In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

On Politics and Advertising


Politics and advertising combine in election campaigns. (Edited: The Guardian, Saatchi)

The victory of the Conservatives was a surprise to many journalists and commentators, with polls having nestled Conservative and Labour support close together. During the 2015 General Election, all parties tried to win over voters, with eye-drawing posters and entrancing policies.

An extract from Sam Delaney’s book, Mad Men & Bad Men: When British Politics Met Advertising, released in The Guardian detailed the Conservative campaign, led by political strategist Lynton Crosby [1].

“Scrape the barnacles off”

Mr Crosby ran a coordinated and forensic campaign, simplifying the leading party’s message to voters. In a regularly-cited quote, the campaign director’s first instruction was for the Conservatives to “scrape the barnacles off the boat”, shedding extraneous policies from its public campaigning. The campaign would instead be orientated around the Conservative’s strength in perception on the economy, and other core issues.

The available opposition would be cast as a “coalition of chaos”, with the perceived weakness of Labour leader Ed Miliband exploited. At its most crude, this involved having the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon claimed in The Times:

Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.

In a manoeuvre described by Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson MP (Conservative, Uxbridge and South Ruislip) as a ‘dead cat’ – so called because throwing a dead cat onto a table refocuses the conversation – the political commentary turned to the nature of Mr Fallon’s remarks [2], and the substance that Labour would hurry into a coalition with the Scottish National Party (SNP).

Earned media

This concern, built on the recognised insight that the SNP were going to triumph in Scotland, fed into one of the defining posters of the campaign: Ed Miliband placed into Alex Salmond’s pocket. This political advertising induced what marketers call ‘earned media’: the publicity and discussion that an advertising campaign generates.

Another focal ad created by the agency M&C Saatchi was the image of a wrecking ball crashing through ‘a recovery economy’: with ‘Don’t let Labour wreck it’ inscribed on the ball. It was blunt, confrontational and simple.


Much work is put into simplifying messages. (Source: The Guardian, Saatchi)

The Conservative campaign was a co-ordinated combination of posters, broadcasts, press statements, groundwork, and digital media, all delivering a unified message. Tom Edmonds built up the mailing database from 300,000 to 1.5 million, creating bespoke Facebook and Twitter posts for different segments of the voting public, such as female UKIP waverers, and those deciding between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in the South West.

The Conservatives dominated political spending on Facebook: the party spent over £1.2m on the social networking site, compared to just £16,455 paid by Labour. The winning party dedicated 7.8% of its election spend to Facebook alone, demonstrating the increasing importance of social media in elections.


The Conservatives dominated spending on Facebook. (Source: The Electoral Commission, Visualisation: Tableau)

Campaign Optimisation

The full Electoral Commission figures have been published [3]. It reveals that the most efficient campaign of the major parties, those spending over £250,000, was the United Kingdom Independence Party: the party’s candidates received a vote for every £0.73 the party had spent. In contrast, Labour’s efficiency was £1.29 per vote, and the Conservative figure was £1.38.

It will be the future work of campaign directors and organisers to examine where these political campaigns may be improved, and given greater clarity of messaging in 2020.

The principles of advertising can be applied to politics. Campaign optimisation can too.


[1] Delaney, S., 2016. How Lynton Crosby (and a dead cat) won the election: ‘Labour were intellectually lazy’. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed: 23rd Janaury 2016]

[2] Masters, A., 2015. In Defence of Ed Miliband. In Defence of Liberty. Available from: [Accessed: 23rd January 2016]

[3] Electoral Commission, 2016. Electoral Commission releases UK Parliamentary General Election campaign expenditure returns of more than £250,000. Available from:,000 [Accessed: 23rd January 2016]

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