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Posters and Election Propaganda

A blog dedicated to the examination of communications in election campaigns, with a focus on posters

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Posted by Steven Seidman at 8:18PM   |  Add a comment
Billboard for "The Iron Lady" (MailOnline, 2012)

Margaret Thatcher—whose Conservative Party won elections three times between 1979 and 1987 when she led it—is the subject of a new movie, “The Iron Lady,” starring Meryl Streep. But the tough, imaginative campaigns that brought Thatcher to power were orchestrated by the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi and emphasized emotions and issues and did not focus much on Thatcher herself.

In 1979, high unemployment and inflation hurt the ruling Labour government. The billboards and posters, titled “Labour Isn’t Working,” created by the advertising firm illustrated the joblessness (see my past blog post). They featured a long, snakelike line of people at the unemployment office, and the caption “Britain’s Better Off With The Conservatives.” TV spots also did not mention Thatcher; rather they showed people trying to cope with high prices, unemployment, and taxes, and speaking positively about Conservative economic policies.

Thatcher and her party won again in 1983 and 1987. After the British victory over Argentina in the Falklands War, and with improved economic conditions, the Conservatives won decisively over Labour (as shown in the film). Saatchi & Saatchi’s campaign for the Conservatives, in 1983, featured a poster that compared the Labour Party’s policies to those expressed in the Communist Manifesto. The poster’s headline read “Like Your Manifesto, Comrade.”

In contrast to U.S. elections, it was clear that British voters put less emphasis on the leader of the party. In a 1987 exit poll, voters were asked to indicate “the most important reason which decided their vote,” and only 6 percent replied that it was the party’s leader. It is not surprising, therefore, that British posters in the 1980s often excluded Thatcher and the opposing leaders (while U.S. posters showed Reagan, Bush, Carter, and Mondale).

More often than not, British election propaganda campaigns have emphasized issues more than the leaders, even popular ones. Party leaders, however, have appeared on posters more frequently in the past two decades. And, ironically, Thatcher has appeared a number of times on opposition posters and billboards—sometimes with only her hairdo on a Conservative Party leader (see an example above).

For more on election posters in British campaigns, see my book, Posters, Propaganda, and Persuasion in Election Campaigns Around the World and Through History.


Posted by Steven Seidman at 3:10PM   |  Add a comment
"Obama Isn't Working" (http://www.mittromney.com, 2011)

Mitt Romney's campaign has now borrowed from the British Conservative Party's very successful campaign that brought Margaret Thatcher and her party to power in 1979. Romney's Website features an "Obama Isn't Working" banner that is almost identical to a British poster used more than thirty years ago.

The 1979 campaign in Great Britain was marked by the aggressive and innovative advertising campaign for the Conservatives devised by Saatchi & Saatchi, and its “Labour Isn’t Working” poster was the key element. The firm’s Tim Bell (whom Thatcher later knighted for his efforts) was given the account and he decided to emphasize emotions, not issues, which would appeal to voters—an approach that was hardly new.

In 1979, high inflation, strikes, unemployment, declining market shares in many industries, monetary devaluation, and skyrocketing oil prices plagued the Labour government. In fact, many of the same problems beset U.S. President Jimmy Carter at the end of the decade. As a result (and with effective political marketing specialists aiding the conservatives in the two countries), both Carter and Labour lost power to Reagan and Thatcher. The faltering British economy and the Tories’ advertising strategy clearly convinced many voters to side with Thatcher’s party, which increased its share of the vote from 36 percent in the previous election to almost 44 percent (while Labour’s share declined from 39 percent to 37 percent).

As Maurice Saatchi said years later, "in great advertising, as in great art, simplicity is all … [with] simple themes, simple messages, simple visual images."

As both U.S. parties have acknowledged, jobs and the economy are the dominant issues in the 2012 campaign. And imagery—even if borrowed—may play a role in determining the election outcome.

For more on the 1978-1979 election campaign in Great Britain, see my book, Posters, Propaganda, and Persuasion in Election Campaigns Around the World and Through History.  


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