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Mad Men and Bad Men:
What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising
by Sam Delaney
ONE of the most celebrated party political broadcasts in British history went out on May 21, 1987. Made by the Oscar-winning director Hugh Hudson, 'Kinnock: The Movie' seamlessly blended soundbites from Neil Kinnock's friends and family, a heartfelt interview with the Labour leader himself and stirring excerpts from a speech he had given in Llandudno. As the camera circled above Neil and Glenys, walking along the Welsh cliffs, the music soared to a moving crescendo. Everybody, even the Tories, agreed it was a masterpiece. Never had a British political leader been packaged so adroitly; never had a political party embraced Hollywood values with such enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the Tories' campaign strategy was in meltdown, with rival advertisers fighting for Margaret Thatcher's attention.
The result? Labour scraped barely 31% of the vote, while Thatcher won a record third majority. It had been, said Private Eye, 'a brilliantly successful election defeat'.
Does political advertising matter? The case of Kinnock: The Movie suggests not, and it is this question that hangs over Sam Delaney's gossipy, journalistic and often extremely amusing book. Delaney, a Talksport presenter and former editor of Heat, comes from a family of advertising men: his uncle Tim even worked on Labour's losing campaign in 1979. As in his previous book, Get Smashed - an enjoyable history of Britain's modern advertising industry - Delaney relies entirely on interviews with his chief characters, from Tim Bell to Peter Mandelson. A good example of the general flavour comes when we first meet Kinnock, who recalls being attacked by a dwarf in a south Wales pub as a young man, and instructs Delaney in 'the correct way to execute a head-butt on someone without hurting yourself'.
Delaney's book suffers from two very obvious weaknesses. First, he is really interested only in the politics of the 1980s and 1990s, so there is nothing at all on election advertising before the advent of television. An entire book could be written about Harold Wilson's debt to advertising, but Delaney gives him barely five chatty paragraphs.
More serious, he never digs beneath the surface of his interviewees' splendid anecdotes. Everyone behaves like a character from an adman's fantasy, the politicians timid and stodgy in their ill-fitting suits, the advertising men suave and sophisticated. And sometimes their recollections are not just dodgy but downright misleading.
To take a small but illuminating example: Bell, Thatcher's PR adviser, says at one point that she was a great asset in 1979 because she was 'miles better than Callaghan'. But this is just plain wrong: all the poll evidence shows, beyond the slightest doubt, that Callaghan was much more trusted and more popular than Thatcher. Many voters were very suspicious of her, especially in the north of England, Scotland and Wales, where the Tories did poorly, and Saatchi & Saatchi had to work especially hard to sell her to the public. But because Delaney depends entirely on Bell's hagiographical account, he never picks this up.
It would be unfair, though, to suggest that Delaney's book is merely a compilation of funny stories. He constantly wrestles with the issue of advertising's effectiveness; indeed, his book is peppered with claims, from politicians and admen alike, that it is much less important than we think. Even Bell doubts whether the famous Labour Isn't Working poster, which came to symbolise Thatcher's victory in 1979, made any real difference. 'What role can advertising play? None,' says Johnny Wright, who ran Labour's campaign four years later. Indeed, in 1983 the Tory chairman, Cecil Parkinson, cancelled the party's last week of ads, saving some £1.5m, on the basis that they were no longer needed. 'For me,' he tells Delaney, 'that blew out of the water once and for all the idea that it's advertising that does the trick.'
My own view is that the British public's supposed susceptibility to advertising makes a tempting get-out when political activists are forced to confront the stark reality of failure. During the early 1980s, many on the left, unable to face the fact that Thatcher had won the argument, insisted that Saatchi & Saatchi had brainwashed people, just as 20 years later the right, unable to accept Tony Blair's election hat-trick, insisted on seeing him merely as an adman's dummy.
But the truth, as Delaney shows, is that advertising only works to reinforce what voters already believe. It cannot change their minds; it merely sharpens their existing suspicions, as in 1992, when the Tories' 'tax bombshell' posters reinforced middle-class fears of a Labour government. No matter how good your campaign, as Labour found in the 1980s and the Tories discovered in the 2000s, you cannot win unless you have the right leader and the right policies - and even then, the result depends largely on the economy.
Chris Powell, one of Labour's chief admen during the Blair years, calls advertising 'elephant powder', recalling a story about an old man in France who used to sprinkle white dust on the village roads every morning. 'But everybody knows there are no elephants around here,' people would tell him. 'Well,' he replied, 'then it must be working.'
Bell prefers an even more colourful image. In 1987, he says, 'the result was in the bag months before polling day. We could have stuck a huge poster up in Piccadilly Circus saying, 'F*** off', and people would still have voted for us.' Perhaps David Cameron should try it.
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