Democracy is dead, long live political marketing

Kevin Rudd used to manage his brand well, but was toppled after an advertising campaign against him. AAP/YouTube

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY: Today, Andrew Hughes looks at how voters have become consumers of political marketing, as part of The Conversation’s week-long series on how the media influences the way our representatives develop policy.

Over the last five years, Australian politics has undergone a quiet revolution. It has killed off political parties with long-term ideology and platforms, and replaced them with politicians who are market-driven, short-term in focus, and chase after electoral success at any cost.

The revolution has swept all before it to change the way politics is not only seen but consumed.

Yes, you heard right, consumed.

Where has the ideology gone?

It used to be that national party conferences actually meant something and the rank and file actually had a voice that was heard within political parties.

Now, democracy is dead and political marketing is alive and well. So when and why did this happen?

Democracy really never stood a chance once political parties realised how much more effective political marketing was at winning them government. The dominant strategy is now marketing a product to a targeted segment of voters, or stakeholder groups, who have the influence and power to get the party across the line.

Long-term visions were one thing, but when winning government became more important than taking a view and sticking to it, regardless of the political cost, then democracy, as those in politics then knew it, was doomed.

Rank-and-file party members started to lose their voice because the parties realised that as their membership numbers shrank, they were no longer a representative sample of the electorates they were trying to attract.

Instead the parties needed to go straight to the market, specifically the swinging middle, and target that market instead. All they had to do was keep some core policies for their core markets to keep on winning the safe seats. This allowed the party to move into the middle space without being that inconsistent with what the core wanted from them.

How to do this without you and I really noticing? This is where the sell comes into it.

Selling the message

In the 1990s, these changes became noticeable in political campaigns where the focus was increasingly on communications and awareness of key policies, and no longer the long term vision.

This was due in part to the success of similar campaign strategies in the United States with Bill Clinton and the first major marketing campaign of New Labour in the United Kingdom that saw Tony Blair sweep to power.

That is target the middle heavily, offer the core policy depth in 3-4 strategic policy issues, and make the leader the brand that the consumer has the connection and experience with, not the party.

The ALP’s “It’s Time” campaign was an early example of clever political marketing. YouTube/Canberra666

Whilst some earlier campaigns in Australian politics, such as the famous 1972 Australian Labor Party (ALP) “It’s Time” federal campaign, used elements of marketing incredibly well, campaigns generally were not designed and developed from a marketing perspective until the mid to late 2000s.

The honour of the first marketed political campaign – from candidate selection, communications strategy, policy design and costing the price of a vote for the brand – goes to the 2007 Kevin07 Labor campaign.

The Kevin07 brand and its demise

Kevin07 confirmed that brand management was now more important than party ideology. Kevin07 also announced the era of the permanent campaign, 24/7 brand management where only the select few were allowed to mould and manage the message. Something that Harry Evans, former Clerk of the Senate, has made mention about in the context of executive power.

Winning the election, and keeping that lead in the polls, mattered more than holding true and firm to a long-held policy position or doing what was best for the national interest of Australia.

The era of the Newspoll Prime Minister and Kevin 24/7 had arrived.

After the success of Kevin Rudd in 2007, if there were still any doubt as to the rise of political marketing in Australia, they were proved wrong by his demise in 2010. His toppling was mainly due to the effectiveness of one marketing campaign run by a commercial profit group representing the views of one area of Australian business – the mining industry.

That campaign managed to get the market to move enough to put Labor’s primary vote in the range where they couldn’t win the marginals. Goodbye Kevin and hello stakeholder groups now realising the era of political marketing allows more influence than ever.

Many more vested interests have followed suit, marketing for influence and keeping Labor’s Newspoll primary vote below the low 30s – the level at which the ALP needs to be to remain competitive in the marginal seats.

But it wasn’t just the demise of Kevin Rudd that made those in the party backrooms realise that political marketing was now too potent to ignore. It was the success of that campaign.

The single most effective advertising campaign in Australian marketing history that for an outlay of only roughly $38 million has returned the head of one unfriendly Prime Minister and billions in saved profits.

From voter to consumer

But there is a far greater reason why political marketing is rapidly becoming the strategy of choice by the major players in Australian politics.

We’ve lost the voter, but gained the consumer.

Society generally became increasingly more consumption-based with all products, commercial or otherwise, a trend was picked up decades ago by marketing researchers.

Electorates now act as groups of consumers, thinking short-term and not long-term. The visionary voter disappeared with the visionary party years ago. The “Me” voter dominates the middle, or as Mark Latham team so infamously described them, those on the Ladder of Opportunity.

The focus on single issues

Now consumers of political products are becoming segmented and issue-specific, driven by two to three big political issues that directly relate to them.

This splintering of the market means that one issue may affect only one segment in a large way but be of little consequence to other segments.

Examples are everywhere.

Ageing, health and superannuation fund regulation are major issues for the grey market, but not for the Generation X and Y markets that are more concerned about the environment, low unemployment and being able to get a foot onto the property ladder.

Opposition leader, Tony Abbott was big with males and Prime Minister, Julia Gillard was big with females at the 2010 election. Abbott used that strength to reinforce his embrace of hard right policies on immigration, the environment and the economy; Gillard focused on the key left issues of health, education and the environment through climate change. The result split the middle and left us with the hung parliament we now face.

The importance of the wedge issue

The rise of single issues has also meant that parties can, and do, target the needs of the political consumer effectively by use of tactics such as the wedge. This helps them differentiate themselves from the other brands in the market, keeps awareness high of the leader brand and will stop any repeat of the hung parliament.

Once famous as the tactic of choice of John Howard who defined its use in his political campaigns, especially in 2001 and 2004, the Greens have become the new masters of the wedge.

Issues such as gay marriage, climate change, the carbon tax and immigration, have helped the Greens leverage their position to now dominate the hard-left segments of Australian politics, roughly 10 to 15 per cent of the total market.

They have also found a handy springboard into the soft middle-Left of ALP’s inner city Generation X and Y markets, forcing Labor into reactionary strategy to try and keep this market. This left space in the middle right of the market for Tony Abbott to capture without much of a fight.

Tony Abbott has been playing catch up on the wedge thanks to lessons from John Howard. His election campaign in 2010 was really saying, “I’m Liberal Conservative and I’m proud!”. He didn’t care about the left and the left middle; he wanted to show to the right consumer that they now had a brand that they could be proud of and represented them on the issues that mattered to them.

Ted Bailleu’s copycat approach in Victoria showed that the Liberals think they are onto something. And they are. The Liberals have been running hard on anything right that also gets lots of airtime. Just ask Andrew Bolt.

Julia Gillard needs to play to her wedge, the left. The real Julia that is. If she would please stand up. Instead of being brand pioneers and leaders on strong left market issues such as health, education, climate change and welfare reform, brand Julia has been forced into compromises with stakeholder groups and the Greens, appearing to lack direction and focus. Where is the brand experience that so captivated the market with Kevin07?

The market is telling Julia it is time to start listening. Visions of grandeur or long term thinking are what helped killed many leaders on both sides of politics. And the preferred PM ratings should tell her that it’s not that they prefer Abbott, just that they are tired of her current offering.

Brand Julia needs to refocus quickly. Balancing the budget talk is appearing more and more out of touch with a market that wants economic pragmatism and a brand that speaks like they do. Old school democracy with party platforms that were changed at glacial speed that may have supported her current strategy are gone.

The market is speaking through its most powerful voice, brand preference, and it will be only those brands who understand, target and offer policies (products) that suit the needs of the key segments that will taste success in the new political climate. Climate change is here alright, but who is ready to make the most of it?

This is the third part of our Media and Democracy series. To read the other instalments, follow the links here:.