The world according to political advertising

Posted on August 18, 2010 by


Political advertising sucks.

I don’t think I’m telling you anything new here. If you’ve watched television, listened to the radio or checked your mailbox this month, you’ve already had political advertising blasted at you from both sides. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant, like being stuck in an elevator between two friends having an argument.

I’m lucky enough to live in a marginal electorate, so for the past month my house has been well stocked with colourful leaflets and earnest letters, decorated with photos of politicians wearing open-necked shirts and standing in carefully chosen poses to show how relaxed and confident they are. It’s junk mail, but at least it has tells me who my local candidates actually are – a fact I will promptly forget until the next election. Still, the letters quickly get tiresome, especially when they arrive in plain envelopes marked “PERSONAL”. I’m looking at you, ALP.

Really, though, on the scale of obnoxious political advertising, the election leaflets are nothing compared to the TV and radio ads. I’ve tried to avoid commercial breaks while the election campaign is on, but even with limited exposure I’ve come to recognise and hate it at a deep level. For example, I get an involuntary retching sensation whenever I hear the dull drone that plays over a personal attack ad. I’ve tried muting the ad breaks on TV, but when I see a screen pop up combining a black background, a black-and-white close-up of a politician’s face, a block of white text and a big red “FACT” stamp, it’s enough to give me the spins.

This whole campaign has been dominated by nasty personal attacks and sloganeering, and the Labor and Liberal YouTube channels demonstrate that in miniature. YouTube is loaded with videos of each side slamming the other for being greedy, incompetent and untrustworthy, presented in an almost identical bland style. They could be both be made in the same Generic Nasty Political Advertising Factory. There are few moments of creativity and a lot of copycatting. If you saw any one of these ads with the names removed, you’d be hard-pressed to tell who it belonged to.

Nearly all of the major parties’ advertising is designed to cause and capitalise on fear and insecurity. It’s a trend bizarrely at odds with the reality of Australia in 2010; the ads make it seem like a beaten-down society on the verge of collapse, not one of the safest, most prosperous and most socially and economically stable nations in the world.

My left-leaning friends have been praising this video for the Greens made by an advertising agency for ABC’s Gruen Nation. It certainly is a big improvement from the major parties’ ads on TV: for one thing, it suggests solutions to issues in terms of positive action, instead of threatening the viewer with dire consequences for voting the “wrong” way. Unfortunately, the ad still contains that sting of smug negativity: the slogan “If you think, vote the Greens” clearly implies that anyone who doesn’t vote for the Greens doesn’t think.

This is a trap that the Greens’ own advertising doesn’t fall into. In fact, regardless of their policies, the Greens have far and away the best political advertising this year in terms of what’s on the internet. The Greens YouTube channel is the very opposite of everything that’s wrong with the Labor and Liberal channels. The Greens videos are positive, upbeat and constructive; they focus on plans and opportunities rather than fears and failures. They hardly mention the other parties, and when they do criticise a past failing of government policy, they spend more time talking about the better alternatives than slagging off the people responsible for it. They explain why you should want to vote for the Greens, instead of telling you why you shouldn’t vote for another parties. Some of their videos even acknowledge good things other parties have done; surely a first in a political campaign ad!

Most of all, the Greens videos seem genuine. When Bob Brown says “I’m the leader of the Australian Greens, and couldn’t be happier”, he really sounds like he means it. And they don’t mince words; in the same video, Brown says “we’ve put forward the idea of a carbon price – that’s a carbon tax”, even as the Liberal Party uses the words “carbon tax” to fuel its own scare campaign.

All this marks a change for the Greens, who were happy enough to use scare tactics and attack ads in previous years. I’m glad to see a party chosing not to enter the major parties’ race to put out the nastiest possible advertising, and I hope it works for them. At future elections, I’d much rather see politicians using their advertising spots to sell us on the strength of their platform, instead of trying to make us afraid and divide us from our neighbours who may not vote the same we we do.

Finally, I give you this without comment: Bob Katter, independent.

Words – Fraser Allison

Image – x-ray delta one