In 1979, a large, rather stark, poster appeared on billboards across the UK. The poster displayed a long queue of people shuffling under an awning that read “unemployment office”. At the top of the poster, in heavy black letters punctuated by a peremptory full stop, were the words “Labour isn’t working.” On the bottom margin, in a discreet, almost confessionary aside (the letters were the smallest on the poster) was the response: “Britain’s better off with the Conservatives”.
The poster was designed by a fresh and brilliant start-up named Saatchi & Saatchi. It was the first time in British history that a political party had used advertising to help win an election. The poster caused a stir. Denis Healey, a senior figure in the Labour government of the 1970s, derided the Conservatives for selling “politics like soap powder”. But the poster helped sway the British electorate in favour of Margaret Thatcher. It made Saatchi & Saatchi world famous, brought fame and fortune to its family founders, Maurice and Charles and opened a new front for campaign war chiefs. If Saatchi’s remains in the vanguard of communications globally, then those early days were crucial to its success.
“In fact, we learned a lot from selling soap powder”, says Richard Huntington, Strategy Director at Saatchi & Saatchi.
Bringing such an agency on board for the 1979 election campaign may have been a first in British electoral politics, but not in public policy. “The UK has a rich heritage of investing significantly in government communications”, Mr Huntington points out, adding that “in an apolitical sense, this heritage has pretty much existed since the Second World War: the Ministry of Information and Propaganda during the war years for instance. But there was a ramping-up in the 1980s. By the time we reached the millennium the government was one the biggest ad buyers in the UK”.
Political advertising is commonplace nowadays in most OECD countries. Laws about advertising can be quite strict, such as in France, where each candidate is allotted 18 television spots–ten lasting 90 seconds and eight lasting three minutes, 30 seconds–during which time they cannot denigrate other candidates or seek donations. The opposite is true in the United States, where advertising is often pugnacious and (as was clear in the television spots for the recent US presidential election) seems mostly intent on mocking the credibility of the opposing candidate rather than delivering a cogent political message.
Mr Huntington is a “planner by trade”. He came to Saatchi & Saatchi after a stint as planning director at United London. He is genially outspoken, iconoclastic and is a zealous and persuasive apologist for advertising in the service of the public good. On his website he describes himself as having “made rodeo sexy, produced food porn, helped men confront their fear of the telephone, and made Sky more appealing to digital refusniks”.
Saatchi has gone from strength to strength since those Thatcher years, when it was sought out by industries making the leap to privatisation, although it has since shifted away from policyrelated communications. “On the whole, the agency was a favourite with fullynationalised companies going private then. But we haven’t done a lot in that arena over the last ten years”.
In fact, in politics generally, though Saatchi added a communications edge to famous election campaigns, and not just for the Conservatives–the firm produced the “Not Flash, Just Gordon” poster for Labour in anticipation of elections in 2007 when Gordon Brown took over as prime minister from Tony Blair–its involvement has declined in recent years, says Mr Huntington.
He saw signs of change in the UK with the 2010 general election. One factor was voter apathy. “The decline in ideology has had a knock-on effect on people’s passion”.
For Saatchi & Saatchi, advertising has evolved as a concept. In fact, when Kevin Roberts took over as CEO in 1997 after a shareholder revolt compelled Maurice and Charles to quit the firm, he dropped the word “advertising” from the name and rebranded Saatchi & Saatchi as an “ideas company”. The company’s vision of itself changed.
“The emphasis today is more on changing behaviour”, says Mr Huntington. “Once, the goal was to change attitudes to a subject in order to change behaviour. Now it’s the reverse: to change behaviour in order to change attitudes”. Changes in society have prompted this shift. People, Mr Huntington says, distrust the government, in part because of its moral high-handedness in the past. Today, people are more likely to relate to brands and icons. “Brands are now important to behaviour change. So instead of “government” we say “NHS” because we don’t like the government and we like the NHS.”
Social media is largely responsible for further recent shifts in register. “Stop smoking” campaigns in the UK are more positive than they were, he says, referring to the anti-smoking ads of another advertising agency. “Such campaigns nurture a change in behaviour through the use of emails, social media, etc. Unlike smoking campaigns 30 years ago, they don’t turn up on their doorsteps and shout at them. People can have their hands held today, whether it is has to do with buying a Toyota or getting down to a healthy diet”.
Nor are blunt posters the preferred way forward anymore.
“Our tools today allow us to have a more genuine dialogue with people. These conversations take them through the necessary stages to get them to do something desirable. People are acutely aware of who is talking to them. They are more cynical and much more connected. Our role is to manage that conversation”.
©OECD Observer No 293 Q4 November 2012