LONDON — A bid by Brian Mawhinney, the chairman of Britain's Conservative Party, to use "American-style" political advertising against the Labour Party leader Tony Blair appears to have backfired.
Full-page advertisements Mr. Mawhinney ordered to be run in national newspapers depicting Mr. Blair as an evil demon with burning red eyes above the caption "New Labour, New Danger," have come under fire from a wide range of critics, including leading clergymen.
Mawhinney has been charged by Prime Minister John Major with turning around his party's sagging fortunes amid persistent signs that the Conservatives may lose the general election - to be held by April 1997 - unless they stage a massive recovery in the public's affections. A recent Gallup poll showed Labour with 59 percent support against the Conservatives' 25 percent.
Some veteran Conservative parliamentarians have made it clear they think Mawhinney has gone too far. Sir Julian Critchley, a Conservative MP for 25 years, says, "The poster is childish, counterproductive and turns voters off." Another MP called for the advertisement to be withdrawn.
But among the higher echelons of the Conservative Party the use of satanic imagery in depicting Blair has stout defenders. Senior Cabinet minister Michael Portillo, who is helping to coordinate a summer offensive against Labour, says, "We have to expose the reality and make the dangers clear."
"We have applied the symbol of the red eyes - which stand for danger - to Tony Blair in order to make the point that behind the smiles and the sound bites there are policies which are deeply dangerous to our country," he says.
Mr. Portillo cited a pamphlet published by the moderate left- wing Fabian Society, a long-established think tank, proposing a scaling-down of the monarchy, as evidence of the danger Blair and his "New Labour" team posed.
Even before the pamphlet was published, however, Blair authorized the issuing of a statement insisting that it was not Labour Party policy to interfere with the monarchy.
Conservative Party officials also justify the ad by claiming that in the US, negative advertisements and posters are frequently used in political campaigning.
But media analysts say the kind of personalized attack now being made on Blair would be unlikely to be adopted in America.
Also, doubts have been raised about the effectiveness of attempts to "demonize" a politician who is not only popular but is a practicing Christian who attends church every Sunday.
The Labour Party conducted a street poll that showed 40 percent of respondents saying the advertisement had made them less supportive of the Conservatives. Two-thirds thought the advertisement "untruthful and misleading".
"I think the Conservatives are making a big mistake by stressing negative aspects rather than proclaiming their own policies," says media analyst Nicholas O'Shaughnessy. "I doubt very much whether any American political party would rely so heavily on attacking their opponents' leading figure in quite the way Blair is being attacked."
The Independent newspaper commented in an editorial: "Tony Blair is an improbable Beelzebub."
The use of the "New Labour, New Danger" slogan, coupled with a picture of a smiling Blair with eyes painted in to look like flaming coals, was suggested by Saatchi and Saatchi, the internationally known advertising agency.
In 1979 the Saatchi brothers devised an ad campaign that is widely credited with having helped to bring Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to power.
Now, however, the Saatchis appear to believe that the best way to cut into Labour's poll lead is to mount personalized attacks on Blair and suggest that the Labour Party under his leadership has a hidden agenda.
Conservative campaign literature currently circulating claims Labour in office would drop a "tax bombshell" and fail to defend Britain's interests in the European Union.