Why don’t political ads work any more?

It’s hard to imagine punchy advertising campaigns having the same impact on voters as they used to

May 02, 2024
Image: Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Britain in the late 1970s was a bleak place. By 1978 unemployment had reached record postwar heights of up to 6 per cent. Between November that year and the following March, the United Kingdom saw its most pervasive wave of strikes since the general strike of 1926. Storms battered the country and bodies went unburied. Rubbish piled up on pavements; The Winter of Discontent was the coldest in 16 years. This was an unfortunate backdrop for James Callaghan to campaign for Labour re-election. It was not helped by Maurice Saatchi.  

Then the advertising veteran behind Saatchi & Saatchi (now a Tory peer), Lord Saatchi oversaw the creation of one of Britain’s most memorable political attack posters. “Labour Isn’t Working” featured a long line of people in a dole queue, with a tagline at the bottom that promised “Britain’s better off with the Conservatives”. Although the promise was demonstrably false, the ad nonetheless helped Margaret Thatcher secure a 43-seat majority in the May 1979 election. The Tories would continue to hold office for 18 years—unemployment, it should be noted, has remained fairly static since that 6 per cent figure. 

Admittedly, the Tories’ 1979 election victory wasn’t all thanks to the Labour Isn’t Working ad campaign. But it helped, and it stuck—the ad’s premise has been reused countless times in the years since, applied to everything from “austerity isn’t working” to “Obama isn’t working”, “capitalism isn’t working”, and, as food banks began to populate Tory Britain, “Britain isn’t eating”. In 2015 Labour switched it up on their rivals, changing the dole queue to a snaking line in a hospital waiting room as NHS waiting lists spiralled under the Conservatives. 

It’s hard to imagine any political attack ad having the same effect today. As we head into the biggest election year in modern history, with 76 countries due to go to the polls in 2024, there have been more advert cock-ups than successes. The Tories have not managed to get anywhere near the success of their 1970s campaign. Instead their attempt at painting Keir Starmer as a dodgy lawyer, with a Better Call Saul-style photoshop, was rightfully criticised for somehow accidentally achieving the impossible: it made Starmer look cool. In the past week things have gone from bad to worse for Sunak’s beleaguered social media team, when they advertised how powerful Britain is with a collage image featuring… a US jet, a Canadian car, and a defeated football team. 

Image: Conservative party Image: Conservative party

It’s not fair to put all of this cringe on Sunak though; back in September 2019 the Johnson era Conservatives—presumably trying to move on from their three years under personality vacuum and future pub quiz tiebreaker question Theresa May—were accused of “silly playground behaviour” by their own party after launching a campaign image depicting Jeremy Corbyn as a chicken over his decision to block an early general election. The party’s Twitter account shared a doctored image of the former Labour leader in a chicken suit, with the caption: “Hey (KFC), we’ve found an even bigger chicken than you.” The kind of thing that would make you collapse with second-hand embarrassment rather than run to the polling centre. 

It’s true that attack ads are a delicate art and science, and that they’re easy to fuck up (Labour’s attempt to paint David Cameron as dodgy backfired in a similar way in 2010 when they too, accidentally made him look cool by portraying him as Life On Mars’s Gene Hunt). Perhaps the problem is that when attack ads aren’t being perceived by the masses as they walk past billboards, and are instead shown to us on our individual social media timelines, we can see how silly and unfunny they actually are. Social media has atomised our experiences of everything, including and especially politics. When viewed individually, something once designed to make a huge electoral impact is rendered obsolete. And if the ad really flops you can just delete it (as the Tories did with their recent “Great Britain” post). If they can disappear that easy, you can’t really expect their sentiments to be impactful or lasting. 

But in the 20th century, iconic political attack advertising was in its Mad Men-style golden age. It wasn’t just Labour Isn’t Working; Saatchi & Saatchi also made the “Labour Tax Bombshell” ad that helped the Tories limp on in the 1992 election. And despite Lord Saatchi’s personal political leanings, the ad agency helped beleaguered PM Gordon Brown with a 2007 “Not Flash, Just Gordon” poster. The most iconic attack ad from the canon, though, comes from across the Atlantic. Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” advert, created in 1964, aired only once. Inspired by François Truffaut’s film The 400 Blows, the ad featured a little girl being killed by a nuclear bomb, and was shocking enough to secure a landslide victory for the disarmament candidate. A voiceover featured LBJ telling voters: “These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” 

Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Audiences then were shocked in a way they wouldn’t be today. In 1964, we couldn’t see war the way we do now: every day, on the internet, for free. Musk’s X is more lawless than ever, and the rise of AI—the new frontier in Trumpian “fake news”—as well as an embedded culture of sock puppet accounts mean that although we can see everything online, none of us trust what we see online. Even Kensington Palace is doctoring their images. Everything is online and we can log off or block what we don’t want to infiltrate our curated timelines and political landscapes. You can’t avoid the billboard on the high street, but you can hit “not interested” on that post.  

If attack ads aren’t being covered for their mistakes, they’re being vilified for being too personal, too harsh. Earlier this year Labour became brief pariahs of the “Be Kind” online era for an ad that read: “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.” It was harsh, social media said, and worse, technically untrue. It wasn’t Sunak who made this decision or held this view. Therein lies another problem with the 2024 attack ad—it’s easier to identify what political advertising is very good at doing, which is massaging the truth. The people queuing up in that Labour Isn’t Working poster weren’t actually on the dole. They were extras from Hendon Young Conservatives who showed up to be photographed. And when only 20 of them turned up (they initially wanted 100), the eventual queue was created by photographing them repeatedly and splicing their images together. 

It’s hard to imagine the same investment in the art of political advertising being made today. Politicians and ad agencies used to take this seriously. Tony Blair hired Trevor Beattie—who created Wonderbra’s “Hello Boys” poster and French Connection’s “FCUK” campaign—to work on ads for him in 2001. That same year William Hague was so impressed with the work of ad agency Yellow M (which made the iconic BLIAR attack ad on Blair) for the Scottish Conservatives that he hired it for the General Election. LBJ invested the equivalent of around $30m on his advertising campaign the year “Daisy” was released. Judging by the quality of attack ads posted on X today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these are photoshops made instead by social media managers with six other jobs or interns on work experience with access to CapCut. This isn’t advertising or campaigning, it’s just spamming. It’s trolling. It’s so bad it would almost be better if it was bad on purpose. And gen Z—the first generation of voting age digital natives—can see through it. 

A good poster, too, can only do so much. The Tories’ “demon eyes” Blair ad may have been named campaign of the year, generating £5m in publicity on a spend of around £125,000, but it still couldn’t hold back 1997’s New Labour tidal wave. Its relative failure is useful in predicting what the future of hybrid campaigning and agenda-setting looks like in the digital age. The aim isn’t—and can’t be—to persuade voters en masse anymore. Instead it’s to gain attention from the media, to set an agenda and shift the tone of the political discussion. 

Image: Retro AdArchives / Alamy Stock Photo Image: Retro AdArchives / Alamy Stock Photo

Admittedly we should also recognise the limits of a campaign’s ability to effect any kind of political change. Back in 2016 M&C Saatchi returned to their attack ad roots, developing a series of posters meant to encourage the UK to vote Remain in the Brexit referendum. One of them featured Nigel Farage appearing to have a Hitler-like moustache. They were never released. But in July that year, the agency made the unprecedented step of releasing the images itself, after a campaign that chief executive Moray MacLennan called “doomed”.

A good attack advert can’t undo political failure, nor can it predict political success. What was once considered clever politics is now gutter politics. Perhaps after decades of austerity and successive years of political upheaval that would have once been considered “unprecedented”, trust is simply too low for us to treat these ads as anything other than cynical. LBJ’s press secretary Bill Moyers had a sobering view of “Daisy”, nearly 25 years after its release. “It haunts me all this time that Johnson was portrayed as the peacemaker in that campaign,” he says. “But he committed the country to a long, bloody war in Vietnam.” If we can’t trust our politicians, and we can’t trust online advertising, then this lost art is a medium doomed to fail too. It’s political attack ads themselves that aren’t working.