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Selling the political message: what makes a good advert?

Cate Blanchett is among the celebrities pressed into service to persuade us on political issues. AAP/WWF

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY: This afternoon, Andrew Hughes examines which recent political adverts have been a success, as part of The Conversation’s week-long series on how the media influences the way our representatives develop policy.

You would have thought that political advertising would be a little more sophisticated these days, now it has to try so much harder to grab our attention. But in recent years, political advertising campaigns have been a bit like a Clint Eastwood western – we’ve had the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good are good enough to become timeless classics of advertising, such as the Rudd government’s mining tax campaign that cost the government $38 million. Others, like the National Party ads from the 2010 election, are found in the advertising graveyard of YouTube.

So how do some of the more recent campaigns measure up? Let’s have a look at four.

A Licence to Punt…It’s Un-Australian

Mates talk about why that ‘bloke down in Tassie’ is plain un-Australian. YouTube/

Who’s the audience?

Always look for the audience in the people used in the ad. In this case, it’s your middle-class, middle-aged suburban male, probably who meets his mates down at the local on the weekend for a social drink.

What’s the strategy?

Fear of government and of a change in lifestyle due to pokie machines reform.

The fear pitch for the change in lifestyle works on the audience having their regular routine stopped by the government.

No more quiet beer and a punt at the local because of a big-brother style licensing regime. Also the local pub itself comes under threat, threatening another Australian icon.

This is where the fear of government strategy kicks in. Licensing means government intrusion into private lives, watching our every move and being only the beginning of further limitations on “freedoms” to engage in certain behaviour, such as consumption of alcohol and gambling.

Does it work? Is it successful?

Yes and no. Yes, it does the fear of the government strategy quite well. The rest flops badly, particularly the visual aspects of the ad and the change in lifestyle components.

The visuals need to be more creative and highlight the fear components in a more edgy or scarier way (think the classic Grim Reaper AIDS commercial from the 1980s).

The format and structure itself is also too cumbersome, particularly the political education component about Gillard and Wilkie which was cringeworthy. Get to the point and make the point interesting. Being scary or fun is what makes advertising of this type effective.

It’s too soon to tell if this campaign is successful enough to turn the political tide as the legislation is yet to reach parliament.

Mining Tax

You’re gonna get whacked with a bad jingle. YouTube/Association of Mining and Exploration Companies.

Who’s the audience?

Anyone over 18 years old who votes. I’ve never been a fan of these strategies, best to stick to some target markets and work on those. Targeting everyone is just too hit and miss.

What’s the strategy?

Most political ads focus on fear because they usually work well using one simple message. This is no exception. The strategy in this case is fear that a mining tax will cause thousands of jobs losses in many industries, not just mining.

Does it work? Is it successful?

Not at all. Firstly, the music just has to go. It’s annoying and repetitive, although that means we’ll remember it, right? Well, kids might but their parents will hate it.

The jingle cheapens the message and makes it seem tacky. Different music would have changed this, such as this great road safety ad from the UK which uses a similar fear strategy.

The visual side isn’t too bad, showing how people in different industries will get “hit” by a tax. But the key pitch, fear of job losses, doesn’t really have the punch required.

This is probably because of the mass market audience strategy. If they had used a more targeted message across a series of key demographics then I think it would have worked better.

Use of a highly credible source, such as a celebrity or a newspaper or university report, would have also helped with the credibility side of things. The whole believe-us-we’re-honest-businesspeople approach should be left to organised crime.

It’s hard to tell if this ad campaign will change things politically, but arguably, the last time the mining industry campaigned against a government policy, it helped bring down a prime minister.

It won’t work so why do it

Retailers argue plain packaging will hurt jobs. YouTube/The Association of Australian Retailers.

Who’s the audience?

Mass market target, but mainly those aged over 18.

What’s the strategy?

Very similar to the mining tax campaign. The strategy here is to get people to oppose plain packaging of cigarettes because of the harm this will cause to those in the retail sector.

Does it work? Is it successful?

Not at all because the argument itself just isn’t believable as there is nothing lending credibility to their claims.

Message wise the ad is actually not too bad. I liked the use of different people from different backgrounds, but there was no way of knowing if they really ran a shop or were actors.

The speed, backgrounds, edits and timing were all good, but if the message itself doesn’t have any credibility then the various components will not work for the viewer, regardless. This is because consumers would have stopped paying attention or switched to a different channel long ago.

Advertising to work well needs to keep people watching and entertained. This message from GetUp! works very well for those reasons.

We’ll have to wait and see if this ad campaign works against the government.

Say Yes Australia

Cate Blanchett and Michael Caton star in this climate change ad. YouTube/

Who’s the audience?

If you can vote and hate the carbon tax, so about 60% of us, then you’re in the target market.

What’s the strategy?

Convince the majority to support, or say yes, to the carbon tax. To do this they are using a positive message, with some celebrity endorsement thrown in, to highlight the reasons to support a carbon tax. Not an appeal to fear at all with this message.

Does it work? Is it successful?

The message itself does work. Not fantastically but it is effective. Being positive is a good start to the message, particularly with Michael Caton doing the intro. That establishes some trust and credibility in the message.

The logical development of the message, along with the use of colour to highlight positive and negative behaviours, is also a nice touch, again helped along by some celebrity endorsement in the form of Cate Blanchett. It’s well paced, smoothly constructed and has a good conclusion.

Where it could have been done better? The use of credible information sources to back up some of the claims, and I would have used celebrities all the way through to reinforce and support the message from start to finish.

The carbon issue is around for the foreseeable future, so we’ll have to see many more campaigns before the majority of people come round to the idea of the government’s carbon pricing scheme.

So how to make an effective political advertisement?

  • It’s all about the market

Define and understand your target and design a message that they will find attractive.

  • Go positive

Negative messages are risky. In this day and age probably too risky. Talk about what you will do, and how great life will be with your brand in control. Vincente Fox, the former Coke executive and Mexican President, was brilliant at the positive ad.

  • Be careful when using scare tactics

Ensure that fear campaigns are creative, clever and subtle. Yes you can do all three at once. The ACTU campaign showed just how well fear can work. It needs to be based on an element of truth from the existing market conditions. That’s why Tony Abbott’s campaign strategy on the Carbon Tax is working.

  • Credibility matters

Remember no one trusts politicians. Use a reliable and reputable third party source to back your claims. Here’s a nice example here from one of Clinton’s campaigns.

  • Celebrity endorsement can reinforce your message

One of Labor’s greatest errors with the marketing of the Carbon Tax campaign has been failing to use of one of their greatest environmental weapons - Peter Garrett. Why oh why is the greatest Green in Labor sitting around silent when he could be selling the message with the credibility that Swan and Gillard lack on the issue?

  • KISS

Finally, Keep It Simple Stupid! Don’t go overboard with information and content think of the Greens - their brand name says it all so no need to remember any of their policies.

If you can do all that the Lodge is not guaranteed, but you are well on the way to getting more market share and having a bigger say in who does end up calling it home.

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

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