Industry experts insist political campaign poster still valuable weapon

Some of the biggest hitters in the UK PR industry have insisted that the traditional campaign poster is still a vital weapon of political communication - despite mounting evidence of its potential to backfire.

'Versatile': the Tory poster campaign
'Versatile': the Tory poster campaign

PRWeek spoke to 15 of the biggest names in the corporate PR world as the Conservative Party launched its latest poster campaign this week.

The launch prompted questions over the value of the old-fashioned propaganda tool, as - not for the first time this year - spoof versions of the Tory ad began to circulate online.

PRWeek asked the PR chiefs: ‘Has the traditional campaign poster had its day?' And 14 of the 15 responded with a res­ounding ‘no'.

The biggest advocates of the traditional poster campaign included Huntsworth CEO Lord Chadlington and Chime Communications chairman Lord Bell.

Chadlington said: ‘All the concomitant publicity in the press and on the internet makes posters worth a huge multiple of their basic cost.'

Bell cautioned against being distracted by internet spoofs. He said: ‘Patently posters have not had their day... It is silly to make generalised comments - it depends on the specific idea and poster. A bit of abuse on the internet is not a reason to dismiss other forms of communication.'

In the same vein as Bell, APCO's global services to government MD Darren Murphy said: ‘There's no doubt that lack of finance will restrict Labour's poster campaign but I wouldn't write posters off because of a bit of satire. Satire is as old as politics itself even if it appears in the new media.'

Westminster City Council comms director Alex Aiken was also a staunch advocate. He said: ‘The campaign poster is alive and well because it is versatile. It's a photo opportunity, static and viral message all in one package.'

But other PR bosses gave far more cautious backing to the poster campaign as a pol­itical communications tool.

Burson-Marsteller UK CEO Matt Carter said: ‘The campaign poster is very much alive and kicking, but how it is used is changing with each election... A problem lies in posters that can unintentionally be flipped to expose weaknesses in the party putting them forward.'

And Ian Wright, corporate relations dir­ector at Diageo, said the poster was still eff­ective but ‘only when used sparingly, tactically and with an understanding of the potential for collateral mocking'.

Only Hanover MD Charles Lewington replied ‘yes' to PRWeek's question.

Lewington said: ‘Reports of the death of outdoor campaign posters are greatly exaggerated. With TV spend restricted to PPBs, posters will continue to claim a large slice of marketing spend, regardless of internet mockery.

‘However techniques have moved on from 2005. The Tory "Death Tax" poster went up on 18 digital sites, a mere few hours from copy approval. The TV coverage of the poster was extensive - though broadcasting rules will close that down when the election is called.'

 

FURTHER VIEWS

Colin Byrne, CEO, Weber Shandwick

‘Posters are about stirring media debate, talkability, and enthusing your own troops. Unless they way off beam - like the infamous Blair "Demon Eyes" Tory poster which backfired - they still serve a purpose, online piss takes or not.'

Robert Phillips, CEO, Edelman UK

‘It hasn't had its day but the world has changed. Social media provides a wonderful antidote to the "shouty" electioneering of the past. In today's networked world, it's ok to disagree and equally ok to advocate your point of view openly. Political leaders need to come to terms with this if they are to properly engage on the electorate's own terms. It's ok to launch campaigns with posters but understand where it might take you ... within minutes.'

Loretta Tobin CEO Grayling UK

‘There will always be a place for great poster ads - the challenge is on finding creatives who can still apply their thinking to a static medium and who can deliver a message which captures the target audience's imagination. If your message or product is found wanting in any way, spoofers will always find a way of taking a brand or, in this case, a party to task whether it's TV, cinema or poster.'

Tony Langham, chief executive, Lansons Communications

‘It's just got more sophisticated - or "Twitterfied" . Underneath it all outdoor still has a place for simple messages for those with big budgets. Tories want to ask people if they really want GB as PM ( they don't ) and Labour wants to probe whether people want an elitist clique government ( they don't ). So posters still matter.'

David Gallagher, President, Ketchum Pleon Europe

‘Dead? No. Changed forever? Yes. Look at the Obama "Hope" poster - an icon of both the campaign and the opposition. ‘

Peter Bingle, chairman, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs

‘The trick is a great slogan rather than pictures of a party leader. This is a case where wise heads rather than youth wins every time.'

Ian Wright, corporate relations director, Diageo

‘Let's not be too world-weary. In large parts of the world the poster is still a crucial way of connecting big ideas and themes  and brands with an everyday audience. Even in the age of social media there's a place for well written, high impact mass communication.'

Matt Carter, UK CEO, Burson-Marsteller

‘In the past the major billboard campaigns used to provide a clear strategic frame for the whole election... Increasingly posters are deployed much more tactically, with a strong presence in key marginals. They are also used frequently to amplify specific points in the campaign with clever visuals, most of which never actually make it on to billboards at all but exist only on the net.

‘The challenge is not parody per se - as this provides more visibility for the campaign and is often welcomed by the campaign manager.  In 2005, the Tories' "It's not racist" posters were widely parodied but in a way that simply raised the profile of the Tories' message. A problem lies in posters that can unintentionally be flipped to expose weaknesses in the party putting them forward. Cameron's New Year poster, dubbed by the bloggers "Airbrushed for change", has been used against him to promote a view held by his critics that Cameron is more PR than PM.'

Darren Murphy, global services to government MD, APCO

‘The key point is poster campaigns don't persuade but they do remind.  So, the Tory "Labour's Tax bombshell" in 1992 worked because it reminded voters of their single attack line against Labour just about everywhere you looked. The ‘Demon Eyes' campaign failed partly because the Conservatives couldn't work out an effective single attack line on Tony Blair to repeat and remind voters.  

‘The 24 hour news needs pictures because poster launches - even for posters that never see the light of day - provide the background for any political story of the day.'

 

1,500 - Number of sites that will feature the new Tory posters*
3 - Number of posters launched this week by the Tories*
£8m - Current Labour Party national campaign budget**
£18m - Amount Tories are expected to spend on national campaign**

Source: *Conservative Party **Media reports

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