In 1964, Lyndon Johnson set off a political phenomenon in America with an advert that set the Presidential elections alight. The opening shot of a young girl picking a daisy and counting down from ten, ends with a huge nuclear explosion and the voiceover: “These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live or go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die”.
The implication – that Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, would lead the world to nuclear holocaust wasn’t hard to see.
This advert is usually of interest to a few political insiders interested in the minutiae of US politics. But it could about to get interesting for anyone interested in winning hearts and minds of voters this side of the Atlantic. The High Court will today hear a case brought by a group of animal rights campaigners – and backed by the likes of Amnesty International and the RSPCA – to lift the ban on political advertising in the UK. According to yesterday’s Guardian, the ban is likely to be lifted – last year, the ECJ ruled against a Swiss ban very similar to ours.
I think this is a move that should be welcomed for two reasons. One of principle, and one of political practicalities.
Firstly on principle. The law as it stands bans advertising that seeks “to influence public opinion on a matter of controversy”. That leaves big businesses with a massive advantage over political campaigns. Asda Wal-Mart is free to persuade us that it is doing the right thing by everyone, opponents are not free to point out that it pays low wages and has been accused of exploiting workers. BP is free to promote its green credentials, green groups are banned from pointing out that this is a load of hot air. That’s just not right.
But on a more practical note, we have a message to get across that we are not always able to get through the gatekeepers of public morality – the media.
Make Poverty History had an advert banned last year. Apparently, education people about the deaths of millions of people around the world because of unfair international trade policies is too controversial for sensitive ears. Trade Unions have had political adverts banned from under noses too. The public is not now going to hear about these two issues in the way these organisations wanted them to.
Of course, there are right-wing groups who are licking their lips at the thought of being able to launch aggressive advertising campaigns too. North East Says No campaign’s political broadcast is possibly the best example of aggressive populism on our TV’s so far, and more will come if the advert ban is lifted.
But are we really that scared of the weakness of our own arguments?
Of course, if – and when – the ban is lifted, there will have to be a sensible framework of rules to make sure that rich organisations can’t just buy public opinion – but the fact remains, progressive organisations have a huge amount to gain from the lifting of this ban.
In 1964, Johnson’s ads painting Barry Goldwater as a dangerous right-wing extremist played a massive part in winning the Democrats a landslide victory. Using political ads is neither a right-wing nor a left-wing tool, but it is one we will be able to us to devastating effect if progressives can harness them correctly.