Does advertising spend influence elections?

The relationship between advertising and election results is a growing history. Iconic campaigns such as the Conservative’s ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ of 1979 designed by Saatchi & Saatchi show how resonant carefully planned messages can be with the electorate. But how does advertising spend during campaigning relate to victories? Is there anything to say that ad spend corresponds to increasing percentage of the vote, seats in the house and claiming general election victory? To look at a few examples, it would suggest that there is a strong ROI.

Without including direct mail or ‘unsolicited material to electors’ (as defined by the Electoral Commission) total advertising spend has ranged in the previous four elections since 2001, peaking in 2005 at £15.8M* and running to a total of £6.9M in 2015. What has not differed, however, is the fact that the Conservative Party has consistently outspent the other mainstream parties since 2001. This is unsurprising when considering the nature of the party and the financial firepower they have at their disposal through their backers.

Before Labour’s victories in 2001 and 2005 their campaign ad-spend consistently stayed around £5M and on both occasions Labour returned resounding working majorities, 2001 soaring into the mid-160s. However, in 2010 the Labour Party saw a massive drop in seats, returning only 258 MPs and ultimately handing the election victory to the Conservative-led coalition. Clearly, election results should not be simplified to a single issue and 2010 was no different; there was economic uncertainty, the Chilcott Enquiry had been announced, Bigotgate, Cleggmania and Farage’s campaign plane crash-landing. Despite this it is interesting to put this result into context when considering that Labour’s ad-spend dropped to just under £1M, well below their 2005 total and significantly below the Conservative’s £7.5M, choosing instead to focus the budget on direct mail.

Another example of the power of ad-spend is to look at the enormous increase in seats won by the Scottish National Party from 2010 to 2015. In 2010, under Alex Salmond, the SNP won a paltry 6 seats, whereas in 2015 this soared to 58 seats and positioned Nicola Sturgeon’s party as the third largest in Westminster. SNP’s total ad-spend in 2010 was £47K, in 2015 they invested just over £700K into ad-spend throughout their campaign. Again, there were other factors in this election for the Scottish voter, a possible independence referendum being foremost, however, this massive uplift in spend suggests a greater presence and ability to effectively disseminate their message to the electorate.

Within this correlation between spend and seats, it is also worth taking a more in-depth look at which channels were used. The Conservative working majority of 17 that was returned in 2015 was a surprise for many, perhaps the first of a string of election results in the last few years that have shed doubt on polling forecast accuracy. Again, unsurprisingly the Conservatives outspent the Labour Party on advertising by £3.5M, however, the most noticeable discrepancy within that was the spend on social media. David Cameron’s party racked up a Facebook bill of £1.2M** which dwarfed Ed Miliband’s Zuckerberg budget of £17K. This tactic is one that has since been effectively employed by the Leave camp and the ‘Trump Train’, both seen as wild underdogs at the start of their campaigns.

It will be interesting to see how much each party has spent in this year’s election, with an apparent uplift in social media use across the party political spectrum. Whatever the result the nation wakes up to on Friday, advertising spend in campaigning and general election results are linked. The nature of this election’s campaigning has been such that suggests the major parties have reacted to a growing trend; presence and exposure trump policy and substance.

*All party campaign spends from

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