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The Mongrel Election September 30, 2007

Posted by shell in RESEARCH.
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Another Age article about election campaigns using fear mongering to sway votes…

THE MONGREL ELECTION

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Fear is a great weapon in politics, mainly because it works. Jason Koutsoukis reports on the advertising dogfight about to break out.

THE one thing all political strategists agree on when it comes to negative advertising is that it works. “If it is rooted in the truth then it is probably the most compelling form of persuasion there is,” says former federal Liberal MP Ross Cameron.

He was the target of intense personal attacks on his character during the 2004 election campaign, having confessed to an extramarital affair in Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine just before the campaign started.

But he says it’s not the negative messages in politics that upset him.

“What sickens me is the extent to which the electorate tut-tuts about it, then rewards everyone who practises it absolutely ruthlessly and systematically. It’s pure humbug.”

With what is tipped to be the most vitriolic election campaign in over a decade on the way, voters have weeks of malevolence to look forward to.

Health Minister Tony Abbott said last week that this campaign “will be about policies, it will be about people’s character and capacity to govern, nothing else”.

But with so many accusations flying about dirt files, dirt sheets and dirt units, voters could be forgiven for thinking they were already knee-deep in mud.

Even a bit of sex too, with one newspaper report last week suggesting the Federal Government had a closet gay in its ranks.

Seasoned pollster and campaign watcher Gary Morgan says that, as the incumbent, the Coalition’s best weapon will always be fear.

“Why do you think political parties spend the most money in their last week? Because they know it can tweak the vote. It’s very effective,” says Morgan.

“Bash away with fear, create the doubt in people’s minds. Years of experience tells you that is what works.”

From the pre-campaign shadow boxing we already know what those messages will be: fear of unions, fear of wall-to-wall Labor governments, and fear of Labor’s inexperience in government.

For Labor, the negative messages are equally well defined. Fear of John Howard’s hated WorkChoices laws, neglect on climate change, and forbidding portents of a Costello prime ministership.

Ross Cameron sees negative advertising as a simple reflection of people’s wish to feel above someone else.

“I think one of the flaws of the human condition is this incredibly persistent, deep-seated desire to feel that some other bastard is worse than you are,” says Cameron.

“And people prop up their sense of vulnerability by drawing a circle around themselves and saying, ‘I am one of the good guys and everyone outside are the bad guys’.

“That’s the instinct that the negative campaign and the personal attack appeal to. It’s almost a reflexive satisfaction because that other person or party is morally worse than I am.”

Negative advertising will backfire if the basis is not true, he says, because voters can see through it.

“Take some of Labor’s negative campaigns, like the schools funding debate last time around. It couldn’t mobilise the old feelings of class warfare because I don’t think they exist much any more.”

Cameron says the ultimate testimony to the power of negative advertising is the last messages that parties put to the voters as they walk into the polling booth.

‘It is always negative,” says Cameron. “It’s ‘Don’t trust Labor’, or ‘Don’t sell Telstra’, or ‘A vote for Howard is a vote for Costello’. It’s never ‘Join our vision to take Australia into the sunlit uplands’.

The reason negative ads work in politics, says Cameron, goes to the heart of the science of persuasion.

“The most persuasive element of any pitch, or any bid for a tender, is the part when you present an incontrovertible fact. Something that is proven, not debatable.

“But in politics, when you’re talking about the future, there is nothing about your future vision that can be based on an incontrovertible fact. It’s only the past that gives you these messages, and when you focus on someone’s past the only option is to criticise.”

Cameron also sees a parallel between negative advertising and the sorts of stories covered by the tabloid media in particular.

“The instinct they are appealing to is the capacity to make people feel better about their shitty lives, by feeling like ‘I am better than that trailer trash’.

“There is no doubt that if you give someone the opportunity to feel that they are better than someone else, it works. My only complaint is that I wish people were more honest about what changes their minds.”

What can we really expect from both sides in the run-up to this year’s election, widely tipped to be held on either November 10 or November 17?

Veteran advertising executive Greg Daniel, who has worked on several major political campaigns, says that with the economy strong and the Government perceived as competent, Labor is the more exposed side.

“The real ground Labor has chosen to fight on is Rudd. That’s their message,” says Daniel.

“Lots of stuff about the Government having run out of ideas and having been in power too long, but essentially Rudd is their key point of difference. Undermine Rudd, and Labor’s campaign starts to falter badly.”

Daniel also compares this campaign with the one in 1996, the last time the Government changed hands.

“The Coalition didn’t have to worry about selling Howard, because they had Paul Keating front and centre,” he says.

Nearly 12 years later and the Coalition’s 1996 advertising campaign is still fresh in the minds of many political pundits.

One ad featured Keating repeating his line about the ‘recession we had to have’; another showed him telling a protester to ‘get a job’; and who could forget the ad seen to epitomise the Keating government’s arrogance: a slow motion shot of then foreign minister Gareth Evans staggering around the dance floor celebrating Labor’s 1993 election victory.

The Coalition’s advertising campaigns have lost none of their potency since then.

The 2001 campaign will be remembered for the Tampa-inspired tagline — “We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” — and 2004 for its devastating L-plate spelling of then Labor leader Mark Latham’s surname.

In his Flinders Lane office this week, the Coalition’s creative advertising genius, Ted Horton, will no doubt be putting the final touches on a new round of ads aimed at Kevin Rudd.

The ALP has sharpened its act since the last election, when critics said its campaign failed to make an impact.

With a team led by Neil Lawrence and Luke Dunkerley — the creative leaders of former Labor adman John Singleton’s STW Village — Labor has aired several ads throughout the year.

They included the largely positive ad selling Rudd himself, but they have been replaced with wholly negative ones attacking the Government and its personnel.

Up and down the east coast, Labor has been running a “Perfect One Day, Nuclear the Next” campaign, and a few weeks ago it released an ad showing John Howard sleeping through the climate change alarm bells at Kirribilli House.

Within 24 hours of Howard declaring that he would hand over to Costello if he won the election, Labor put to air a catty ad warning of the perils of letting this Treasurer turn prime minister.

“Both the creative teams working for the major parties are very experienced and very good, so I think we’ll see some excellent work on both sides. The major new factor is in the online area. I think that’s where we’ll see some real innovations compared with the previous campaigns,” says Greg Daniel.

Even more important, he says, is the use of the final 24 hours.

“I think it’s now around 10 per cent of people who make up their minds at that moment.

“So whether it’s through text messaging, multimedia messaging, these last-minute efforts to touch voters and plant the seed of doubt on the day itself are going to be critical.”

Already feeling overwhelmed and a touch soiled by the thought of what’s to come?

A final word from Gary Morgan, who cautions politicians not to get too carried away with the negative.

“Policies actually matter, you know. People are concerned about how much tax they pay. They want a good health system. They want to know that their children will be able to get a good education,” Morgan says.

“So fear works, we know that, but you have to make sure your policies stand up to scrutiny.”

Positive or negative, you’re going to hear a lot of it, from both sides.

Rumour has it that the Coalition has amassed a war chest of about $25 million to fund its campaign, while Labor and union allies are said to have even more.

With direct spending during the campaign last time around estimated to have reached only $20 million for both sides together, that gives some idea of the avalanche set to fall upon us.

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