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Starting gun fired on election campaigning

09/04/2015

Of all the areas of marketing and public relations, perhaps one of the most memorable is that of election campaigning - and there will be a huge amount of it in the next few months.

Past campaigns have been famous for some of the slogans featured on billboards and, in more recent years, through new media. Who could forget the Conservative poster of a dole queue and 'Labour isn't working' in 1979, or 'Labour's tax bombshell' in 1992?

Labour have produced many memorable ones of their own, including a picture of David Cameron in 2010 sitting on a 1970s car and looking like a character from Life on Mars, along with the words 'Don't let him take Britain back to the 1980s'.

The fact that such images are memorable means the agencies charged with producing them are in the spotlight in a way that is not the case with most advertising or publicity campaigns, which come and go without having potential consequences that last for years and are, by their very nature, more far reaching in how they affect people's lives.

For marketing and PR professionals, the job has certainly become more organised, keenly developed and linked to an increasingly sophisticated strategy. The Conservatives saw the power of tapping into such expertise in the 1980s as Saatchi and Saatchi came on board. Labour took things a step further with its spin doctors and concentration on 'focus groups' - to all intents and purposes market research followed by very carefully targeted marketing.

With the prime minister having worked in public relations himself before entering politics, David Cameron will be acutely aware how much can be won or lost through the use of a message. The party has sought to kick things off by firing the first shot in the poster war with an image of a country road and its claim that Britain is on the road to recovery - a road it claims Labour will steer the country away from.

Of course, such communications will come under more scrutiny than the average billboard poster. Arguments have already emerged over how much the coalition government has actually reduced the deficit by - the poster claims by half, which only counts as a share of GDP rather than in absolute numbers - while the landscape depicted is apparently not even from Britain, but Germany.

Elections and other votes such as referendums may actually help act as a barometer of how effective certain means of marketing are. For example, the use of digital has become more prominent and is widely regarded as a highly effective means for groups and parties to get a message across. In the US, Barack Obama's presidential election campaigns used it successfully and in Scotland last year, it was begrudgingly admitted by many of the Better Together campaigners that Yes campaigners had used this medium more effectively, even though this did not do enough to swing the outcome.

Of course, good campaigning is not everything: Labour still lost heavily in 1987 despite its slick media operation, the first to be run by Peter Mandelson. However, in that instance the party was trying to recover from a huge drubbing four years before. This time, with the main parties neck and neck in the polls, the quality of this form of marketing may be crucial.