A political triumph? Don't make me laugh!


Humour in political advertising can come in many forms. Look up the crackly old black-and-white broadcast from 1950s British election campaigns and you will get a lot of laughs out of Harold McMillan's stilted, confused performances. Watch pretty much any TV ad made by a minor political candidate from the southern states of America over the past few years and you'll be slightly unsure as to whether you are watching a genuine piece of political broadcasting or a semi-surreal parody. Due to the American media's laissez-faire policy on attack advertising, I recently saw a candidate from Kansas graphically suggest that their opponent wanted to urinate on the heads of constituents. I can highly recommend an hour or two wasted on You Tube looking at such remarkable advertising.

So, yes, there is a great deal of political advertising that makes us laugh at it, as opposed to with it. What has been so striking about the current Israeli election campaigns, in the midst of such worrying times, is the use of all-out comedy to attract a fragmented, undecided electorate.

Benjamin Netanyahu has appeared in what can most accurately be described as a sketch, rather than an ad, that went out online earlier this month. You might have seen it. He arrives at a young couple's home offering to mind their kids while they are out on the town, describing himself as a "Bibi Sitter," in reference to his nickname. But there is more to it than just a laboured pun. In conversation with the understandably bewildered couple, Netanyahu makes a couple of reasonably sharp jibes at the expense of his electoral rivals, warning that the children would have to take care of Herzog (because he is so weak) while suggesting Livni as a sitter would be a risk as she is unable to stay in one place for too long.

OK, it's not laugh-out-loud stuff but his performance is pretty good. It's certainly better than anything you could imagine a British party leader turning in. Not everyone was so generous, mind you. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart responded to the ad by quipping: "Turns out, Jews can't be funny in every country."

And it's not just been the Netanyahu team who are attempting to joke their way to victory. The Yesh Atid Party has developed a game app based on the popular Flappy Bird, entitled Bibi Bird. Available on Android phones, it portrays Netanyahu as an indecisive and ineffective bird, scoring "zero points" for failing to pass a state budget, provide for the elderly or help hardworking parents. Bibi Bird squawks "Iran!" "Nuclear weapons!" and "Isis!" throughout.

So, can any of this actually work? To some, this kind of frivolity is inappropriate in the political arena. But the job of political advertising is the same as in commercial advertising: to communicate the brand message in a way that is compelling and memorable to the ordinary man or woman in the street.

Most election results hinge upon a small number of floating voters who are still making up their minds close to polling day. Research by the pollster Robert Worcester has shown that these small but influential groups tend to be politically disengaged (i.e. they don't follow politics or policy most of the time) but consider it an almost patriotic duty to vote. They therefore decide not on a forensic knowledge of party manifestos but on broad impressions communicated in short, snappy messages. This, of course, is the stock-in-trade of the ad professional.

Humour has been used effectively in British election campaigns for decades. Prior to the Thatcher era, when Harold Macmillan was still shuffling around his study, delivering awkward speeches about foreign policy while feeling unsure about which camera he should be looking into, it was supposed that political ads should be serious.

This was not soap powder or breakfast cereal that was being sold: it was ideology, a vision of the future, a sober and earnest pitch to the British people. But when Margaret Thatcher used Saatchi & Saatchi in 1979 to run her election campaign, she allowed them to pursue a revolutionary approach. They decided to apply the same creative techniques that had proved so successful in brand advertising to politics.

Their first triumph was the iconic ''Labour Isn't Working'' poster, depicting a line of unemployed people snaking out of a dole office. There was no long-winded copy, no politician featured and no policy detail. It was simple, funny, sharp and bold. "You can't have a poster with the other side's name on it," insisted Thatcher when she first saw the ad. "But it's a double entendre Prime Minister," said Saatchi Chairman Tim Bell. "We're using the word labour in two different senses."

"Well it can't be very good because I don't get it," said Thatcher. But eventually she did. Saatchis continued to deploy snappy humour in its posters for the next two decades, almost always at the expense of their Labour opponents. In 1983, they ran a poster that drew attention to the alarming similarities between Labour's manifesto and that of the British communist party. The headline ran: "Like your manifesto, comrade!"

The same year, they took aim at the fast-rising Social Democratic Party. As the new kids on the block, they seemed attractive to young voters but the Saatchis suggested that their actual policy offerings were vague. In reference to SDP leader Roy Jenkins' well-publicised love of red wine, they ran a double page spread across the national press offering a case of claret to the first person that could explain what their policies were.

In 1987, they were at it again, pouncing on Labour's nuclear disarmament policy by picturing a British soldier with his arms aloft in surrender. The headline ran: ''Labour's Policy On Arms.''

"We learnt at an early stage of working on elections that people tend to vote out of fear," says Tim Bell. "They fear change. And if you can suggest that your opponents will be the one making the scary changes, then you'll win votes." In other words, negative advertising works. Jeremy Sinclair, the creative brains behind all of the great Saatchi ads for the Tories, has a motto when it comes to election campaigns: "Hit first, hit hard and keep on hitting."

But the electorate have a distaste for overtly negative advertising, particularly now, when there is an incremental loss of faith in the political classes among young people. So the smart ad man delivers his vicious attacks on the opposition wrapped up in charm and humour so as to distract the audience's attention.

In 2001, Tony Blair hired Trevor Beattie, the man behind notorious campaigns such as Wonderbra's "Hello Boys" and French Connection's FCUK ads, to mastermind his campaign. Beattie devised a poster featuring Conservative leader William Hague wearing a Margaret Thatcher style wig. "Be afraid. Be very afraid" the headline read. Beattie presented it to Blair with the confident claim that it would become "the most iconic image of this election." Blair shook his head. "No, no, no," he said. And then he laughed. His chief spin-doctor Alastair Campbell explains: "That was how we knew it was OK, because it was funny. As long as you can make people laugh, it doesn't matter how nasty you are. Political leaders tend to want to be positive in their ads. But I used to tell Tony: 'Just because you're trying to be nice, it doesn't mean they're any less likely to kill you.'"

Humour doesn't always work but negativity does. The gags are there just to sweeten the pill.

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