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No advantage for Gillard in misguided asylum seeker campaign

The new government campaign misses the mark. Australian government

With 5,459 attempted boat arrivals to Australia in the first half of 2012, an increase of 894 since last year, it is no wonder the prime minister is desperate to demonstrate she is combating people smuggling.

Recently, the Australian Government released a number of online clips through its Youtube channel Notopeoplesmuggling with the objective of informing asylum seekers that due to legislative changes there is now “no advantage” in taking a boat to reach Australia.

The videos, designed to resemble advertisements, are in the key seven languages spoken by asylum seekers: Arabic for Iraqis, Dari, Farsi and Pashto for Afghans, Tamil and Sinhalese for Sri Lankans, and English – presumably for an Australian audience.

Weak words

The videos open with what appears to be an unseaworthy boat, then a number of depressing images of the processing centres at Nauru and Manus Island. Interspersed with these images is the banner tagline: “No Advantage”. The voiceovers for the clips feature a deep male baritone and a firm female voice attempting to deliver authority and presence.

The tagline “No Advantage” was a feature of the report of the Expert Panel into Asylum Seekers (presented to the government last month). The prime minister has committed to adopting everything contained within the report, but did she need to take this so literally and promote a weak, non-confronting term such as “No Advantage”?

Who’s watching?

Accompanying marketing material states, “Tell your family, friends and loved ones – there’s No Advantage … say no to people smugglers.”

But will these messages get passed on? Probably not.

The language featured in all the material is bureaucratic. It discusses how “Australia is committed to breaking the people smuggler’s business model”, how “governments from countries in the region have agreed that irregular movement facilitated by people smugglers should be eliminated and the countries should support opportunities for orderly migration”. That “Australians have a legitimate expectation” that immigration processing will be fair.

This approach begs the question of who the intended audience is. Even translated into one of the seven languages featured, this copy is bland, unappealing and reads like a ministerial brief.

It would be highly surprising if this text or imagery had the power to influence anyone desperate enough to risk their lives and their family for a better future – and that’s if they are so inclined to get access to the internet and log-on to the government’s “Notopeoplesmuggling” Youtube channel to view the videos in the first place.

Know your audience

It is obvious these materials have been developed as an attempt to tell Australians the government is doing something: that it is informing asylum seekers, their families and that over-used phrase, “loved ones”.

If the government feels the desperate need to inform us it is educating asylum seekers of the risks involved in using a people smuggler, it should be brave enough to develop a communications campaign specifically for us.

This would mean being clear on what the campaign objective is and understanding who the target audience is – not producing a range of Youtube clips that are ineffective for any audience.

No impact

This desire to surreptitiously inform the voting public that it is delivering is not peculiar to a Labor government.

The Howard government took the same approach when it produced the multimillion dollar National Security Public Information campaign. This was first introduced in 2002 following the Bali bombings. The campaign continued to be supported by the Howard government until 2007, when it was adopted by the Rudd government.

Both governments saw it as critical to let us, the Australian public, know that they were doing something to help our national security. And governments continue to take this approach even if the campaigns demonstrate little or no impact.

The right to explain

In 2009, I was invited to present an expert’s briefing to the Joint Standing Committee on Public Accounts and Audit for its inquiry into the “Role of the Auditor-General in scrutinising government advertising campaigns”.

The members of the committee anticipated that I would speak against the politicisation of government advertising. They seemed surprised that I believe it is the right of every government to explain its policies, legislation and operational requirements through marketing communication campaigns.

What I did explain though, is that government communications, like all marketing communications, must be developed in the most efficient and effective way to reach the target audience and have an impact, whatever the objective is.

Every marketing communication campaign should meet its objectives. Otherwise, as with the “No Advantage” campaign, we must question why it was developed in the first place.

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