U.K. 2015 Election Advertising Gets Off to a Bad Start

Both Conservative and Labour Parties Misfire With First, Feeble Efforts

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Conservative Party ad
Conservative Party ad
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The U.K. goes to the polls for a general election in May, but the two biggest parties will need to do better if they want to persuade the British public to vote for either of them.

The Conservative Party, whose leader David Cameron is currently prime minister, proudly unveiled a poster showing a road, accompanied by the words, "Let's stay on the road to a stronger economy." As well as being uninspired, the print ad has another problem – the road pictured is in Germany, not Britain.

When confronted, George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, told Channel 4 news, "It's a British picture. It's a British road," and a Conservative party spokesman claimed that the party had been assured that all elements of the photograph were British.

However, the picture, available through photo library iStock (run by Getty Images), was taken in 2008 by German photographer Alexander Burzik, near his home town of Weimar. It may have been digitally altered to make the tarmac smoother and the sky brighter, but it is unmistakably the same picture.

The poster has inevitably spawned a host of memes across Twitter, many with the hashtag #RoadToRuin attached.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party dug up a picture of Mr. Cameron that was used to promote the Conservatives during the last election in 2010. It was controversial at the time because the image was so clearly airbrushed, but the new version makes no reference to the controversy or any attempt to bring it up-to-date.

Labour Party ad
Labour Party ad

This year's election is the first in the U.K. under a new fixed parliament system. Previously, the incumbent government was able to set the date of the election, as long as they were not in power for more than five years. This gave the governing party a big advantage, as they could select a time that was most advantageous to them, and were only required to give their rivals 17 working days' notice that an election was on its way.

Now that element of surprise has been lost, and elections are fixed for the first Thursday in May, every five years. With the next election set for May 7, campaigning was expected to kick off in earnest in early January, but neither party has yet appointed an ad agency. Both the Conservative Party's road ad and the Labour's Party's ad with Mr. Cameron were created in-house.

For the 2010 election, the Conservative Party worked with Havas Worldwide London, bringing in M&C Saatchi for the final stages of campaigning. The Labour Party worked with Saatchi & Saatchi, but has more recently been working with Lucky Generals.

It's a far cry from the heyday of U.K. election advertising, when Saatchi & Saatchi, under founders Maurice and Charles Saatchi, helped mastermind the Conservative Party's election victories. One memorable ad -- a long line of unemployed workers with the headline "Labour Isn't Working" -- was credited with helping Margaret Thatcher win her first term as prime minister in 1979.

Political parties are allowed to advertise in print but not on TV in the U.K., making general elections a lucrative time for the outdoor and print media sectors.

Instead of buying TV ads, parties are given limited free airtime for what are called "party election broadcasts." Stars are brought in to make the broadcasts as memorable as possible and to encourage sharing on social media: the Labour Party's 2010 broadcast was produced by Ridley Scott Associates, and featured comedian Eddie Izzard as well as the voice of former Doctor Who, David Tennant.