The subtitle of Sam Delaney’s effervescent book Mad Men & Bad Men promises that the author will explain “what happened when British politics met advertising ”. Part of the answer is as straightforward as the best billboard — they had a good time on expenses. There are alcohol-fuelled lunches described here that will make the contemporary office worker embarrassed the next time he visits Pret A Manger for a tuna baguette. Yet dull politicians faced with the aggressive Epicureanism of agencies such as Saatchi & Saatchi accepted their bills as part of the deal, writes Delaney. When asked by his deputy in 1978 why its director of publicity needed so much party-subsidised libation, Conservative chairman Lord McAlpine said: “If you have a Gordon Reece you have to run him on champagne.”

Delaney, a journalist and broadcaster, describes the changing relationship between these two worlds — politics, and advertising and public relations — from the early 1960s to the present day. Most of the chapters are based around a general election, with special attention given to those fought and won by Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and David Cameron.

Unsurprisingly, given his interviewees are among the sharpest tongues in the communications business, Mad Men & Bad Men is full of entertaining anecdotes. There is Lord Young grabbing Norman Tebbit by the lapels in Downing Street screaming, “Norman, listen to me, we’re about to lose this fucking election!” — unless, that is, they use posters drawn up by Tim Bell, Thatcher’s favourite PR man. There is Jeremy Sinclair, a founder of Saatchi & Saatchi and a creator of the “Demon Eyes” poster of Blair, telling a Tory apparatchik: “It’s very simple in this game: you either kill or you get killed.” There is Peter Mandelson crying in his car under the stress of trying to drag the Labour party into the modern era.

And then there is the moment in 1978 when Thatcher was presented with what became the most famous poster in the history of British politics: a long, snaking unemployment line emblazoned with the slogan: “Labour isn’t working.” At first, the then opposition leader didn’t understand. “It’s a double entendre,” Bell tells her, “they are using the word ‘Labour’ in both senses.” Confused, Thatcher replies: “Well, it can’t be very good because I don’t get it.”

She did, of course, eventually get it. For Delaney, “it was the poster that changed everything”. Quite how it did so, though, remains unclear. It certainly boosted the fortunes of Saatchi & Saatchi — but did it win the election? The author’s sharp laddish prose swaggers from interview to interview, his line of thinking never pointing in the same direction for long. Is spin more important than substance? Delaney wavers but at times implies that it can be. In his penultimate chapter, he quotes approvingly from a blog post: “These ads actually work.”

Perhaps they do, though Delaney himself notes in his final chapter that there isn’t any statistical evidence that adverts change voter behaviour. Research summarised by Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab (2012) suggests that much more important are data-driven targeting, behavioural prompts and social networks. (Exactly the types of techniques that contemporary marketeers use when selling products.) Even then, as many PRs suggest to Delaney, there is nothing a campaign can do when the party leader is uninspiring, the economic context is unfavourable and the party has policies that only speak to a small group.

In the end, Delaney arrives at a sensible argument: adverts might not win elections but admen can help politicians in encapsulating what it is they stand for. Political parties are brands. At root, these brands are the product of history and intellectual reflection but their public manifestations still need to be simplified, tested and mercilessly repeated. By bringing an “aggressive clarity” to campaigns (what Maurice Saatchi calls “the brutal simplicity of thought”), communications teams help politicians to distil their ideas for public consumption.

Delaney’s is not a stunning conclusion but it is the right one. What he might have explored further, though, is his remark that “political communication is probably in a bigger crisis now than it was forty years ago”. How one would judge such a claim is tricky but, as the general election approaches in May, it is evident that mainstream politicians are having a hard time being heard. Populist parties on the left and the right are gaining support. Polls report that trust in politics is near a 30-year low. Politicians are urged by pundits to show “authenticity”.

There are deep, structural reasons for these trends. But the way many politicians communicate today often provokes further cynicism. In an age of social media, the de haut en bas soundbites from on-message politicians can seem as out of date as Harold Macmillan did in his TV spots in the 1950s. It will be hard, however, for the current generation of politicos to adjust. Whereas Thatcher’s communications gurus remained hired hands, the New Labour brand was marketed by figures who at various times had critical jobs in Downing Street: Mandelson, Philip Gould and Alastair Campbell. The current government has gone one step further: David Cameron is a former PR executive. What started as two separate worlds has become one. For, ultimately, what Delaney’s book describes is not an acquisition but a merger.

John McDermott is an FT commentator

Mad Men & Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising, by Sam Delaney, Faber, RRP£14.99, 320 pages

Slideshow photographs: Getty; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Rex Features

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