an outsider.  But his team trying to hide from people the fact that he is standing for the Conservatives is just ridiculous and ultimately self-defeating as the intrigue will lead voters to finding out about other things they’re trying to keep quiet.

Pocket Rocket: the poster that transformed the media narrative around general election 2015

M&C Saatchi proof pocket miliband salmond media coverage

M&C Saatchi, the creative agency behind the Conservative Party’s “Miliband in Salmond’s Pocket” poster, today ran a house advertisement in the advertising trade magazine Campaign.

Good. On. Them.

I have argued – and will continue to argue – that not only is it the most memorable political poster for years, it must also rank as one of the most effective posters of all time.  The poster – and subsequent coverage relating to its contents – significantly altered the minds of millions of voters and changed the course of British election history.  Not many posters – of any genre – can claim to impacting our society in such a massive and lasting way.

The advert shows how the British media’s coverage of a possible SNP / Labour Coalition deal increased dramatically the day the ‘pocket’ poster was released and continued to grow.

The analysis of newspaper headlines in this advert replicates almost exactly the analysis of google search data that I carried out earlier this week.

As I said when it was launched, this poster will without doubt be the most iconic image of general election 2015 (followed closely by Miiband hubristically revealing #EdStone).  It is the most memorable poster (of any genre) for years.  And given the fact that the poster was the catalyst for popular debate around the possibility of a Labour / SNP Coalition – an issue that is widely accepted to be a significant factor in the Conservatives victory – it must go down as one of the most effective posters (of any genre) of all time.

How the Conservative Party built an election narrative around the SNP using political advertising

How the Conservative Party used advertising to build an election narrative around the SNP

What is becoming clear in the post-election analysis of the results is that the Conservative Party very successfully created a climate of fear in English marginal seats about the prospect of a Labour / SNP coalition.

Yesterday Labour’s official pollster wrote in an article for the New Statesman that their “focus groups showed the SNP attacks landing” and the SNP-related campaign catalysed  “pre-existing doubts about Labour”.

I decided to look for further evidence that the SNP were a significant factor in how people voted and so turned to Google Trends; a free tool that shows how often a particular search-term is entered relative to the total search-volume.

As you can see in the chart above, the volumes of traffic relating to the SNP were very significant and grew dramatically the closer we got to the election.

This is a brilliant example of how political advertising can be used to drive an election narrative.

As evidenced above, before the ‘Miliband in Salmond’s pocket’ poster launch, the possibility of a Labour / SNP coalition was a very minor aspect of media coverage (and subsequently search traffic) on the election.

However, after the launch of the provocative poster – and by sustaining it as an issue by releasing a new poster roughly every fortnight – the Conservative Party successfully built it into an issue that ended up being a deciding factor in the election.

General Election 2015: review of the political posters

The 2015 general election race has been electric.  As neither of the main parties has managed to capture the majority of the public’s imagination, both Labour and the Conservatives have been unrelenting in their battle to take the lead.  And as there is a high likelihood that of one of the less significant parties  will end up winning a place in government, the Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP, SNP and Plaid Cymru have all had something to play for right up until the close of polls.

The political parties have used political advertising in all its forms to try and steer the media’s election narrative, fire-up their own supporters, interfere with the oppositions’ strategies and influence undecided voters.

The digital campaigns – largely email-led – have increased in sophistication and effectivess.  And for the first time we have seen political parties, particularly the Conservatives, spending decent sums of money on promoting Facebook videos and buying YouTube pre-roll adverising.

However the most romantic and iconic form  of political advertising in Britain remains the poster.

Regardless of whether the posters are plastered across marginal consitutiences – as the Conservatives have done this time around – or whether they’re deployed as giant, full colour press-releases at campaign events, the media and the public can’t help but discuss them.

There’s no space for bluff and bluster in a poster.  The requirement for parties to distill and refine their message to fit in a 48-sheet means that a quick survey of any elections’ posters will tell you everything you need to know about the battle that has taken place.

Let’s see what they had to say this time around.

The SNP Boogeyman

Miliband in Salmond Pocket Conservative Party poster

In every election there are one or two truly iconic images that live long in our political memories.  I strongly suspect this poster, which shows the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband sitting in the top pocket of former SNP leader Alex Salmond, will be the one we’re talking about for years to come.

What makes the poster so impressive is that they have managed to bring to life the possibility that a vote for Labour could help usher the SNP into Downing St without even using a headline.

In one foul swoop it damned Miliband’s leadership credentials, excited the SNP activist base in Scotland and distracted Labour from their NHS-led campaign and forced them onto the back foot.

The Battle for the NHS

Labour poster - recruit more nurses

Labour’s advertising in 2015 centred squarely on the NHS; it was the 2nd most salient issue amongst the public (after immigration) and as Labour were seen as the most credible party to defend it the campaign chose itself.

This execution was the best of a bad bunch.

The image of thousands of nurse-style fob watches is fairly eye-catching and the sub-header announcing that applications for these new jobs will open the day after polling day is a clever piece of copywriting.

The strapline “It’s time to care. It’s time for a Labour government” also neatly encapsulates their wider pitch to the electorate.

Spot the difference

Green Party spot the difference end of page 3 sun newspaper

In late January 2015 The Sun Newspaper, in a slightly bizarre PR stunt, encouraged the nation to believe that they had decided to bring an end to featuring topless glamour models on its Page 3 (something which later turned out not to be the case).

The Green Party capitalised on the moment to highlight the fact that their party had been campaigning to end the sexist behaviour of the publisher for time by running this ‘spot the difference’ execution.

The advert shows the leaders of Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP all sycophantically lining up to take part in The Sun Newspapers launch of their coverage of the 2014 World Cup; it implies the leaders were de-facto endorsing the chauvinistic practice.

This is placed in stark contrast to Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, who is pictured wearing a t-shirt campaigning against the Sun’s daily publication of partially naked girls.

This activity, placing the Green Party as the anti-Westminster option and a champion of women, helped to stimulate a surge of new membership recruits and jump in the polls.

Backing our Boys


UKIP’s audience are largely blue-collar, elderly, white and male voters.  UKIP have salience amongst groups who feel forgotten by modern Britain and worry about the nation’s reduced global status; this emotive poster outlining UKIP’s policy of improved provision for the military resonated strongly with such people.

The visual of a soldier begging for money using a helmet is very provocative and the quietly raging tone of the headline encapsulates the sentiment that UKIP’s disgruntled supporters feel towards the mainstream parties.

Stuck in the middle without a clue

Lib Dem Look left look right

The Liberal Democrats, having spent the last 5 years as the junior partner in a coalition with the Conservative Party, were in the deeply unenviable position of not being able to attack the record of the government or credibly lay claim to any of its successes.

Their only strategic option was to position themselves as a moderating force on both Labour and the Conservatives.  It’s a creatively baron proposition and the result has been some fairly dire advertising.

The Lib Dems have run a series of posters using the line: ‘look left, look right, then cross’; the above advert features Ed Balls and George Osborne, two giant and unpopular characters from Labour and the Conservatives respectively.

The “Ajockalypse”

SNP Let's lock the tories out of number 10

The “Ajockalypse” refers to the possible phenomenon of the SNP winning every single Westminster parliamentary seat in Scotland and this poster brilliantly summarises the pitch the SNP have been giving which makes it a very likely scenario.

Many people in Scotland felt badly affronted by the Conservative Party’s actions in the immediate aftermath of the independence referendum the previous year and the SNP have encouraged them to see the Westminster General Election as a chance to exact some revenge.  The transformation of the ‘0’ in No. 10 Downing St’s door into a lock is neat shortcut for that message.

Against All Austerity

Plaid Cymru will end austerity poster

Plaid Cymru have had the least impact of the 7 main political parties.  Their message didn’t permeate outside of Wales as the likelihood of the Welsh nationals influencing the final outcome was minimal.

Plaid Cymru used this illustrated style in the majority of its communications and whilst perfectly aesthetic, it’s not particularly arresting.  The edgy, blocky font and the handmade nature of the graphics gives the poster a nice sense of protest, but it’s not the sort of thing that’s going to make waves in Westminster.

Paddy Power: you’re getting sacked in the morning

Paddy Power Poster General Election You're Getting Sacked in the morning

Paddy Power reckon a total 75 per cent MPs will lose their seats tomorrow.  To mark the occasion, in typically Paddy Power style, they’ve driven a poster lorry with the slogan ‘You’re getting sacked in the morning’ (a common chant in UK football grounds) emblazoned across it through the streets of Westminster.

A very good press stunt which will nudge politicos towards placing their election bets with the bookmaker this evening.

You can find their general election betting markets here:

Brands and election-themed gimmicks

Andrew Neil Benedict Pringle Daily Politics

Andrew Neil election gimmicks

Election themed cupcakes

Earlier today the BBC Daily Politics kindly invited me on to their show to discuss election-themed products and promotions.

You can watch here from 55.41, but the gist of what I said is as follows:

There’s 2 reasons why brands use election gimmicks.

The first is a tactic called Newsjacking and the second is a strategy around increasing relevance.

‘Newsjacking’ is about anticipating stories that journalists will already by writing and creating great content for them to use.

The Daily Politics programme I was on was a classic example.

The marketing departments and PR agencies of these companies knew media outlets would be running stories on the mad things brands are doing around election time and decided to try and earn their brand or product some coverage.

We were newsjacked.

The second reason brands do it is because there’s lots of research to suggest that ‘relevance’ is an important driver in people’s decision making.

It’s a slightly intangible thing and people don’t agree as to how it works exactly, but almost everyone agrees that it does work.

If your brand or product can seem ‘relevant’ to whatever else is going on in the consumer’s life, people seem to attach more value to you.

This is the reason why brands gather around big marquee moments in the year.  Whether it’s the World Cup, going Back to School, Christmas or Valentine’s Day.  The more relevant your brand can seem to an occasion the more likely it is people are going to choose you over the competition.

It gets consumers thinking “this product is for people like me”.

We see this a lot in politics.  A key driver in how people vote is how ‘relevant’ they think the party or candidate is to them.  It’s the reason why politicians put aside their expensive suits when they’re knocking on doors in their constituencies and instead don some dodgy chinos and Next Directory sweater.