Media Strategy - Squaring up for the phoney war

Thursday 5 May remains favourite for polling day, so "phony war" strategems are in evidence today among the political parties.

Media strategy, for instance, remains a tease. Say and do enough to attract attention, but keep the detail shrouded.

We now know of the Government's six vows as outlined on the party's website (your family better off, your child achieving more, your children with the best start, your family treated better and faster, your community safer and your country's borders protected). These will be unfurled like a striptease.

Media choice will be influenced not only by format but also, crucially, by timing.

Thrust and counter thrust. Information and disinformation. Tit for tat.

Here poster holdings become important, not only for their saliency and simplicity of punchline but also the exact timing with which one message can be taken down or refreshed.

The Tories' opening salvo on the cleanliness or otherwise of NHS hospitals is an example.

"Demon Eyes", an infamous exhibit from October 1996 which breached the Code of Advertising Practice, prompts the thought that we remain in an unregulated environment since the parties are only infrequent users of advertising and its voluntary self regulation.

An early sign of the tone of this election was struck last week by both Labour and Conservative parties, with reported non-observance of the provisions of the Telephone Preference Service – in a live interview, the Tories admitted phoning homes removed from all commercial lists. Although the Advertising Standards Authority will subsequently write to political parties after the election with a summary of complaints registered, the electoral landscape is ripe for this tactic.

The size of government majority, number of marginal seats, their geographical spread and prospect of a record-low turnout determines that concentration in these marginals will be as critical as the comprehension scores. Regional strategy will therefore be significant to all of the Government's opponents.

Posters, for this reason, will be joined by door drops and loose inserts. Moreover, hitherto national media with regional opt outs will now feature the localised agitprop microbite.

Expect the Tories to use this as a relaunch of the party in Scotland, while the Liberals endorse their appeal in the South West.

The Government must trust to soundbites from their six vows, unveiled via their party political broadcasts, then reinforced by tangible media the next day.

Ailing financial fortunes and declining memberships of UK political parties herald the eventual adoption of the US model where television advertising is allowed, and for good reason, given spend levels and taxes derived.

The UK administration of the day will yield to this and also thereby to best practice TV call to action techniques, as exemplified by UK charities since 1992.

Since content and its perception is all, online strategies will offer frequency of simple messages of the kind that parties live or die by, eg, polling intentions! But, like sex and booze, respondents' stated intentions are often total spin.

Nigel Firminger, divisional head at Total Media

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