When I was at BMP, I worked on the Labour party advertising. Labour wouldn’t use a professional ad agency. It was seen as too capitalist.
So it was just a bunch of advertising volunteers lead by Chris Powell. It was pretty disorganised with everyone doing something different.
I was given a 10 minute Party Political Broadcast (PPB) to write. We were told to turn up at 10 Downing Street on Saturday morning for a meeting with ‘The Think Tank’.
So my art director, Mike Reynolds, and I went along in his VW camper van. There were no gates at the end of Downing Street in those days. So we just parked in front of number 10.
The policeman opened the door of the VW for us. When we got out all the foreign tourists started taking photos of us. A different policeman let us into number 10. Once you get inside it’s quite a surprise.
From outside it looks like a row of houses. But that’s a facade. Inside it’s one big office building. The assistant showed us into a room and asked us if we’d like a drink.
We said, “Cup of tea please.”
He said, “We can’t do hot drinks, I’m afraid.”
I said, “What can we have then?”
He said, “Whisky, Gin, Vodka, that sort of thing.”
This was Saturday morning.
My introduction to the world of politics. Anyway we took the brief and wrote the 10 minute PPB. By the time ‘The Think Tank’ had finished with it, it was as ineffectual as all PPBs. Just talking heads.
Our one featured Dennis Healy, and two others I don’t remember. So I just wrote all three names at the top of the script. Dennis Healy saw it and refused to do it.
His assistant said, “Mr Healy feels he’s being asked to audition, and he doesn’t do that.”
Sid Roberson was the director. Sid was from South London, and a very muscular bloke. Think of a cross between Dennis Waterman and Mickey Rourke. Sid walked into the library where Dennis Healy was, and shut the door. Five minutes later Sid came out and said, “He’ll do it.”
We asked Sid what changed Dennis Healy’s mind.
Sid said, “I just said, “Look ‘ere Mr ‘Ealy, I ain’t ‘ere to muck you abaht, and I ain’t ‘ere to be mucked abaht. Alright?”
And so we shot the PPB, but it was a waste of time. It was what it was. A group of professionals behaving like amateurs. Labour did have one brilliant ad, done by Tim Delaney. But they never ran it.
This was the 1970s, a decade of strikes, power cuts, and the three day week. Tim Delaney had a simple black poster, with nothing on it but a candle.
The headline just said: REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED LAST TIME THE TORIES SAID THEY HAD ALL THE ANSWERS?
Apparently Jim Callaghan refused to be associated with knocking advertising. It lacked dignity. So he wouldn’t run it.
He ran a full colour poster with a picture of himself on instead. And of course he lost.
No doubt in a dignified way. Then the Conservatives gave their account to Saatchi.
Who handled it professionally. The brilliance of Saatchi was understanding that in this country, we don’t vote FOR someone.
We vote AGAINST someone. This always puts the incumbent at a disadvantage.
The government tries to defend their record. Which leaves the opposition free to just attack it.
Everyone remembers LABOUR ISN’T WORKING as the best political advertising. But it wasn’t.
Saatchis real brilliance wasn’t in the advertising that got Thatcher elected first time round. That was relatively easy, all they had to do was attack the Labour government. The real brilliance was the election campaigns after that.
The ones that kept The Conservatives in power. Understanding that voters usually vote AGAINST someone, Saatchi made Labour the party to vote against. They treated Labour as the incumbent.
They took Labour’s manifesto, and treated it as if it was their record in government. They made everyone more scared of voting Labour than keeping Thatcher.
They went through the Labour manifesto with a fine-tooth comb. They took their policies and costed them out.
They worked out how much everyone’s tax would have to rise to pay for them. Then they presented them in simple, powerful posters.
One poster featured a massive bomb. And the headline, LABOUR’S TAX BOMBSHELL
Written on the bomb was ‘You’ll Pay £1,250 more tax a year under Labour’.
Another poster featured two massive red boxing gloves coming out of the poster.
Written on one was ‘More Taxes’ and on the other ‘Higher Prices’.
And the headline, LABOUR’S DOUBLE WHAMMY.
While they were at Saatchi, the Tories won three elections straight.
Personally, I don’t think we’ve seen that sort of professionalism in any political advertising since.