labour isn't working political campaign

Political Posters and Reception Theory


Designed by the powerful advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, the “Labour Isn’t Working” campaign was run in 1978 and 1979. The high unemployment rate in the UK was a crucial issue and the Conservative Party, led by Margaret Thatcher, wanted to attack the Labour Government on their handling of the crisis.

This poster was a tremendous success. In fact, after Thatcher was elected Prime Minister, the Tory party treasurer at the time claimed that the poster had “won the election for the Conservatives”.1 Campaign, a magazine for business and marketing, voted the advertisement as the “Best Poster of the Century”.2

Its simple but effective message is certainly worth studying. For this essay-style question, you are going to apply Stuart Hall’s reception theory to the poster so make sure you are aware of the key concepts in his model of communication:

diagram of the encoding / decoding model of communication
Encoding / Decoding Model of Communication


Analyse the following billboard poster using ideas from Stuart Hall’s reception theory:

  • encoded and decoded messages
  • preferred reading.
labour isn't working political campaign
Conservative Party Campaign

Points to Consider

Stuart Hall was delivering lectures on his encoding / decoding model of communication when this campaign poster was created so his students were probably eager to analyse the text according to his approach.

He proposed that television programmes were encoded by the combination of the production company’s technical infrastructure, the relations of production and their frameworks of knowledge. In other words, media texts are influenced by the technology available, the teams of people involved in the different stages of production, such as the director, editor and those in front of the camera, and all of their values and ideologies.

The budget was tight for this production so that might explain the decision not to use an actual building to denote the unemployment office. Perhaps the mental concept becomes more universal without a specific location because the image could be anywhere in the UK.

Interestingly, on the day the photograph was supposed to be taken, the advertising agency hoped that one hundred volunteers from the Conservative Party would turn up for the photoshoot but fewer than twenty young Tories showed any interest. The poster’s designer, Martin Walsh, marked the path out by using a rope and then photographed the same group of tightly-huddled people at different points along the route. By superimposing the pictures on top of each other, he was able to give the impression that a large queue had formed outside the unemployment office.3

Try to spot where one photograph ends and another begins.

In terms of the frameworks of knowledge, the political ideology should be straightforward. The Conservative Party wanted to offer their own manifesto as an alternative to the Labour Government which they viewed as failing the nation.

Semiotic Analysis

You should consider the visual codes used in the design. For example, how important is the headline in encoding the preferred reading of the text? Notice the choice of sans-serif typeface and the font size and weight. There is no doubt that this is an important signifier. Suggest why the producers included a full stop.

What message is being encoded in the image of the people in the dole queue? Comment on the number of people and the way the line snakes into the distance.

How does the tagline “Britain’s better off with the Conservatives” provide anchorage for the preferred reading of the text?

Decoding Positions

It is also important to analyse how the message might be decoded. Consider the reaction of someone who is unemployed. How might they feel when they see the poster?

The Labour leader, Denis Healy accused the Tories of “selling politics like soap-powder”.4 This interpretation that the poster devalues parliament could be viewed as an oppositional reading of the text.

1 BBC News (2001): “’Epoch-making’ poster was clever fake”. Accessed
2 The Guardian (1999): “Tory advert rated poster of the century”. Accessed
3 BBC News (2001)
4 ditto

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!