Is It Sometimes Better Not to Advertise?

Critics had a field day with the Conservative Party’s poster campaign featuring an airbrushed David Cameron “We can’t go on like this. I’ll cut the deficit. Not the NHS”. These ads, of course, were launched when the Conservatives held a significant poll lead and they seemed to do no favours to the Tories. Numerous doctored alternative executions emerged in next to no time and, in today’s digital world, especially in something as emotive as the political arena, this capacity for a fast response is a significant risk to consider; you have to be very aware of how open to threat an advert is – how could our opponent respond to this?

Bearing this in mind, it was no surprise when the Opposition shifted their campaign focus to a couple of much safer routes – one featuring members of the General Public and the other featuring attacks on Gordon Brown. This may of course have always been the intention, but until those first ads were launched, Cameron had been consistently held up by many commentators as the Conservatives’ primary election asset.

Not to be outdone, it would be hard to consider as anything resembling a success, Labour’s campaign depicting Cameron as Gene Hunt which the Conservatives soon turned around as a positive depiction of their Leader.


Notwithstanding the capacity of those with an agenda to infiltrate forums, it is worth looking at some of the comments posted online at

“Your attack posters should make your opponent look bad (in Cameron’s case, posh and foppish), not rakishly attractive”

“Cameron is now a “cool dood (sic). Result. Cheers Labour, saved Dave £100,000 p.r. & stylist costs”

“If only it were true. I would vote for Gene Hunt in a heart beat”

What research can learn

It remains a surprise that both the Cameron and Gene Hunt adverts managed to get through a screening process – one assumes that such a process did take place (the Hunt route actually being the contribution of a member of the public). The underpinning thinking of both campaigns may have been sound, but the widespread public criticism of them (a criticism that often spanned political affiliations) shows that something went wrong somewhere between strategy and execution. So we certainly can’t say any more that it is hard to get things fundamentally wrong in the political arena – partly because the digital world makes things so easy to ‘adapt’ now and partly because the nature of political campaigning has become both more personal and more sophisticated; it is also increasingly difficult to promote a risk free positive message.

What might have prevented these campaigns being given the green light and what can companies and other organisations learn from this in a research context?

Three things spring immediately to mind.

  1. Asking hard questions of one another at the commissioning and development stage; if we were a competitor, what would we make of this, would we feel threatened? How would we respond?
  2. Think about the research audience: there is often a tendency in focus groups to exclude those who are anti-advertising and / or those who are anti the principal brand being researched; actually embracing these groups – perhaps in additional depth interviews – can prove to be a valuable source of comparative outlook and insight and a signpost of any concerning issues to be aware of.
  3. As a group of key stakeholders, recognise or hypothesise in advance what the key threats to the advertising’s desired effect and positive impact might be; it is far more productive to ensure that these are addressed to the appropriate detail in research than to allow the session to be driven (too much) solely by participant feedback.

Implications for other organisations

Let’s put the initial question to rest. We would never say that it isn’t better to advertise (though it may not always be necessary) and rarely would a PLC or any private sector organisation expect to encounter the kind of monitoring, opposition and resistance to promotional activity that a Political Party would do.

However, all companies must be aware that their advertising is now open not only to critical assessment – by the media and individual consumers – but also to instant doctoring and parody; sometimes imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery, but as M & S have decided with their ‘food porn’ ads, knowing when to say enough is enough is key.

And financial services companies in particular need to be sensitive to consumer emotions at the moment – advertising content needs to be chosen carefully. It all depends, of course, on the current profile of the organisation, but for those damaged by events of the last couple of years and that still need to rebuild consumer confidence, then, more than ever, the balance of advertising needs to feature clear, significant and specific customer benefits – building the brand back-up through a motivating product and service offer.