Why Is Political Advertising So Boring?
Dress sense aside, the worlds of advertising and politics are pretty indistinguishable. There’s the insincerity, the over-promising, the wanton self-promotion, dynastic cabals and venal Machiavellianism. But what happens when those unlikely soul mates get together? As the UK gears up for a general election and, across the pond, the likes of Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul throw their hats in the ring for the 2016 US presidential election, we’re being blasted with the products of this (unholy) alliance. And it ain’t pretty.
In the UK, politicians are struggling to reach younger voters but the main tools are billboards that look like they’re straight out of the ‘70s and stultifying party political broadcasts that are reminiscent of school assemblies. Martin Freeman, who popped up in Labour’s effort, turned in a performance that was more right-on headteacher than celebrity coup. The crazy old wildcards at the Green Party bucked the trend with their amusing boyband spoof video from Creature of London and Acne director Jon Hopkins that made a big splash in national newspapers (a real feat when you consider how boring such films usually are). But that’s just one lone spark of fun in an otherwise uninspired bunch. No one sits through a party political broadcast - they're prime 'nip to the toilet' or 'nip to the kitchen to make a cup of tea' breaks, even more so than normal advertising. I know this, you know this, so why don't the people who make them (most of them) know this? Or do they just not care? Maybe they think that if they bore us all long enough and persistently enough we'll all just give up and go home and let them do whatever they like.
Looking at the landscape as a whole, though, the main message that I’m getting from official political advertising in the UK is ‘Voter Apathy? DGAF’. . Negative campaigns and sly digs seem to be the order of the day - like bullies who leave cartoons stuck to lockers in high school or vengeful exes who scrawl their former lovers' phone numbers all over the pub toilet wall. It's not exactly inspiring, visionary stuff. Most of the campaigns look like they’re designed to reach older people, who are more likely to vote anyway and fellow politicos – how else do they explain the billboards look like we haven’t really moved on from Saatchi’s 1979 ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster? From a creative perspective I suppose I can kind of see the appeal of making something that harkens back to the ‘good old days’ of advertising: bold slogan, classic art direction, funny-ish potshots. But I don’t think that a political comfort blanket is what the country – or democracy – needs.
Meanwhile in the States, things are slightly different though not necessarily better. Hillary’s announcement video is a bland, soft-focus affair that’s been slated in the press and blogosphere. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart described it as ‘a State Farm commercial gone viral’ and ‘boring as shit’ – analysis I can get behind.
Batting for the Republicans, Rand Paul’s effort is a post-apocalyptic anti-Hillary ad. It’s so ridiculous it’s hard to believe that it’s not a parody. The negative ads that pop up from time to time in The Good Wife are more believable. If you haven’t seen damp squib political comedy and Will Ferrell vehicle The Campaign… well… you probably don’t need to now. Just follow the presidential bids instead.
What’s really frustrating about the official political campaigns on both sides of the pond is that they don’t feel like they’re trying. Truly disruptive creativity can make a difference – but when it comes to politics, the truly interesting, edgy, shareable stuff comes from artists and establishment outsiders – not parties and their agencies. Shepard Fairey’s unofficial Barack Obama poster became the icon of the 2008 US presidential campaign. When Cassetteboy (a UK-based comedy electronica duo and editors par excellence) released Cameron’s Conference Rap in October last year it spread wildly, popping up in feeds from even my most apolitical friends. More recently, I fell in love with A Large Evil Corporations’ depictions of political leaders for the Independent. Silly, well observed, yet relatably contemporary, the aesthetic was soft yet crisp, evoking the appearance of vinyl toys (and what better symbol for 21st century voters, locked out of adulthood). They’re images that resonate, that feel rooted in the modern world and contemporary culture and tastes.
I suspect that the apathy of 21st century Western democracy is only half the story. We’ve already seen that a relevant message and authenticity can generate interest and enthusiasm – Obama 2008 is a case in point. Less glamorously, the case of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats shows the same. But now that the hype has cleared and promises gone unfulfilled, people feel distrustful and pessimistic.
And, really, it’s a bit rich for politicians (of all stripes) to expect people to care about them when they don’t seem to particularly care about the people. Why bother listening to politicians and parties when the communications they put out make it clear that they’re not fussed whether or not you pay attention? A Westminster (or Washington) in-joke or a negative campaign designed to psyche out or humiliate your opponent can’t be about reaching the masses. And while we're on the subject of negative campaigning - is that really the smartest, most effective strategy we can come up with. Watching parties and leaders trade insults and the creative equivalent of blown raspberries and middle fingers is alienating to anyone outside the cliquey walls of politics.
I guess it’s just one of those sad truths that while politicians might amass large campaign funds from donors, there’s no one out there funding non-partisan ads and creative activity in support of democracy as a concept. Let’s face it, whichever politician could crack the conundrum of reaching the disenfranchised youth voters could really swing it for themselves – though doing so would require ditching the bore-vertising, clichés and tired formulas, adding a pinch of honesty and, ultimately, going against the interests of their own politicians (courting so-called ‘Generation Rent’ when a third of UK MPs are buy-to-let landlords? That’s how you get a mutiny…).
For now it looks like politics and advertising have even more in common than I first thought. Both talk about change, innovation, engagement and empowerment. But usually it’s just easier to do the same old shit.