Workmanlike at best and “pure drivel” at worst. That’s the verdict of top advertising and marketing figures on the Labor and Liberal parties’ election TV advertisements, halfway through the campaign.
Labor’s ads came in for the most criticism, largely because the party is behind in most opinion polls and has to pick up seats to win government.
Steve Dodds, a senior copywriter at Whybin TBWA who has worked on award-winning campaigns for the likes of NAB and the NRMA, said: “The Labor Party is saying the wrong things and the Liberal ads are dull … They’re all uniformly dreary and awful.”
Dodds says Labor has tried two techniques so far. The first, as seen in Kevin Rudd’s New Way ad kicking off the campaign, represented a “desperate hope people will forget they’ve been in power for six years”. In that ad Rudd, standing on a verandah, proclaimed the “old politics of negativity” were over.
The second, as seen in the “If Tony Abbott wins you lose” attack ad, represented “an even more desperate hope you can scare the shit out of people”. That ad highlighted Abbott’s planned cuts to the Schoolkids Bonus, public servant numbers and superannuation for low-income earners.
While acknowledging the ALP is a “difficult client” given its recent internal ructions, Dodds argues Labor should be focussing on specific policies such as the Gonski education reforms, national disability insurance scheme and the National Broadband Network. “Why not have the balls to be proud of what you’ve done? It is possible to say, ‘we have achieved a lot’ and to stand on your record.”
Murphy and Friends CEO Mark Collis, who signed up to work on Labor’s campaign before the relationship broke down, agrees the advertisements have been underwhelming.
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“My personal view is it’s all very conventional stuff — most of the ads seem as if they’ve been written by researchers after coming out of focus groups. I don’t think there’s been much leadership being shown by either party … The problem with political advertising is it seems to be the same stuff .”
Collis — who designed campaigns for Earth Hour, McDonald’s and Whiskas — says the New Way ad lacked cut-through: “When he talks about a new way what is he talking about? It’s unconnected to the whole brand.”
Collis says the main problem is not Labor’s creative effort (now overseen by Essential Media Communications and Dee Madigan). It’s that the party lacks a clear and easily-understood political vision. “If a brand doesn’t know where it stands that will show through in the advertising,” Collis said.
Opinions divided on Labor’s speedy reversion to negative advertising — first seen in the “What is Tony Abbott hiding?” ad. Collis and Dodds are not convinced that scaring the public into voting for you is the best strategy. It also opened Rudd to the charge of hypocrisy, given his stated ambition to do away with the old style of negative politics.
But marketing strategist Toby Ralph, a Liberal Party campaign veteran, insists that negative advertising works and says Labor is well advised to “throw some grenades” at Abbott. “A scare campaign is a sensible thing for Labor to be doing,” he said.
According to Naked Communications’ Adam Ferrier, buttering up the electorate with optimistic ads before turning negative is a tried and tested strategy. “They’ll be able to justify the ads because they’re playing the policies not the man,” he said. (Naked Communications was hired to run Labor’s social media campaign, but was dropped after controversy over contra offers to media outlets.)
The experts also disparaged the Liberals’ advertising effort so far. The Libs’ first major pitch was “New Hope”; an optimistic ad featuring shots of Australian flags, newborn babies and lifesavers backed by an uplifting score. Whybin TBWA’s Steve Dodds dismisses it as “pure drivel”; Murphy and Friends’ Mark Collis describes it as “wallpaper”.
Dodds argues the Liberals’ ad attacking Labor’s broken carbon tax promise was mostly about preaching to the converted. “But unlike Labor they can probably get away with that kind of thing,” he said. “I suspect they think they don’t really have to say anything.”
Toby Ralph says while the Liberal ads aren’t flashy, they are based on a clear and consistent message. “All the Liberals have to be is conservative and not stuff it up,” he said. The Liberal Party ad campaign is being led by campaign veteran Mark Pearson, well known for simple, disciplined messaging.
But the experts warned that TV election advertisements, while costing up to $8 million a week, are often far less influential than commonly assumed. “I don’t think advertising can win this election at all,” Ralph said. “People get their information from the news, social media, work, from down the pub … an ad is a pretty trivial tool to try and turn [a campaign] around.”
Ferrier agreed: “The media focuses on TV ads because they’re high profile but they’re not a particularly effective way of changing deep-seated political beliefs. The best way to do that is one-on-one interaction. There are very few people who can be swayed one way or the other through political advertising.”