Car Crash Comms
Political advertising in an era beyond satire
This weekend, a rare thing happened: an ad agency’s unfinished ads leaked, and made the national news.
The leak might have been deliberate, as they were attack ads for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party making hay of the utter economic shit that the Conservatives have driven the UK into.
(For the uninitiated or readers outside the UK: in her first few weeks in the job, Prime Minister Liz Truss has tanked our currency, turned the mortgage market upside down, and prompted a run on British government debt. Truss has now been forced into a series of U-Turns, sacked her chancellor, and is unlikely to be in a job by Xmas).
She’s also become fair game for ads like this:
I imagine they’re intended to further drive the media cycle and dialogue around Conservative incompetence, and accelerate a general election that Labour are likely to win.
Napoleon once said “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” Another take on that might be ‘don’t criticise your allies when they’re doing something good’, nor will I. These are rough-and-ready but well-thought-through political ads I would be glad to be involved with, each built on very hot buttons: the tanking of the pound, the eternal British fear of decline on the international stage, the demolition of the mortgage market.
It’s all aimed at mass-market voter that the Corbyn administration was brilliant at repelling, and written in the sort of voice that you will overhear discussing these matters in your local pub.
I love seeing agencies nail these kind of briefs, and I think these ads (although they may be somewhere between mock-ups and rough-around-the-edges meme fodder) are great. They are red in tooth and claw, and signal that Starmer’s Labour aren’t afraid to come out swinging.
The only challenge is less about the quality of the work or the strategy, and everything to do with context:
They’re a series of well-timed blows on an opponent who’s spent the last four rounds punching themselves in the face.
The current Conservative government appear to be less a political party than a series of underarm pitches for satirists, journalists and entertainers to knock out of the park.
From Punch, through Private Eye and The Thick of It, Britain has a rich history of political satire, but the last few years have provided unbeatable material. After the Lockdown Party revelations, we had Munya Chawawa’s remix of 90s banger ‘Return of The Mac’, released so fast that it was hard to believe he wasn’t behind the leak.
Led By Donkeys (essentially a few men with a ladder and a sense of humour) have been punchy posters and projections to hold the government to account.
Most recently, The Economist pointed out that when you account for the Queen’s Mourning Period, Liz Truss will have had a similar shelf-life as a PM to a Iceberg Lettuce, a metaphor which has since been taken up by The Daily Star and a few other outlets.
The Conservatives, the self-declared ‘natural party of government’, have become the butt of satire by default, and culture is running away with it.
Keir Starmer has said that an important early part of his mission to win is prosecuting the Tories as unfit to run the country: whilst the former Head of The Crown Prosecution service is doing this admirably well, it’s hard to do a better job of humiliating The Conservatives than they’re already doing.
I may live in the London bubble, but I find it hard to believe that awareness of their incompetence isn’t a topic of increasing national consensus, and the opinion polls (yes yes polls are often wrong etc) would appear to agree with me.
If a general election was to occur tomorrow the Tories would go from their biggest landslide in more than a decade to losing their majority.
So the only issue for funny ads like this is the environment in which they’re landing.
At some point advertising how shit The Tories are risks expending valuable political attention on illustrating something a great deal of people already know.
It also causes another problem, one that many centrist comedians of late-night television in the US learnt the hard way: the more creativity they devoted to satirising Trump’s latest scandal, the more difficult it became for anyone to talk about anything else, or believe in alternatives to it.
After a decade of incompetent governance, we need hard-hitting political messaging to hammer the final nails into the coffin - but we also need well-communicated proposals of potential solutions, fast.
In an attention economy with few shared cultural/media spaces, Labour’s competition isn’t just the other political party, especially when people may be disillusioned enough with politics not to vote at all. Their messages compete with Black Friday, the latest season of Great Bake-Off, Erling Haaland’s impossible goal-scoring streak, and whatever follows the the Negroni Sbagliato craze on Tiktok.
Labour need to focus any attention they win not only on the opposition’s weakness, but their strengths. (Which is where, I suspect, the people at Lucky Generals behind these ads are probably taking them).
If possible, I would be gladly spend any available media budget increasing the reach of whatever news, memes and sketches mock the government without a party agenda attached. Culture will prosecute the Conservatives with comedy far better than any politician could: Labour can join in, but eventually they’re going to need to pivot to the alternatives that will help them seal an election win.
I would guess that Labour are holding their policy cards close to their chest for an electoral manifesto, as if they play them too early they run the risk of a savvy Tory replacement giving them a lick of blue paint and running on the same platform.
So I’m hoping these adcepts are shot one of The 21-Gag Send-Off these clowns deserve. I look forward to an intro fanfare from Labour with some snappily-communicated manifesto pledges attached in short order.
In the meantime, thank you to everyone involved. You’re performing a national service, and doing our industry proud.
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