A short history of election advertising.

In his introduction to a wonderful collection of Conservative election posters from the party’s archive at the Bodleian Library at Oxford (Stuart Ball, Dole Queues and Demons, 2011) Maurice Saatchi wrote: ‘Posters are to politics what poetry is to literature: the only possible words in the only possible order. They should instantly convey the core message in a memorable way. This requires a handful of words, each of which is perfectly chosen, married to an image which reinforces them. When this happens posters can be the single defining medium of a campaign’.

The ‘can be’ is important. Those 96-sheet size billboard posters are an imposing form of political messaging even in this age of digital social media. To use ad-speak their purpose is to Attract Attention, Spark an Interest, Create Desire, and Prompt an Action (AIDA). Well, up to a point perhaps. No matter how good the chosen words or the reinforcing image, if the product is unsellable the public won’t buy. That was the experience of Labour in 1979 – and who now remembers its classic poster of that election? The Saatchis’ Labour Isn’t Working has displaced it from popular memory).

Moreover, there remained for a long time (and still lingers) the view that political posters demean the virtue of democratic politics. This was especially true of the puritanical tendency in Labour politics. In 1959 one Labour MP famously denounced a Tory poster – Life’s Better with the Conservatives. Don’t let Labour ruin it – for ‘selling politics like soap powder’. That opinion was repeated in the recent public letter by Anglican Bishops, Who is my Neighbour, which criticised the culture of ‘retail politics’. And what should drop into my email box only the other day but a circular from Grant Schapps, Conservative Party Chairman, alerting me to a new poster campaign: ‘A Recovering Economy: Don’t let Labour wreck it’. Another repetition.

Often the images are transient, the words no longer meaningful and the circumstances long forgotten. Posters may even cause some to think: ‘Did they really mean that?’ Younger Tory Eurosceptics, for example, will probably wince at the 1966 poster ‘With Heath into Europe: Vote Conservative’. But there are also powerful echoes and continuities.

So, like Roy Walker’s invitation in Catchphrase, the lecture invites you to ‘say what you see’ about recent British political history through at least one ‘defining medium’ of General Election campaigns

Arthur Aughey, Ulster University

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