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History of Advertising No 90: 'Labour isn't working' poster

It only appeared on a handful of sites, was backed by a minuscule budget and its imagery was faked. Yet it's fair to say that the 1979 poster for the Conservative Party declaring "Labour isn't working" was a game-changer.

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Things you need to know

  • The poster’s success was due in large part to Gordon Reece, Thatcher’s election strategist, who picked it out from a number of roughs presented to him by the agency.
  • Lord Thorneycroft, then the Conservative Party chairman, claimed the poster had “won the election for the Conservatives”.
  • Having masterminded three Thatcher election victories, Saatchi & Saatchi was appointed to handle the Labour Party’s account in 2007.

It heralded the arrival of US-style political advertising in Britain. And, more than three decades later, it remains the most iconic advertising of its kind in the UK.

Ironically, the poster depicting a dole queue snaking out from an unemployment office and disappearing into the distance almost never made it to the billboards.

Unable to use real unemployed people, Saatchi & Saatchi turned to members of the Hendon Young Conservatives, who were asked to gather at a North London park for the shoot. But less than 20 people turned up.

"I thought about calling it off," Martyn Walsh, who created the ad, later recalled. Instead, he photographed the same group of people over and over again.

The ad enraged the Labour government. At the time, ministers were contemptuous of political advertising, claiming it trivialised serious issues.

One was Denis Healey, who criticised the poster for duping electors by using people who were not genuinely jobless and claiming that the Conservatives were "selling politics like soap powder".

But his attack served only to guarantee the poster massive front-page coverage – and helped propel Margaret Thatcher to power.

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