There’s a good reason why Labor’s South Australian election campaign, with its Jay4SA slogan, is reminding observers of Kevin07 — it’s being overseen by the same marketing team.
Marketing and advertising man Neil Lawrence was at the vanguard of modern campaigning in 2007 when he produced a multi-faceted package for Kevin Rudd’s opposition. A clever combination of social media and traditional techniques helped propel Labor to victory against the decade-old Howard government. Lawrence is a key member of SA Labor’s campaign committee, and his fingerprints are already evident on Premier Jay Weatherill’s strategy, if not the slogan itself (it has been floating around for some time).
While media coverage has portrayed the campaign as a simplistic presidential-style slogan — complete with T-shirts — the reality is much more complex, and a whole lot darker.
The retro-style Jay4SA logo is primarily a catchcry to motivate Labor’s members and backers (Young Labor loves a T-shirt). The guts of the campaign will have a more substantive message, pitched to the marginal electorates that Labor needs to hold onto against all odds.
For an insight into what’s in store, let’s take a look back at Kevin07.
This was a campaign characterised by two contrasting prongs: the optimistic, presidential-style approach that somehow made nerdy Rudd appear cool; and a highly effective negative message capitalising on the unpopular WorkChoices policy, rising interest rates and the fact that John Howard was unlikely to see out the term even if he did win. “Sorry mate, not this time,” said the “swinging voter” in the Labor attack ad.
The real campaign slogan wasn’t Kevin07 — that was just the hook to get people logged on to Facebook pages and YouTube videos. The pitch was actually “New Leadership”. On the poster, the phrase was accompanied by a photo of Rudd, almost Mona Lisa-like in its enigmatic visage. He appeared confident but not smug; in fact, he looked a lot like a fresher, younger version of John Howard.
It was the first federal campaign to heavily use Facebook and YouTube (even the largely forgotten MySpace). Kevin07 was a digital-friendly catchphrase, but it was merely the tip of a much larger iceberg. History shows us it was highly effective. Rudd came to power on a wave of good feelings, and Howard, hitherto considered invincible, was humiliated by losing his own seat.
Unfortunately for Rudd and Labor, that was where the good news ended. The next six years were arguably the most chaotic and corrosive in Labor history, rivaling the DLP split for its damage to the Labor brand.
“Weatherill is facing a completely different set of circumstances, including much more disciplined, united and electorally savvy Liberals.”
There are obvious risks for Labor in presenting a campaign that even subtly reminds voters of all that lost promise. Labor knows this, which is why its campaign, so far, barely references the party. The Jay4SA website has a tiny logo at the bottom right, but otherwise it’s all about “Jay” and “my government”.
The campaign slogan, as former Rann adviser Jill Bottrall has pointed out, isn’t Jay4SA, but “Let’s keep building South Australia”.
And here’s where the big scare will come in. Labor has its negative ads in the can, and expect them to be full-on. (As an aside, Lawrence has shown he is more than adept at both sides of campaigning — he even ran the mining industry’s campaign against Rudd’s mining tax.)
Opposition Leader Steven Marshall said yesterday that he wouldn’t release his full budget costings until the end of the campaign. This is standard practice, he argued. But Labor’s campaign will assert that Marshall — who has already racked up a stack of spending commitments — will have no choice but to cut heavily, and that the state Liberals will be beholden to their federal counterparts, rather than standing up for South Australia.
The strategy has all sorts of risks — from the wisdom of using a catchy T-shirt phrase in the context of increasingly gloomy economic news, to the idea of running a presidential-style campaign for a bloke whose government isn’t particularly popular and who has been part of Labor’s cabinet from the day it seized power more than a decade ago.
A presidential campaign has been tried before in South Australia. In 2006, Labor’s theme was “Rann gets Results”. It was highly successful, but there is no comparison between the political environment then and now. Back in those pre-GFC golden years, Mike Rann was easily Australia’s most popular political leader, leading a disciplined and populist government. In retrospect, that year represented the high watermark of Rann’s leadership. The opposition, by contrast, was moribund and divided.
Weatherill is facing a completely different set of circumstances, including much more disciplined, united and electorally savvy Liberals. The budget has a growing hole, the South Australian economy is in poor shape, and people are fearful for their jobs.
Weatherill’s government has been plagued by education scandals and has failed to get on top of widespread service problems in the public transport system. There is also a persistent leak from within, which looks unlikely to be plugged. All of this means the Jay4SA campaign is almost an exact mirror image to Kevin07.
Today in SA, a relatively unpopular, long-term government has gone all presidential against a resurgent, new-broom opposition. Underdog Labor is planning a fierce fight. If anything, the Liberals are even more desperate given their many years in the wilderness and the huge damage that would be inflicted by another loss.
So don’t be fooled by the sunny retro Jay4SA slogan. It’s going to be a brutal contest.
*This article was originally published at InDaily