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The Persuaders

John Fanning

Mad Men & Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising, by Sam Delaney, Faber & Faber, 320 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0571312382

With a British general election fast approaching Sam Delaney’s aptly titled Mad Men & Bad Men is well-timed. It’s an enjoyable romp through the uneasy relationship between politicians and admen in the UK from the 1970s up to the new millennium. The author, who comes from a large working class London-Irish family, some of whom were key players in the advertising business in the 1980s and 90s, is well-qualified in the subject and has written an amusing book on the London advertising scene, the again aptly titled Get Smashed. Although that title is partially a nod to the famous “Martians” campaign for Smash Instant Potatoes it is also an accurate reflection of the louche excesses of the advertising business in 1970s London. A copywriter from the same agency describes his working day as starting with a few hours work in the morning and then off to the pub across the road; “we used to be there from eleven in the morning until three in the afternoon which was when the pubs used to shut. We’d then get a cab over to Harrods because their off-licence was the only place you could get a drink after three. We’d bring a couple of bottles of tequila back, get smashed and roll a couple of joints until the pubs opened again at five, then we’d stay there till they shut again at eleven.”

Drink also features regularly in Mad Men & Bad Men and in the first Thatcher election some senior Tory bigwigs were concerned about the lavish drink expenses being run up by their communications director, Gordon Reece. They were taken aside and told that just as cars run on petrol Gordon runs on champagne. However the key theme in this book is whether political advertising works. There have been significant advances in research in the commercial world which can tell us whether and how advertising works and there’s no excuse for any proportion of one’s budget being wasted any more, but these advances have been the result of long-term sophisticated research matching buying behaviour and exposure to ads. Assessing the effect of political advertising is more difficult because it only happens at five-year intervals. Even the famous, or infamous, “Labour isn’t Working” poster which was always assumed to have been a factor in Mrs Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979 is described here as having had no impact on that campaign. In fact when first shown the layout  for the ad she berated the admen responsible in characteristic mode: “You know perfectly well you should never have the other side’s name on your own posters.” “It’s a double entendre, Ma’am,” they replied. “Well it can’t be any good if I don’t get it.” Quite!

The conclusions in this book are tentative but the majority of politicians and admen interviewed by Delaney believe that policies and personalities, not advertising, are the main factors influencing elections. But the fact that advertising doesn’t have much of an influence on the electorate doesn’t mean that advertising agencies don’t influence politicians. The book suggests they play an important role in refining complicated economic and social policies into everyday language: “advertising disciplines force politicians to get to the heart of their policies, to deliver their key arguments succinctly in a way people can understand ‑ we help politicians speak to people in a way they could hear, if you shout at people they will switch off.” A second argument for political parties to employ an ad agency is that although the ads may not have all that much effect on the voters they are hugely important for the morale of the party workers and canvassers. We are not the only country where an electorate expect to be canvassed at the doorstep and there is nothing more likely to quicken the step of a party worker than a giant 48-sheet poster above the street attacking your opponents in a sophisticated and witty way.

Most of the advertising campaigns discussed in the book are very negative. This is partly due to the cold-eyed professionalism of the Tories, the party with the biggest advertising budgets; but also to their agency, Saatchi & Saatchi. The Saatchis had a reputation for going for the jugular and specialised in mischief, bending facts and courting controversy, attempting to goad the opposition into a response. They are referred to as “divisive, egomaniacs and destructive”. To some extent this explains the strange love/hate ménage à trois involving the Saatchis, their colleague and later mortal enemy Tim Bell and Margaret Thatcher. Bell was effectively the managing director of the agency when they acquired the Tory account in the late 1970s and he handled the business himself. He then had an acrimonious split from the brothers, started his own public relations agency but continued to keep in contact with Thatcher, offering advice on strategy and presentation. Bell’s legendary charm – “dogs would cross the street to be kicked by him” ‑ was responsible for his unique relationship with the prime minister and as he revealed in his memoirs last year he regularly brought her flowers and complimented her on her appearance and clothes. But the complications in the advertising relationships led to bizarre scenes worthy of a French farce, with Saatchi executives exiting Downing Street after a meeting with Norman Tebbit, who was director of the Tory campaign, and Bell entering another door with alternative advertising proposals to present the Thatcher. At one stage senior Tory ministers squared up to each other swearing and grabbing lapels.

Delaney is careful to place all this in context: the 1970s and early 1980s was the high point of British advertising creativity. The creative revolution in advertising begun by Bill Bernbach in New York in the late 1950s and 1960s crossed the Atlantic in the early 1970s and for the next two decades London was the centre of the advertising creative universe. As David Abbot, one of the most distinguished copywriters, explained, “suddenly one day the plates changed”. The coming together of hugely talented writers and film-makers, including David Puttnam, Ridley Scott and Alan Parker, who subsequently triumphed in Hollywood, transformed advertising, giving huge power to creative departments resulting in witty scripts and sophisticated cinematography. Classic ads of the time include “the Martians” campaign for Smash, the evocative “Boy on a Bike” commercial for Hovis, the long-running series of ads for Hamlet cigars and memorable copy-based campaigns – “Heineken, refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach” or “I was the mainstay of the public library until I discovered Smirnoff”. But like all revolutions it quickly descended into ego, hubris and paranoia. This book features lashings of all three but there are enough insights into the dark arts of political advertising for Irish politicians, admen, handlers, spin doctors and assorted commentators to ponder as we edge closer to our own general election.

1/4/2015

John Fanning is former managing director and chairman of McConnell’s Advertising.

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