Madison Avenue leads to the Lodge


A few days ago, an ad agent who was talking on radio about the election campaign described the ALP as a ‘challenger brand’. This infuriates me. Political parties are not ‘brands’! They are so much more than that caricature implies.

Political parties are supposed to educate and inform us about politics, formulate policies, create coalitions of like-minded people, mobilise voters, act as an avenue for political participation, communicate with citizens, nurture political activism, select candidates for office and keep a check on each other in opposition.

Once elected, they hold massive power over our way of life by implementing policies, creating laws and (hopefully) governing in our best interests.

Political parties are the organs that try to fulfil that noble aim of government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. They are among the most important organisations in this country. But, sadly, ad agents are not the only ones to use such trite language.

The Labor and Liberal parties see themselves in much the same way. They are focused on advertising, marketing and money-raising. They are run like corporations (with lots of employees but not many members). They use the same Madison Avenue sales jargon. They talk less about policies and participation and more about brands, markets, value segments, targets, polls, demographics, advertisements and slogans. I’ve even heard political leaders describe their own party as a ‘brand’.

So now, when the parties try to fulfil their age-old responsibility of communicating with voters, they use advertising. And advertising is really not up to the task “ it’s a very expensive, low information, and only one-way communication form.

But ads are certainly where the parties will be focusing their attention this campaign, and they’ll probably spend more than $20 million on them over the course of the election. If this is how they are going to communicate with us “ by advertising to us “ then we need to think about what they’re really saying.

This includes looking carefully at each individual ad but also thinking more broadly about the whole concept of political advertising.

When a political party uses ads to communicate with us, what they’re really saying is:

1. We don’t want to talk to you. TV ads don’t give voters the opportunity to talk back, to ask questions or to disagree. By hitting voters with a barrage of them in the last few weeks of the campaign, the parties are really saying ‘here’s what we want to say to you but we don’t care what you have to say back.’

2. We think you’re stupid. Their internal research reveals that the parties think voters – especially swinging voters – are ‘ignorant and indifferent’ (their words, not mine). So they rely on 15-30 second TV ads to put across ‘impressions’ rather than policies. Their ads use vague language and emotive images. They don’t give detail or specifics.

3. We think you’re greedy and vulnerable to scare campaigns. I’ve examined over 1500 political ads from 1949 to 2004 and the common theme is: fear. In their ads, the parties threaten you with all sorts of disastrous consequences if you vote for their opponent, but the most common threats (either explicit or implicit) are about money: you’ll lose your job, you’ll lose your house, your interest rates will go up or you’ll have to pay more taxes. This is because they think voters are, in Neville Wran famous words, ‘greedy bastards’.

4. We’re ripping you off. What the ads don’t say, but we all need to keep in mind, is that Australian taxpayers provide public funding for the parties to campaign and this is how they spend that money. Last election we gave the two major parties over $32 million, and up to 70 per cent of their campaign budgets go on TV ads, even though many voters say they don’t like political ads.

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