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25 March 2017
Morning Sedition

"Labour Isn’t Working"

"Labour Isn't Working" Billboard

Billboard for 1979 Tory Campaign, "Labour Isn't Working (Britain's Better Off With the Conservatives)"

It became the benchmark for political advertising. It has influenced all political advertising since and effectiveness is measured against it.

— Martyn Walsh, creator of "Labour Isn't Working" Campaign

In my tax day entry about the IRS and what a joyous day April 15th is, I mentioned how the Wilson's labour government led to the election of Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, in 1979. The real force behind her campaign was the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi. It created the "Labour Isn't Working" advertising campaign that is widely credited as winning the election. This is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant ad campaigns ever. (What's interesting is that Charles Saatchi, who gets credit for designing it, apparently didn't create it and was initially skeptical about it.)

"The Conservative party's 1978 poster of a snaking line of people queuing for the unemployment office under the slogan "Labour isn't working" has been voted the poster advertisement of the century.

Created by the Saatchi brothers, the poster is cited as instrumental in the downfall of James Callaghan's Labour administration in the 1979 election and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, partly because he rose to the jibe and complained. It also marked a sea-change in political advertising as, aiming at traditional Labour supporters who feared for their jobs, it was the first to adopt the aggressive marketing tactics which characterise modern elections.

Judged the poster of the century by a jury of advertising creative staff for the trade magazine Campaign, Labour Isn't Working beat a first world war recruitment poster into second place."

"Tory Advert Rated Poster of the Century" by Janine Gibson, Guardian, 16 October 1999

Now, there's nothing like mixing advertising and politics. On the one hand you have a cesspool of lies and on the other you have... Wait just one minute! I can't tell them apart! The best part of the "Labour Isn't Working" campaign is the lies it portrays as fact. First, consider the sanitized, and self-serving Saatchi & Satchi version of their political work:

In 1979 Saatchi & Saatchi London became the first agency to be appointed by a British political party to help them win an election. The Conservative Party did precisely that, with Margaret Thatcher becoming Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. Indeed, the Conservatives won an unprecedented four consecutive terms in office. This didn’t go unnoticed by Boris Yeltsin. With some help from Saatchi & Saatchi, he went on to become Russia’s first democratically elected President.

"Who We Are" by Saatchi & Saatchi

Now, some truth from the BBC:

A new form of political advertising was created for the election campaign which was original, slick and a benchmark for the future.

The now infamous slogan 'Labour Isn't Working' was borne from it and is credited with helping the Tories to power in May 1979.

Labour had postponed the election until May 1979 by which time the 'Winter of Discontent' was in full swing and campaigning for voters took place against a back drop of strike action.

Saatchi & Saatchi later developed the slogan 'Labour Still Isn't Working' but it caused controversy when it was revealed its depiction of people queuing at the dole office was actually of actors.

Many were Tory workers and their images had been superimposed to give the illusion of hundreds of people, although in reality there were only about 20.

"On this Day 1978: Tories Recruit Advertisers to Win Votes", BBC, 30 March 1978

And the difficulty in making the ad — in the days before computer graphic programs like Photoshop or (my favorite) PhotoPaint made this trivial — is interesting:

"Immediately there was a problem. Instead of the 100 volunteers promised to the ad's designer, Martyn Walsh of Saatchi and Saatchi, fewer than 20 turned up - far too few to create the desired effect.

"It was a problem," Walsh remembers. "At one point I though briefly about calling it all off. But the deadline was very tight and it was a case of 'it's now or never - we've got to do it today'."

Rope trick

Walsh then hit upon the idea of photographing the same group of people over and over and then striping the photos together back in his studio.

A long rope was used to mark out the shape of the queue and the volunteers, over a period of hours, had to move along it in a tight group.

"Because of budget we could not use a lot of extras," Walsh remembers.

"And we could not use the real unemployed. They might have objected to appearing in Tory publicity. We wanted people who would not object - which is why we used the Young Tories. But we still made them sign a form to say they wouldn't sue us if they didn't like the result."

Bottom of the pile

The end result, after the pictures had been superimposed on each other, gave the impression of far more than one hundred people standing in a queue."

"'Epoch-making' poster was clever fake" BBC News Online, 16 March 2001

Amazing, isn't it? Advertising people lie! Shocking! This campaign was so famous and so ingrained in British thought that the Labour Party co-opted the concept a few years back for Tony Blair — a Labour Party candidate:

"The Labour Party has rehashed Saatchi & Saatchi's highly successful "Labour isn't working" poster campaign which helped Margaret Thatcher's pre-election bid in 1979.

Labour is running a colourful poster and ad campaign proclaiming the reverse - "Britain is working" under Tony Blair."

"Labour in Cheeky Rehash of Tory Ad Campaign" Politics.co.uk, 30 November 2004

Ad Campaign for "Britain is Working" Under Blair

It's a pretty lousy ad, though, since it really says nothing about who deserves credit and why. (Way too subtle.) Meantime, the Tories decided they needed to repeat their earlier success by going after Blair in a big way. (Make the big, bad labour monster go away, mommy!) Unfortunately, the new campaign has no heart at all, as you can see.

Ad Campaign for "New Labour, New Danger"

The real genius — and I don't use that term lightly — behind Saatchi & Saatchi was Charles Saatchi. (The firm was started by two brothers, Charles and Maurice. Charles was the creative talent and Maurice the businessman. Together they built an advertising powerhouse. After huge excesses in the eighties and nineties, leading to a loss of about a hundred million dollars (tough to spin that), they were forced out of the company that bears their name. They started M & C Saatchi right down the street and there was a massive lawsuit when their old clients deserted the now-braindead Saatchi & Saatchi for M & C Saatchi. (But that's a story that probably only interests advertising people.) Anyway, you know Charles; he's the man behind Sensation, an art exhibit he paid a million dollar bribe to the Brooklyn Museum to host. This rather boring art exhibit was marketed as "offensive" in order to drum up interest and thereby inflate the values of the pieces, all so that Saatchi could liquidate his collection, which was long past its freshness date. Too cynical? Mmmmm-hmmmm.

Between Chris Ofili's "Dung Madonna" and Damien Hirst's readymade shark, the furor appears to have been carefully scripted to inflate the value of worthless "art" so Saatchi could sell it (unlikely) or donate it (likely). This is part of how rich people shelter income; they take a fundamentally worthless piece of "art" purchased for relatively little, get a huge valuation slapped on it by curators with an incentive to enhance their own importance (or maybe bribed), donate it to a museum eager to have a "valuable" work (or possibly bribed), write off the fake valuation on their taxes, and get 40% of the "value" back as a refund in dead presidents. What a great deal! Like Leona says, only little people pay taxes.

There was no feeling that we were making history. In a way it was a pretty routine job. A question of we've got to whistle something up quickly.

— Martyn Walsh, creator of "Labour Isn't Working" Campaign

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