One of my favourite political books is Selling of the President 1968, which follows Nixon on his journey to becoming a television president. Through a carefully crafted TV campaign, advertising executives sold Nixon to the public. This book wonderfully illustrates how the commercialism of the ’50s and ’60s began to permeate political life, and the transformation that was taking place due to the growth of TV ownership. The mid-twentieth century ushered in a new era of politics not for the camera-shy, an era that would see style over substance came to the fore and political PR become a mainstream profession.
Richard Nixon was painfully aware of how important “image” had become, having experienced an election defeat to John F. Kennedy because of it. In the 1960 presidential election race, the first televised presidential debates took place. In the opening debate, Kennedy came across as handsome, athletic and confident; Nixon looked pale and tired (he hadn’t yet recovered from a hospital stay). Americans who watched the debate thought Kennedy had won it, whereas radio listeners believed that Nixon had emerged victorious. The debate attracted 80 million viewers and thus proved influential on polling day. In the US today, TV advertising is an extremely important vehicle for publicising a presidential candidate; in 2008 Obama’s campaign flooded the airwaves with paid TV ads., including a 30-minute infomercial broadcast across three US networks, costing around $6m (the most expensive single piece of political advertising in the country’s history).
In the UK we have strict regulations concerning election campaigns, to prevent the most well-funded candidate essentially buying the election through the purchase of airtime. The televised debates to come will doubtless be influential in the close race between the two main parties. Yet for the most part, candidates vying for the premiership are marketed to the average Joe through poster campaigns. In particular, advertising giants the Saatchi brothers have attempted to sell the Conservative party to the British public on and off for the last three decades now, with their “Labour Isn’t Working” campaign for Margaret Thatcher initiating the relationship.
You cannot accuse Gordon Brown’s Labour party of employing overly-slick advertising tactics. The message effectively conveyed by the above poster is that Brown is all about substance. Giving the cold shoulder to the cameras, his election campaigning has primarily consisted of direct discussions with the public. The Guardian’s creative director may have commented that Labour’s current election publicity has “all the boldness of a muesli advert”, but maybe that’s OK. It only serves to widen the gulf between Cameron and Brown and their respective parties on the style-substance spectrum. While Labour are putting policy on posters, the Tories are gearing up to reveal their most aggressive smear campaign against Gordon Brown, with six new posters of the prime minister pleading for votes and admitting his policy failures. Ironically, it is one of Tony Blair’s former spin doctors, Lord Mandelson, who underlines the fundamental problem with Cameron: “He is too much PR, and not enough PM.”