Change we can believe in?

David Cameron: wants change in Britain
David Cameron: wants change in Britain

LONDON - The election result may not be a foregone conclusion but the prospect of a Tory government remains strong enough for marketers to ask what this would mean for them.

The Conservative Party's once dominant lead in the polls may have slipped in recent months, but the smart money is still on David Cameron getting the keys to No. 10 in early May.

Since winning the Tory leadership in 2005, Cameron's efforts to present a fresh image for the party, coupled with a collapse in public support for Gordon Brown, have brought the country closer to a Conservative government than at any time since Labour came to power 13 years ago.

The Tories have traditionally been seen as the natural bedfellows of business - and, by extension, a friend to the commercial marketing industry - because of their emphasis on the free market, light-touch regulation and minimal state interference.

However, since the New Labour project moved the party to the centre, the old distinctions have blurred. Moreover, Cameron's recent comments on the premature sexualisation of children through advertising suggests that the Conservatives will not be giving marketing a free pass.

'We have had a business-friendly Labour party for more than 10 years now,' says Labour-supporting EHS Brann chairman Terry Hunt, who argues that it was the Tories, rather than Labour, who alarmed the City by talking about breaking up the banks following the financial meltdown.

Yet, despite the broad similarities, there are still some key areas where the two main parties differ, meaning that significant changes lie ahead for marketers in the event of a Tory election victory.

Whitehall marketing spend

With public finances under intense scrutiny, all eyes have shifted to COI spending. The Conservatives have pledged to slash its £540m 'turnover' by 40% to bring it back to 1997 levels. According to Nielsen, almost £208m was spent on advertising alone last year, so this will need to be reduced dramatically, if the Tories are to hit their target.

Richard Morris, managing director of branding agency Identica and a Liberal Democrat activist, casts doubt on whether this is possible or desirable.

'It's easy in opposition to talk about cutting adspend, as opposed to things like health or education, but it's not as straightforward or insignificant as they think it is,' he says.

The areas facing the chop are unclear. Reports surfaced that public-health campaigns were top of the list but this has been vehemently denied by the Conservatives.

'I doubt that the Tories have actually worked it out themselves,' adds Morris.

Consumer confidence

While the Tories' talk of an age of austerity has become more muted in recent months, the party has put a high priority on cutting the £178bn budget deficit if it is elected, and this could have a significant effect on consumers' willingness to hit the shops.

Lord Bell, Margaret Thatcher's former adman, says: 'Life will get harder in the long term but the result will be sustainable growth. The Tory government will focus on wealth creation and that means the country's economy will improve.'

The opposition appears to have regained its reputation for economic competence. 'On the whole, a greater proportion of people feel the economy would be better run by the Conservative Party after the next election,' says a spokeswoman for online pollster YouGov.

However, consumers are not as sure as they once were. Since the summer, YouGov has detected decreasing confidence in the Tories' ability to manage the economy and a corresponding increase in confidence in the government. In July, 37% of people favoured the Conservatives, compared with 23% for Labour. In January, the Tory lead in this area had almost halved, with the parties scoring 34% and 26% respectively.

Health

In January, the Conservatives released a policy green paper entitled, A Healthier Nation. At first glance, it seems to be tough on marketing, but closer inspection reveals a more nuanced picture.

For example, it moots the extension of voluntary restrictions on marketing to children to cover online, but the industry already has this in hand. The same applies to the paper's call for supermarkets to make their food products healthier and introduce smaller portion sizes.

The party's policy on nutritional labelling - it favours the guideline daily amount scheme - bears the imprint of the likes of Kellogg and Unilever, which have lobbied against the Food Standards Agency's rival traffic-light system. Explaining this position, shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley says: 'Our focus should be on educating people about what constitutes a good diet or bad diet, rather than castigating people about what is good food and bad food.'

Tobacco manufacturers may also have cause to celebrate a Tory victory, as the party has indicated it is willing to review the cigarette display ban due to come into force from next year.

Media

The Tories have made no secret of their desire to reduce the scope of the BBC, and this has been warmly welcomed by commercial broadcasters.

The strategic review conducted by the corporation's director-general Mark Thompson, which proposed a scaling back of the BBC's website and the closure of radio stations, was widely seen as an effort to head off further reining in by an incoming Conservative government. Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt says: 'It is vital that the BBC does not use its position to quash commercial rivals who don't have the benefit of public subsidy.'

He cites the BBC's angling website as an example of where he would like to see cuts. 'It might initially appear to be great for the angling community, but if the unintended consequence of that was to drive every angling magazine in the country out of business, you would have to question whether it is appropriate,' he adds.

As part of his plans to trigger a 'media revolution', Hunt is also keen to abolish cross-media ownership rules which prevent companies from incorporating more than one newspaper or radio station in a defined geographical area. He argues that removing this restriction, would be of huge benefit to advertisers and ailing media alike. 'I want the advertising industry to take advantage of our plans for local media,' says Hunt. 'With a new network of local TV stations there will be many opportunities for the industry to tap into the marketing needs of local businesses.'

Regulation

The good news for the industry is that the opposition party has clearly signalled its support for the ASA's self-regulatory system and ruled out ad bans on alcohol and junk food. Plans to remove the policy-making powers of Ofcom will also please commercial broadcasters.

However, Cameron's pronouncements on the sexualisation of childhood - have upset some in the marketing industry. The Tories' proposed website for parents to complain about 'offensive marketing tactics' was dismissed as 'policy on the fly' by IPA director-general Hamish Pringle.

Nonetheless, Advertising Association chief executive Tim Lefroy says that, having met the shadow cabinet, he is 'encouraged' by its attitude to the marketing industry. 'We don't expect the Tories to be heavy-handed with legislation, but they will expect companies to show a sense of social and corporate responsibility on the big issues of the day,' he adds.

Sustainability

Environmental policy has been a key component of Cameron's plans to decontaminate the Conservatives' 'nasty party' reputation. Cameron provided a memorable photo opportunity during his early days as leader when he drove a dog sled across a snowfield on the Norwegian island of Svalbard during an expedition to the Arctic Circle to examine a melting glacier.

Since then, another memorable photo - of Cameron cycling to work followed by a car carrying his briefcase - has provided a more enduring image of the Tory leader's attitude to sustainability.

Last month, when Cameron unveiled the six areas on which his party would contest the election, the environment was notable by its absence. Chris Arnold, creative partner of agency Creative Orchestra and author of Ethical Marketing and the New Consumer, predicts that 'green fatigue' means the issue could drop off the political agenda. He accuses politicians of all hues of paying lip service to the environment.

However, while some sections of the Tory right are still prone to cynicism about climate change, with some citing the unseasonal snow in their constituencies as evidence that they are right to be so minded, the party's high command insists that its 'Go green, vote blue,' slogan still applies.

One of the big ideas involving brands revealed at the 2009 party conference was to allow M&S and other 'trusted' retailers to provide energy-efficiency improvements to households to create a competitive market worth at least £2.5bn a year.

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