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Negative because there is little positive to say

REMEMBER the good old days of political sloganising - 1959: ``Life's Better With the Conservatives - Don't Let Labour Ruin it''; 1964: Let's Go With Labour''; 1979: Labour Isn't Working''? Each caught the mood of the nation at the time and brought in its wake handsome electoral reward. Why then in this election campaign, cranked up earlier than any before and with writers, novelists, film producers, comedians, and all other branches of ``showbiz'' co-opted in advance, the present crop of ads barely rise above drivel? That goes equally for the ``red tears'' of the Tories to Labour's mind-numbing, complex message of ``enough is enough''. Why don't they plunder their ranks? Labour has an extensive choice including Salman Rushdie. He wrote Midnight's Children when he was a copywriter at Ayer Barker and it was there he thought up the memorable line for American Express - ``That'll Do Nicely''. Fay Weldon, another Tory groupie, elicited the promise to ``go to work on an egg'', while playwright Jack Rosenthal, Maureen Lipman's hubby, has a string of ad one-liners. Tony Blair should be brave and let them off the leash because good copywriters are specialist wordsmiths - able to make positive statements by using what are called ``weasels'': words that effectively negate everything else that follows. A Labour maxim. Take the famous toothpaste slogan - ``helps fight the symptoms of decay with regular use''. This over a photograph of Tony and his team would go down a treat on billboards. In keeping with party policy it would not commit them to anything. ``Helps'', for instance, does not mean ``stop the decay'' only that it goes some way towards it. ``Fight'' means to oppose, not overcome, ``symptoms'' mean just that, symptoms of decay. And ``regular use'' means you have to keep voting for them. The Tories awoke only slowly to the need for memorable catchphrases. Churchill, for example, was adept at creating his own without recourse to agency assistance. His 1951 ``Set The People Free'' had a poignancy lost to us now. But it is the Saatchis, so inextricably linked with Mrs Thatcher, who by far have been the most potent. The dole-queue poster was ground-breaking and brought howls of protest from Labour. And this, despite her pleas for moderation. The brothers floated the idea of repackaging a 1968 American Democrat TV commercial which simply said: ``Agnew for Vice-President'' against a background of hysterical laughter. She killed the proposal because she did not want the election to degenerate into one of personalities. (Her opponents were not to be so considerate.) She was to do so again in 1983 when the Saatchis prepared a poster featuring an unkind photograph of Michael Foot with the slogan: ``Under the Conservatives all pensioners are better off.'' Yet it has been under Honest John Major that the Conservatives have swung towards that territory they used to hold in scorn - personal abuse as demonstrated by their demon-eyes poster of Blair under ``New Labour - New Danger''. Although it has brought considerable criticism, trade magazines like Campaign have voted it a success because it represents the new type of ad - ``adverticity'', advertising which attracts publicity to itself. This is a loony notion, surely the result of too much in-breeding among advertising agencies! It strikes me as the easiest form of advertising - just make the posters featuring a party leader as distasteful and repulsive as possible and leave the rest to the tabloids. The most successful of the current political campaigns is without a doubt the Tartan Tax which was launched by Michael Forsyth as soon as he became Scottish Secretary and is a shrewd example of how to hammer home a tricky political issue. The phrase ``tartan tax'' was actually first used by the previous Scots Secretary Ian Lang and, although he employed the same arguments as does Mr Forsyth, the message never reached the public. Continued repetition combined with an effective ad campaign and, within months of taking office, Mr Forsyth had Labour in Scotland scrambling for cover which eventually led to the change of policy by Tony Blair over tax-raising powers. It is inevitable in an increasingly couch-potato society that advertisers will assume a bigger role in reaching the unreachable, specifically the young. They are vital in creating a fast track of communications because too much of modern politics is dissipated on the airwaves. Too boring, too remote, too hopelessly vague. In an age when visual images and soundbites predominate how do you explain complex issues like changes in the National Health Service or education or local government? Ads are a way of breaking down the barriers, getting ideas across often in a primitive way but one with enormous immediacy, which, when successful, insinuates itself into the language and culture. No-one doubts advertising can be effective in reaching parts of the population other methods cannot, but if that is the case then why has the political sloganising been so limp at a time when both parties see the election as a defining moment in our history? The reason is the lack of a message. What is it that Tony Blair wants us to believe in? What is the ideology which drives him? What is the philosophy he wants us to sign up to? The same can be said of the Conservatives. Where is John Major taking Britain? What is his vision of the future? The truth is that both Labour and Conservatives now represent coalitions of interests rather than ideologies. In 1987 the Conservatives won by a landslide. Ten years later, bereft of an ideology, they are a grouping of factions. Mr Blair has never had an ideology and the factions in his party hover just below the surface. Both parties therefore have no clear message to put across to the electorate. The mood of the nation is one of confusion. Which is exactly what the current advertising campaigns promote. They have to be negative because there is little positive to say. You can surround yourself with the most creative brains but unless there is a plot there is no story.

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