Advertising is one element of marketing communications (others include, but are not limited to, public relations, branding, and strategy) that performs a fundamental role in the political campaign. Though defined collectively as ‘propaganda’ by historians or as ‘political marketing’ by modern practitioners, it is important to recognise that ‘communications’ activities existed long before the modern definition came about.

For instance, one could point to Imperial Roman architecture, statues and coins as key symbols of the imperial brand, used to exhibit the power and influence of the emperor before the invention of the printing press; French pamphlets composed in coffee shops and disseminated to circulate ideas and stir up revolutionary fervour in the run up to 1789; or Lord Kitchener’s famous ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster campaign commissioned to recruit British men during The Great War.

But the finest examples of groups integrating advertising strategies into their efforts to achieve wider political objectives can be observed in the activities of twentieth-century European fascist institutions. For instance, after the ruthless annihilation of republican partisans during the march on Madrid in 1936, General Franco capitalised upon international press attention wrought from the relief of Toledo to smear the reputation of his opposition and preserve his own.

He effectively used advertising in two ways: first, to portray the Republic’s forces as deserters of authentic Spanish culture; and second, to make the fortress town of Toledo synonymous with the traditional right – a literal as well as figurative bastion of old Spain – through reenacting the siege on camera for cinema audiences around the world.

But Franco’s republican adversaries were equally adept proponents of propaganda. Through using modern photomontage techniques, which the traditionalist Franco would have appeared hypocritical in using, the Republic’s strategists claimed sole ownership of this advertising channel, painting themselves as brave defenders of the preservation of social, political and technological progress.

By the time Franco began to mount his backlash against the Republic, Mussolini (who sponsored Franco throughout the Spanish Civil War) had consolidated his dictatorship in Italy. Mussolini’s brand of advertising was, then, more convincing and pervasive than Franco’s, for it propagated the principles of the Partito Nazionalie Fascista across numerous communication channels within a paradigm defined by the fascist party.

By 1926 the Italian authorities could confiscate newspapers on grounds of inciting class hatred or defamation of the government. Fascist journals meanwhile received substantial subsidies. The administration also employed contemporary artists like Baldelli, Cagli and Scarpelli to produce paintings, posters and postcards for public exhibitions, while radio provided an effective source for pro-fascist light entertainment and for disseminating Mussolini’s evocative speeches.

Finally, popular pastimes, youth clubs and sports teams were appropriated and rebranded in alignment with fascist ideals. Unlike Franco’s pursuit of ‘old’ Spain, Mussolini imagined a culture of innovation and modernism reinforced by the revival of Ancient Rome’s glories. This juxtaposition of ‘the best of the old and new’ is most visible in the capital city’s contrasting architectural styles: the presence of stark, modernist buildings interspersed with the intricate ancient detailing of the ruins.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons

Given that the Nazi regime has become virtually synonymous with propaganda activity and few, if any, readers will have escaped the subject matter through school, this article will not cover it in any detail. However, for those interested, Nicholas O’Shaughnessy’s newly released Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand provides an insightful application of marketing communications concepts to the regime.

Though the messages communicated and the communication platforms used may have changed with time, it would be naïve to think of political advertising as a relic of history. In recent years, for many western democratic parties, Election Day victory is increasingly dependent upon the pursuit of flexible voter-orientated strategies in place of traditional ideological principles.

In pursuit of what Anthony Giddens calls ‘The Third Way’, Clinton’s ‘New Democrats’ in the 1992 US election and Blair’s ‘New Labour’ in the 1997 UK election perfectly embody this ‘race to the centre’ mentality, sacrificing the fewer ardent loyalists for a greater slice of electorate pie. Consequently, as different parties’ policies become more difficult to differentiate to the undiscerning voter, greater sums are spent to communicate the different positioning of both sides. All this manifests in greater advertising spending. To provide a sense of the scale of the sums involved: Obama and Romney spent a combined $2.1 Billion in advertising alone during the 2012 election. And this was almost twice that spent by Bush and Gore only twelve years earlier.