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Clive Palmer, bushfires ads, Boris Johnson and selfies with dogs. One might say political advertising has gone mad. But a mix of legal loopholes and social media means the real insanity could be yet to come.
As Australians watched their backyard burn this past summer, the Federal Government released an ‘ad’ that drew the ire of many.
The 50-second video contains none of the same images of burnt homes and suffering animals that had featured so heavily in the news. Nor does it share any controversial statements or claims about climate change related to the fires.
The most jolting part of the video comes as it closes.
“Authorised by S. Morrison, Liberal Party, Canberra,” says the voiceover.
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison – the marketing-savvy former Tourism Australia managing director – would later say “it wasn’t a Liberal party-sponsored ad”, much of the damage was
As well as attracting widespread condemnation in the media, Morrison saw his approval rating plunge from 45 per cent to 37 per cent the week after the ad was released (although this was undoubtedly a result of the entire bushfire crisis).
So why was this ad so bad compared with a plethora of very forgettable political ads?
“It’s like being ‘sold to’ at a funeral,” tweeted advertising veteran and Gruen panellist Todd Sampson.
“Wow. A self-promotional commercial with cheesy elevator music? This is one of the most tone-deaf things I’ve ever seen a country’s leader put out during a crisis,” said British media commentator
“They are advertising their responses to the fires — promoting themselves — at the height of the crisis,” said Bob Hawke’s former press secretary and long-serving journalist Barrie Cassidy.
Speaking with B&T, Thinkerbell executive creative tinker Paul Swann suggests the ad was doomed from the get-go.
“By the time the video was created the government and Morrison, in particular, were already very much on the backfoot, so people were looking to find fault even before they pressed play,” he says.
“The tone of the supers gave the impression that the government was looking to claim credit for its response to the crisis, whereas public perceptions was that the response was lacking.
“It might sound like a small point, but I think the choice of music really didn’t help at all. The track was too upbeat, not reflective of the gravity of the situation.”
Chalk and cheese
While core principles still apply, political advertising is incredibly different to traditional advertising.
Take mentioning competitors. In most cases, brands will avoid making any direct mention of competitors (there are exceptions, such as Burger King) in their campaigns.
Conversely, political ads can often be centred around the opposition. Once upon a time, the practice was called going negative adn was thought of as an absolute last resort when all other avenues were exhausted.
“The nature of an election and the fact that we are often voting for a human being (as much as we are a political party) means there is more to be gained from getting personal and taking down the opposition,” says Swann.
“It’s not unusual to see a political ad devote 90 per cent of its real estate to diminishing their competitor. This would be highly unusual for a piece of non-political communications.”
Can we make good political ads? Yes we can
If Scott Morrison’s bushfires video was an unequivocally ‘bad’ ad, what makes a ‘good’ political campaign?
Simplicity is key, Swann says.
He points to one of the most memorable political ads in recent memory, the ‘Yes We Can’ campaign that saw Barack Obama secure his Presidency in 2008.
“This is textbook in terms of how memorable and punchy the line is,” Swann says.
“But the element of the campaign that was truly inspired from a strategic perspective was a piece of work in support of the campaign actually commissioned by The Jewish Council for Education and Research, called ‘The Great Schlep’.
“This initiative encouraged younger Obama voters to head home to visit their grandparents in Florida (a key swing state) to try and convince them to reconsider voting for Obama.
“It’s a great example of creating an action to change behaviour.”
Swann is similarly praiseworthy of the British Conservative Party’s ‘Labour isn’t working’ campaign from 1978, designed by Saatchi & Saatchi.
The posters helped the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, secure a historic victory at the 1979 election.
Backed by a tiny budget and only displayed at a few key sites, the campaign is still a poster child for political advertising decades later.
“The Labour isn’t working’ campaign struck right at the heart of the public’s fear of unemployment,” says Swann.
“The snaking line of people queuing at the jobcentre and the simple, but smart line combine perfectly to elicit a sense of doubt in Labour’s ability to turn the economy around.”
The Conservatives again got people talking with an ad campaign last year – but for different reasons.
On the eve of the United Kingdom’s general election last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Tories shared a Love Actually-inspired video to encourage voters to help get Brexit over the line.
Officially titled ‘Boris Johnson’s funny Love Actually Parody’, the three-minute ad was a tad awkward and more than a little bit uncomfortable. But according to Swann, this is exactly what Boris and his team were going for.
“There is a belief that this sort of approach is designed specifically to enrage opposition supporters who consequently share the video out of disgust and inadvertently increase its reach,” he says.
“If you make something that riles those you don’t support you, they will share it and your existing support will also share it, thus increasing overall reach.
“While the execution was less than polished, I don’t think this would have worried Johnson either, again this only seemed to increase the conversation surrounding the video.”
As well as sending a political message, there was also clearly another motive behind Boris’s Love Actually ad – go viral on social media.
With more than 750,000 hits on YouTube at the time of writing, it could be argued this goal was achieved.
“Using a well-known scene from an immensely popular movie is a great way to connect with a mass audience particularly in what for many is a low-interest category,” says Swann.
US Senator and Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has also shaped her campaign with social media in mind.
Her digital weapon of choice? The good old-fashioned selfie.
Warren has the selfie down to an exact science. She can take around 800 happy snaps in an hour after her rallies, knowing there is every chance these images will resurface on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
But her selfie strategy hit a snag recently when she was forced to leave a rally early to attend President Trump’s impeachment trial.
Rather than leaving her fans selfie-less, she instead offered an alternative: selfies with her golden retriever Bailey.
While slightly unorthodox, Warren’s pooch play kept voters engaged and again highlighted the importance of social media for political advertising.
The dark side
Warren shows us social media can be a fantastic tool for helping politicians connect with voters.
Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to spread lies.
Facebook has come under intense scrutiny in recent months for its stance on fact-checking political ads.
Last October, Facebook made the decision to exempt most political ads from fact-checking. In protest, Warren ran an ad falsely claiming Mark Zuckerberg had endorsed Donald Trump for re-election, highlighting the problem with Facebook’s stance.
Australian National University lecturer in marketing and specialist in political advertising Dr Andrew Hughes believes Facebook does not see fact-checking as its responsibility.
“Facebook has basically said it’s just too hard for them to play the role of a government regulator and try and fact check,” he says.
Ad Standards… or lack of?
While Facebook may see fact-checking political ads as the role of a government regulator, Australia’s regulator Ad Standards sees it as the role of, well, no one.
“Currently, there is no legal requirement for the content of political advertising to be factually correct,” the Ad Standards website reads
Ad Standards typically passes on complaints about truth in advertisements to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
However, politics is not technically a consumer topic, rendering the ACCC more or less powerless.
“People have come to expect that their consumer rights are protected through things like truth in advertising,” explains Hughes. “Politics is outside those laws.”
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is similarly powerless, leaving loopholes you can “drive a truck through”, according to Hughes.
“In commercial marketing, there are far more consequences than in political marketing, where there seems to be none because it’s up to a government authority to act and they don’t because they don’t have the power to,” says Hughes.
The problem with truth in political advertising lies in a lack of accountability, he explains. Candidates are often making promises about the future and can easily make excuses if they don’t eventuate.
Hughes gives the example of the ‘how to vote’ signs used by the Liberal Party in certain electorates during the last election.
Written in Chinese and using the same shade of purple as the AEC, the signs could have been misinterpreted as official AEC material by unknowing voters.
Even though the signs directly referenced it, the AEC tried to take legal action against the Liberal party, it was forced to dismiss the case.
In comparison, rival confectionery brands Darrell Lea and Cadbury were famously forced to fight it out in courts for longer than five years over their respective rights for use of the colour purple.
A dangerous mix
With Ad Standards essentially powerless and Facebook not enforcing fact-checking, there is the very real risk of Australian voters being lied to without their knowledge.
Twitter recently made the decision to ban political advertising from the platform entirely – something Hughes says is “a start” – but the risk of political ads spreading misinformation still stands tall.
“Information is only increasing in the world because we’re given so much information from so many different sources be it social media, traditional media or any other media,” Hughes says.
One restriction the AEC does enforce is the media ‘blackout’ period, prohibiting ads in traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers and magazines) from the Wednesday before election day until the close of polls.
But with political parties continuing to turn to online advertising and pre-poll voting growing in popularity, these blackout laws seem increasingly antiquated.
“Pre-poll voting is now becoming more and more popular with people – we saw a record number of pre-poll and postal votes at the last election,” Hughes says.
“Political parties know that and now they see every day as election day, so they’re going to hit people with more and more ads.”
Hughes also believes the blackout period could increase the risk of misinformation campaigns on social media.
“If I’m running a misinformation campaign, it’s brilliant. I can really micro-target quite well on digital and no-one can counter that campaign because traditional advertising has been banned,” he says.
“So if I want to get someone in the last few days of the campaign – where the majority of people still vote on election day – then it can be quite effective.”
What to do?
It was recently revealed Australian mining magnate Clive Palmer donated a whopping $80 million to his United Australia Party to help fund the advertising blitz. Michael Bloomberg has reportedly spent more than a $US1 million a day on Facebook advertising and more than $US350 million in 2020 as of Valentine’s Day.
Palmer’s spending in Australia prompted calls for limits on donations during election campaigns, but according to Hughes, it’s not dollars we should be limiting.
“They need to restrict the number of ads so people can make a decision about how to vote and who to vote for in a bit more silence,” he says.
Hughes also suggests the implementation of an independent review committee and a verification system – similar to the blue ticks used to verify celebrities and brands on Twitter and Instagram – to restore voter’s trust in political ads.
“I know it might be tricky to set up, but showing ads have been fact-checked would give people confidence in that the ad they’re seeing is providing correct information,” he says.
Regardless of what it looks like, the time for change is now.“There needs to be a lot more community input so these laws are designed by industry, academics, government, political organisations and the general community,” says Hughes.
“The electoral laws relating to political communication and advertising need to be updated badly.”
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