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Looking at Adverts: 8 thumb

Looking at Adverts: 8

The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
There are only ever two ad strategies in an election…It’s either the opposition saying, ‘Time for a change’, or the government saying, ‘Britain’s great again, don’t let the other lot muck it up.’ The rest is just details.
Lord Tim Bell quoted by Sam Delaney The Guardian
(I have restricted this blog to Labour and Conservative posters in order to offer a balanced historical backdrop to contemporary political campaigns – other political parties are available.)
We know that images are powerful and are often able to communicate complex information very economically. They are also democratic because large swathes of the population of Western societies are visually literate even in sectors with lower levels of reading and writing skills. We can look at an image and understand what it is saying. With a more in depth understanding of semiotics and other critical theory methodologies we are able to not only read the message but also understand the mechanisms that lead us to that reading. We uncover the hidden persuasion within the image (to paraphrase Vance Packard).
So I would like you to put your analytical skills to use. Its almost election time and we are beginning to see campaign images that could have a big impact on our lives.

1979 Election campaign poster for the Conservative party
1979 Election campaign poster for the Conservative party

This is an example of a very good election poster. It was highly controversial and gained a great deal of media attention. This was the first ‘US style’ political advert to be produced in the UK and some claim that it won the 1979 election for Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party.
Ironically the people in the image are not a large group of unemployed people. The advertising company, Saatchi and Saatchi, were unable to recruit real unemployed people (perhaps because they would then no longer be unemployed – a real conundrum) so they asked the Hendon Young Conservatives to step in for the shoot. Unfortunately the party faithful had other things to do and only twenty people turned up. Being creative problem solvers Saatchi and Saatchi repeated the same small group of people over and over again. As a result, the advert doesn’t literally show high unemployment levels; it is a concept that signifies rather than documents reality; so it doesn’t matter that the people aren’t actually unemployed or a ‘mass’.
Denis Healey, the Labour MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time was outraged, and accused the Conservative party of ‘selling politics like soap powder.’ This outburst only fuelled media interest in the poster and helped the Conservatives into power.
In the quest for objectivity and balance I am not going to analyse the posters. I will try to keep my political opinions to myself and let the images do the talking. I have included a Labour party poster from the 1979 election to give you an idea of the opposition’s campaign…

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And now I present two posters for the coming election in May.

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This is one of the Labour party’s 2015 election posters, which they largely appropriated from the 2010 Conservative election poster below. (If we had doubts about their track record with the economy this sign of frugal recycling might allay our concerns…)

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And this example from the Conservative party, also for the coming election in May.

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If a great poster can win an election, what can we hypotheses about the outcome on the 7 May based on these images?
Please post your thoughts and analyses below.
If you would like to find out more about past and present election campaigns you might be interested in this article in The Guardian by Sam Delaney.

Posted by author: Dawn Woolley
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9 thoughts on “Looking at Adverts: 8

  • I find Labour’s choice of poster a little bizarre. What we notice first about this poster (and the one on which it is based) is the face – the words come later. This is a well chosen image (from a Tory perspective) as it is designed to convey trustworthiness and engagement, through the eye contact and the open stance, plus the lack of a tie looking relaxed and approachable but still smart. The Labour remake just reiterates these messages – at first glance we are reminded that Cameron looks “prime ministerial” (not to say that one should choose politicians by appearances!) We may then come to the text, but there is so much of it that I suspect many will not bother.
    The Tory poster is a complete contrast – Milliband is reduced to a small, comical figure, unable to emgage with the camera/viewer and unsuited to lead a country. Set alongside the Cameron poster the strategy is striking, undermining Milliband’s credibility simply by appearances.
    Obviously there is more to these posters, especially the reference back to the 1979 poster, but it was the visual representation of the two leaders that really struck me.

    • I can see what you are saying – there is a danger when appropriating images that the original message is conveyed rather than the intended new one. But in this case I think the poster has used an image from the previous election to encourage us to look back at that poster. When we do – and read that it says ‘I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS’ – we are able to make a judgement on that statement. I think the poster indirectly tells us that Cameron won’t keep his promises – which is quite clever – mud-slinging without getting your hands dirty!

  • I agree with Emma, but on closer examination of the Tory poster, it seems that Cameron’s face has been further airbrushed to more closely resemble the Steve Bell caricature, which introduces the notion of deception to counter the original intended impression of trustworthiness. However, it is far too verbose without offering any stats, and I too took away from this poster the impression that Cameron is more the statesman than Miliband.
    On the Tory poster, I found this far more punchy and playful than the very dry Labour poster, but isn’t really breaking any ground and is just trying to bang home what is obviously a very prevalent fear amongst potential Labour voters.
    Both are very negative and don’t even attempt to sow seeds of hope amongst the electorate, perhaps because both parties are equally aware of the difficult/impossible decisions ahead of them.
    More generally, the Tory campaign seems to have the edge, based upon this fairly humorous counter attack I just found: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8601781.stm which is another example of the Tories undermining the credibility of the opposition by quickly spinning their campaign to appeal to the non-PC, Gene Hunt admiring section of the public.
    I did wonder if Labour might have been better served by re-running their own ’79 poster, but that too could very easily backfire!

    • I found this;
      It is accompanied by the caption ‘Labour HQ haven’t been deterred by a lack of funds when it comes to general election posters – finding that an image can get plenty of media attention without needing to be placed on expensive billboard sites around the country.’
      Which perhaps also links to Bryan’s comment below – this is what is called sign-value in consumer culture theory (thanks to Jean Baudrillard for the term!). An object or image is circulated as a sign for something else – the link between image and meaning is arbitrary and can be changed by whoever is in charge – which is their ‘semiotic privilege’ as the dominant class. If you are interested in this idea there is a great (and classic photo-theory) essay by Walter Benjamin called ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.
      I also came across this;
      So I think the ‘labour isn’t working poster is getting a lot of mileage!

  • What I find especially interesting with all this is that there’s been real shift from actual poster campaigns (I remember seeing the Labour Isn’t Working one k actual billboards), to virtual ones based on a highly visible press launch but seemingly not actually posted anywhere. That might be because I don’t live in a marginal seat and so no parties try that hard.
    The internet meme – home-made and irreverent – is now a powerful graphic tool and both of the new posters singled out here look like memes. I do think that the left tends to smugly satirise the right, whereas the right is happy to have mock taken out of it and win elections. This was especially apparent when George W Bush won for the second time.

    • I don’t think as much revenue is going into billboard production for this election- except maybe those portable ones that are driven around. Printed material is expensive and static – once they are installed it is likely the same people will see them day after day (that was my experience of the Conservative billboard ‘lets ask matron’ or what ever it said, it really irritated me to see it day in day out). The use of the internet to spread publicity is far more effective and allows the party’s to rapidly respond to changes in circumstance.
      Having said that I have seen a few photos of green party and UKIP billboards – the UKIP ones tend to have been ‘improved’ my anonymous member of the public…

  • Well, let me have a go!
    Labour poster – first look I thought that it was going to be Conservative – good clean looking mage of Cameron – impressive and all the words as per above re looking like a steersman I would vote for, and also probably one that I could relate to over a beer or coffee. Then come the words which were too many making me think: do I have to read all this? and then a banner at the bottom too, like a footnote only for reading if I am really interested. I am not sure I cal look at this or any advert with true impartiality and so having read the words, still have to consider the fact that I, as a complete outsider, think the Cameron is doing some good in reducing handouts. As a result, I tend to dispel the words and come back to the ‘good guy’ image.
    Conservative poster – The first thing that strike me is the text – Not learning about what? How to manage a country, finances or is this about schooling. The country and finances are my initial take. i.e. after all this time they still have not learnt how to do all this. Then the ‘school kids’ bored and not concentrating and not learning anything. A closer look I see the caricature of Milliband who looks unkempt and completely confused, again not learning. Finally, I come to the footnote and think – are they really going to increase the debt by so much!
    The net message to me from the two is: Conservative is better. But then as I mentioned earlier this is through my eyes and they are no doubt biased.

  • Thanks for your comment. I think the key to interpreting adverts – or any image for that matter – lies in knowing and understanding your own biases. We all have particular opinions or leanings, and adverts try to activate or minimise them in order to be effective for as many people as possible. Understanding this helps to ‘unpack’ how the image works on you as an individual, and determine how it might be read differently by different people.

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