election ads come to life

Anna Connell

Anna Connell writes about new media, marketing and advertising, and the tension between old and emerging business models. Twitter: @annagconnell

Political campaign and election advertising is deeply weird and pretty boring when you run a non-political lens over it. This current election cycle has been no different. Despite many dramatic twists and turns, much of the advertising itself has remained, well, bland with the biggest creative challenge being how to subtly cover up fallen leaders’ faces on election hoardings.

Advertising is my day job, and we ad folk love a challenge but when you look at electioneering compared to any other form of marketing and hold it up against the industry’s dominant theories and practices in 2017, political advertising is a somewhat antiquated, dull and very special snowflake indeed. It’s odd really, given the ideological basis involved would be described in ad-speak as ‘rich territory’.

These days, marketers talk about the very best brands being those that are lived and breathed, demonstrated through experiences and not pumped out via a television commercial (TVC ) from time to time when brand metrics need a boost.

In this context, election advertising is essentially like an old-school rebranding campaign every three years. One where, in a commercial environment, you’d be asking consumers to suspend disbelief, ignoring all that has gone on for the previous three years, to imagine a world of positivity built on promises of the future and unhindered delivery of those over the coming three years. In short, one of those briefs where you’d be forgiven for asking what the budget was before proceeding.

Political campaign budgets are tight and it’s all played with very straight bat; safe taglines and endless shots of the same bloody people we’ve been looking at all year on the tele and in the papers. It is an ad person’s nightmare in many ways.

Attack ads are risky.

There’s no real room for a digital strategist to start looking at an augmented reality experience that convinces us to vote Green while also saving the whales. No one’s doing a Cannes Lion winning experiential digital campaign where you can tweet to bring down a leader, (not on-purpose anyway), and it’s unlikely you’ll see the ‘Had enough?’ Winston hoardings bringing home an Axis award.

Attack ads are the exception to these bland house rules but they’re nowhere near as ubiquitous in New Zealand election campaigns are they are overseas. Attack ads are risky. Perhaps even more so in New Zealand where Kiwis like to back the underdog and have shown a propensity to dislike that type of advertising so much that it has produced a backlash effect, driving people towards the attackee and not the attacker.

Dr Ashley Murchison is an expert in political advertising and runs electionads.org.nz with partner James Meager. Dr Murchison’s 2014 PhD at Otago University had her studying voter response to both negative and positive political ads. Her study discovered people become angry if there is no policy or facts to back the rhetoric presented in the ads. The study also showed political parties risked facing a backlash if they went with a negative campaign.

Outside politics, we’ve also seen negative, competitor attack advertising backfire for iconic kiwi brands. Air New Zealand departed from its usual upbeat, brand of kiwi pride, to take a swing at Jetstar after it announced new regional flight routes in late 2015.

Air NZ ended up apologising for it after people voiced their distaste at ‘black marketing’.

Not all attack ads are created equal however, and every now and then the risk pays off. The Colenso-made “Dancing Cossacks” television advertisement from the 1975 election campaign was highly effective. Animated by Hanna-Barbera, and starring Robert Muldoon, the advert was highly critical of the governing Labour Party’s compulsory superannuation scheme, implying it would turn New Zealand into a communist state. Ironically this is pretty much what we now have in the guise of Kiwisaver, but back then the idea was unpalatable for enough New Zealanders, and National won the election.

Since Dancing Cossacks, we haven’t really seen any other political advertising go down the attack route or gain the same level of infamy until, perhaps, now. While some might consider the divisive Iwi/Kiwi ads of the 2006 campaign to be of the attack ilk, they didn’t pay off with a win for National; the binary creative device and billboard format forced people to take sides over issues most New Zealanders could understand were a little more complex than the rhetoric being presented and National lost the election.

After a forced emergence from a complacent slumber, it’s looking like National won’t go down without a fight.

Eight weeks ago, National losing this election seemed almost impossible. And their advertising looked like they thought as much too. A solid, reliable, boring refresher course on all National had done over the past nine years with solid, reliable, boring Bill at the centre of it all.

But then the Greens happened and the Jacinda Effect was born and as far as creative communications challenges go, working out how they take on a confident, fresh, optimistic new leader who is dominating front pages like a pro was going to be just a bit harder than stickering over some hoarding.

After a forced emergence from a complacent slumber, it’s looking like National won’t go down without a fight. It went all throwback Thursday on us, adopting an attack ad strategy that almost harks back to the spirit of the dancing Cossacks while employing 2017 techniques to go about it. For what it’s worth, and in a capacity as close to non-partisan and professional as anyone can be expected to be these days, my initial read on them is that they’re actually quite effective.

The ads use Labour’s creative device of text on a block colour background and have been developed so they can be easily replicable and re-edited quickly in response to ongoing Labour policy announcements which is crucial in a media environment of relentless social media churn. They’re currently focused on proposed new taxes and tax increases which I think does stick in the craw of National-light voters who are looking to return home to Labour. You can pretty much guarantee they’ll get a good run in the next few weeks. Cleverest of all, they’ve bastardised Labour’s new tagline line’ Let’s do this’ and replaced it with something equally as pithy and hashtag worthy: ‘Let’s tax this’.

The role of the attack ad isn’t to give supporters something to rally behind. It’s to sow the seeds of doubt with undecided voters.

Whether they’re enough to quell the momentum Ardern has is yet to be seen. It will be interesting to watch how kiwis respond to this more broadly and whether the shenanigans in the US and the exposure to more partisan nastiness than ever before through social media will make us all a little more willing to indulge political parties in a few rounds of attack ads.

At this stage, the response is looking pretty good among National supporters, with the video being shared more than many of their recent posts on Facebook lately (excluding the Bill ‘the Rock’ English post). I’m not one for using inconsequential social media metrics to gauge much at all, but being share-worthy is indication of resonance – if someone if willing to share something on Facebook, then they’re essentially publicly pinning their colours to a mast.

For all that, the role of the attack ad isn’t to give supporters something to rally behind. It’s to sow the seeds of doubt with undecided voters. It’s to ever-so-slightly nudge you so you’re just a bit uncomfortable next time you see the opposition present a new policy. Attack ads are subliminal fear made manifest.

And for the first time in a while, we’re about to see that go head-to-head with relentless positivity in a battle for hearts and minds. Both Labour and National are now leading out with ideologically charged communications and advertising.

Things don’t look so bland.