The NEW! improved low-fi el cheapo election campaign
Should Australia make a quick return to the polls, stand by for the el cheapo election re-run, where the late night Guthy-Renker advertisements for the Sham-Wow chamois system and the Zumba high-energy dance program are interrupted by statements from a guy called Tony and a woman called Julia about their vision for the nation.
After the style of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, the leaders will spruik their major policies on a series of hand-written cardboard flashcards.
There will be no money for focus group testing.
Each side will have just enough money to screen their advertisements a dozen times between the hours of midnight and 5am, the timeslot which Homer Simpson described as appealing to “angry loners, alcoholics and insomniacs” when he embarked on an ill-fated venture with a snow ploughing business.
The one major advertising blowout of the campaign will be a paid studio appearance on Mornings with Kerry-Anne Kennerley, between the guy selling Dyson vacuum cleaners and the hair removal lady.
The prospect of holding a fresh election with the major parties teetering on the brink of insolvency is about the only positive development from this tumultuous past week in federal politics.
If the election demonstrated anything, it is that voters were jaded and probably even a bit insulted by the negativity which marked (or marred) the major parties’ campaigns – and the amount of money they devoted to doing it.
There is no official global figure on how many millions were spent in this campaign, not just by the major parties, but also by ginger groups such as GetUp, the union movement, and industry groups such as the Minerals Council ahead of the campaign proper.
It felt like a heck of a lot. Advertising and marketing website Mumbrella has done some work tracking the frequency of advertisements. In radio, there were 12,280 political advertisements broadcast during the five-week campaign, compared to 8029 at the 2007 election. In Sydney the number of advertisements almost doubled, from 1482 to 2,979.
Almost all of the advertisements were negative – the Libs saying it’s the same old Labor, Labor saying the Libs were dangerous extremists who would bring back Workchoices.
Without wanting to get too Joan Baez about things (to extend the Dylan theme), you can only marvel at how much actual good could have been achieved if that obscene amount of cash had instead been spent on childcare centres or dialysis machines, rather than saying that the world will grind to an immediate halt if the other side wins.
The good news though is that neither side has any money left at all. Federal Labor knew there was no point putting any cash aside to avoid the drubbing they’re on for at the NSW State election next year, and the subsequent Queensland poll. The Libs were so determined to render the Rudd-Gillard administration a one-term wonder that they did their dough too. Sitting members from both sides put their houses on their re-election, with almost every MP blowing the coming year’s printing allocation from their electoral allowances on glossy mailouts to constituents.
The upshot of all this is that a fresh election campaign would not have the financial underpinnings to let both sides tell outrageous fibs about each other. Instead it would come down to straight argument about what they are going to do, rather than highly manipulative and tendentious statements about what their dastardly opponents will do.
The generally accepted definition of advertising is that it is a commercial message aimed at selling something – a call to action to get behind a product or a brand. The relentless negative nature of this election campaign turned that definition of advertising on its head. The advertisements we were subjected to were about not getting behind a rival product or rival brand.
One of the most measured critics of Labor’s tactics is one of its own candidates, former long-serving WA Infrastructure Minister Alannah MacTiernan, who narrowly failed in her bid to wrest the federal seat of Canning from the Liberals’ Don Randall.
Normally, the complaints of failed candidates are imbued with a strong flavour of sour grapes, but MacTiernan made a couple of points which any reasonable observer would concede.
The first was to draw a parallel between federal Labor’s decision to call a snap election so soon after replacing Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard, and the disastrous WA State election of 2008, where the then Labor Premier called an opportunistic snap poll on the very day Colin Barnett returned to the Liberal leadership, only to be punished for his cynicism with a Labor defeat.
The second was to call out the generally appalling quality of Labor’s aqdvertising campaign – appalling in that it treated the voters like saps by not proposing anything, rather running on negativity and fear.
MacTiernan said that she had some of her direct mail to voters which was explaining what the party wanted to do for broadband rewritten by Labor head office. She said she was urged instead to concentrate on running negative leaflets about the Liberals and WorkChoices.
“What we’ve seen in this election is just a total preponderance of the negative and I just think that’s not the right direction we should be going in. Whilst we need to critique, I think we also need to inspire and we seem to have forgotten that a bit.”
Neither side can take any pride from the tactics it used to win this campaign. By running each other down they have not only damaged the standing of their respective parties. If you take a more holistic approach, without drifting too far into marketing cliché, you could say that politics itself is the ultimate brand in an election campaign, and that what this campaign has succeeded at more than anything is to trash the brand of politics. Maybe this result is the result that both sides deserve.
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