15/06/2017 10:04 BST | Updated 15/06/2017 10:04 BST

The Power Of The Public Promise: Political Campaigns Are Missing A Trick By Overlooking Outdoor Advertising

When Theresa May called a snap election on 18th April, the public weren't the only ones surprised by the announcement. Politicians and their party machines suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves in need of policies and campaigns, with an eager media demanding detail and a reluctant electorate in need of convincing.

When Theresa May called a snap election on 18th April, the public weren't the only ones surprised by the announcement. Politicians and their party machines suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves in need of policies and campaigns, with an eager media demanding detail and a reluctant electorate in need of convincing.

Having consistently talked-down the idea of an early election, the surprise of May's decision could go some way to explaining why the campaigns we saw over the last seven weeks were less than inspiring.

However, the declining quality of political advertising in the United Kingdom isn't limited to only the 2017 General Election. The last few years have been the most politically significant and active in modern history. From the Scottish Independence Referendum to an unexpected Conservative majority in 2015, from Brexit to the rise of Corbyn's Labour and last week's shock result, it feels as if we have lived through three years and more of non-stop political campaigning and an unending series of surprises. Yet throughout this historic period, we have seen a decline in truly compelling, memorable campaigns that resonate with the electorate.

Instead, we have seen the rise of personalised, tightly-targeted online advertising. It's no surprise that political parties have followed brands and businesses in embracing online and social media. Obama's 2008 Presidential campaign famously pioneered this kind of political campaigning with great success. Digital platforms are integrated into our daily lives, making them an attractive way of quickly reaching people. But they are also noisy environments in which content has intense competition for viewers' short attention spans. Increasingly too, users are highly sophisticated at using software to block unwanted intrusion whether it be commercial or political.

Additionally, digital mediums like YouTube have faced issues with automation and context, which resulted in political parties' ads running next to extremist videos.

Despite this, the 2017 General Election saw more campaigning on digital platforms than ever before. Voters were targeted with personalised messages, while parties increasingly looked to supporters to share content turning their own social media profiles in to de facto advertising channels. Labour's campaign in now being cited as the most digitally-savvy in reaching the elusive under 18-14 demographic.

But looked at in broader context, the outcome suggests this approach isn't working. The Conservatives disastrously fell from an apparent position of strength after a campaign criticised for being repetitive and uninspiring. Labour, meanwhile, albeit improving on expectations fell well short of electoral success with a campaign heavily focussed on existing supporters. UKIP was wiped out, its message no longer resonating.

What was striking in recent campaigns was that political debate seems to have become almost invisible. Online advertising is, by definition, a one-to one, private experience. Memorable and impactful British political advertising has always used the world's oldest and most public advertising medium: the billboard.

Take the 'New Labour, New Danger' (M&C Saatchi: 1997) campaign depicting Tony Blair with demon eyes; the 'Be Afraid. Be very afraid' (Trevor Beattie: 2001) Labour poster which gave William Hague Thatcher's hair; or perhaps most famous of all 'Labour Isn't Working' (Saatchi & Saatchi: 1978). These ads all used bold, graphic and clear messages. They were successful because they caught the mood, speaking to the public in a compelling yet very simple way with a creative idea that captures the attention but isn't immediately obvious. Instead, the audience has to think it through and is therefore genuinely engaged. Their purpose isn't to just promote a name or brand. Rather, they're designed to provoke thought. Something that resonates far longer and gets discussed far more broadly than a one-to-one message that appears briefly online.

Sadly, it seems political parties have either lost this skill or forgotten its value. There have been very few examples of successful out-of-home advertising from recent political campaigns. A rare exception being the Conservatives' 2015 poster putting Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond's pocket (Saatchi & Saatchi: 2015).

In recent years, parties have tried to game the system, creating one-off posters which are relegated to being the back-drop for speeches or stunts, usually on the back of a truck or side of a bus. The intention is that the news coverage then takes that poster and its message far and wide. In reality this doesn't work because it fundamentally undermines a crucial part of what makes an out-of-home campaign so impactful: the power of the public promise.

This sense of a public promise is why advertising outdoors can be so influential. It's about making a statement that the advertiser can be held accountable for in the most public way possible. In doing so, the advertiser demonstrates huge confidence in that statement - something the audience recognises and values specifically because they know they are not alone in seeing the message.

In politics, where trust is key and public confidence is low, the power of the public promise can be hugely influential. This was demonstrated, perhaps perversely, by the Vote Leave campaign's now infamous '£350 million-a-week for the NHS' pledge which was proudly emblazoned on the side of its battle bus. It was a powerful public promise that was not only influential, but one that has ultimately held those behind it to account.

As it stands though, political campaigns are missing out or getting it wrong.

Of course, great posters on their own do not make a successful political campaign and online media can evidently play an important role. The key to success surely now lies in combining both mediums effectively.

The digital transformation of out-of-home makes this an exciting possibility. Where once long creative and production lead times made outdoor advertising inflexible and slow, connected digital out-of-home technology means the medium can now be used by advertisers to deliver responsive, contextually relevant messages to audiences in real time and even integrated with online campaigns. It opens a string of new creative options and drastically changes what is possible with the medium.

For this to happen, political campaigners need to embrace the power of the public promise and return to bold, eye-catching, thought-provoking creative. When they do, we'll be more than ready to help reinvigorate political campaigning.