Adland weighs in: Who won the election ad battle?

By Mariam Cheik-Hussein | 16 May 2019
Scott Morrison

This year’s election campaign was blanketed by Clive Palmer’s distinct yellow ads and interrupted by bizarre marketing stunts, such as Captain GetUp! Many Australians might be relieved it's coming to an end.

On Saturday, voters head to the polls to elect their next government, but before they do we reached out to people across creative and media to get a sense of who won the advertising battle.

A sluggish advertising sector, as reflected in the Standard Media Index figures, has been attributed to the election period. So the industry will keep an eye on coming SMI reports to see if the market picks up in the months after election day.

However, one healthy source of funds for advertisers has been Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. From unsolicited texts, back-to-back TV ad and yellow billboards splashed around Australia, Palmer has flooded the market, and while its irritated most voters, experts say its clever marketing. Palmer has been working with a massive budget, as high as $60 million. 

Here are thoughts from the industry:

Russell Hopson, M&C Saatchi group managing director 
There are two schools of thought when it comes to political advertising.

One: It’s the purest form of the art and science of the communications business. It is pure persuasion based on presenting a brutally simple thought about how the country should be run. People as a result of these well told truths should be better informed and democracy thrives as a result. We love it.

Two: It’s just plain wrong. The idea that something as important as a change of government (let alone a constitutional change like Brexit) could hinge upon the largesse or paucity of resources (in this case, advertising dollars) behind an individual political party or interest should be abhorrent in a democracy. We shun it.

Enter Clive Palmer. I’m guessing he’s in the former camp.

There’s a reactionary in all of us. Whether we choose to let it rule our personal political constitution decides what colour of politician we select. The news about Chinese air bases in WA is genuinely shocking. Is it the whole truth? Who knows? Clive might. His work is bold and simple. Like it’s been made on a digital Gestetner. My inner reactionary bristled.

His mobile Tim Tam game though, made me think that the man has money to spend and no taste with which to execute the purchase. It will do nothing to persuade those other than the people who have already signed up to the Make Australia Great Again cause.

Russell Hopson
Russell Hopson

Alison Tilling, VMLY&R chief strategy officer
How have election ads differed from previous years?
Well, the Clive factor is making a difference I think. While there is more emphasis on digital channels from all the parties this time around, the sheer weight of spend behind Clive Palmer’s ads makes the other parties feel dwarfed in comparison. When you look at the ads themselves, from Labor and the Coalition, I wouldn’t say there is too much difference to what has gone before – a battle of the catchy headlines and attempts at the portrayal of ‘working families’.

Thoughts on the Clive Palmer ad blitz?
Regardless of any personal opinion about Clive Palmer, according to marketing science, he’s done a lot of the right things. He’s got massive share of voice. He’s been consistent – until the past few weeks which is a misstep. He’s been distinctive. However, where the ads themselves fall down is that they lack emotion, the personal connection. And in my view – thank f**k for that.

Have political parties become better at social media?
There has been some interesting targeting work, but what I actually find interesting is the lack of emphasis on meaningfully listening to what citizens have to say. Social media at its best is a two-way tool, yet again political parties seem to focus on outbound communication. Of course the tools to analyse what can be ‘heard’ from citizens are harder come by than analysing numerical data, but this seems to be a (for the most part) missed opportunity at the moment.

Alison Tilling
Alison Tilling

Michaela Futcher, The Royals head of strategy
In an era where we are seriously considering space tourism, building machines with the ability to reason and self-learn, order food direct to any location on the back of a moped, what astounds me about our political advertising is a distinct lack imagination.

It doesn’t matter which party’s ad we are looking at (squint and who can tell who is speaking?), overwhelmingly these are boring, lacking in vision, cold and serious. They’re tactical, confusing and lack any sense of insight or connection to their audience. They represent everything Australians have come to despise about our politics – a lack of vision. And in this they also represent everything that can go wrong in advertising when we chose tactical over strategic.

The difference being work that is led by insight and truth versus work that shouts messages about ourselves at an unreceptive audience.

This isn’t an election campaign. It’s a race to the bottom on our ability to rally a country, inspire the next generation, promise and strive for something better.

Where’s the “big idea”, Canberra?

I dare say Clive Palmer might actually be the communication winner here. At least there is passion and vision. Did I just say that out loud?

Leif Stromnes, DDB Sydney managing director of strategy and innovation
What major trends have you noticed in political ads this year?
Clive Palmer demonstrated that budgets actually matter and his corny yellow slogan completely dominated the media landscape. The tactical use of social content, especially by the Liberals, was an effective way to counter the policy announcements of the Labor party but it made them look small and tactical. When Labor found their policy sweet spot they were much more on message and their "A Fair Go For All" was a powerful signature that was supported by their actions and announcements. The Greens hardly had any money and it showed. They were invisible.

Thoughts on the Clive Palmer’s ad blitz?
From an advertising perspective, the winner of the election battle has undoubtedly been Clive Palmer's United Australia Party. His campaign is proof that healthy promotional budgets do make a difference. Love him or hate him, you simply cannot ignore him. I know a lot of people will argue he’s being wasteful and there is a much smarter, more modern way to create persuasive communications, but if advertising’s first job is to be noticed, this has been a resounding success.

His enormous budgets have meant more time in market too. Clive Palmer started spruiking his party in September last year and this has paid dividends. It meant he had plenty of clear air before the main election period.

The content itself is not remarkable, but the sheer weight of spend makes his party feel much bigger than it actually is. And the yellow branding is instantly recognisable and consistent – something that has been amiss from the Labor and Liberal campaigns. That could be an incredible advantage come election day.

Ben Willee, Spinach general manager and media director
There is no doubt that the NSW State election and the Federal Election have had a negative impact on the ad market. Elections make consumers nervous and that flows through to marketers. According to SMI, for the first time (in a long time) we have seen six months of consecutive declines for the ad market.

There are a lot of people hoping and praying that the market picks up after the election, but I’m not so sure. Australia is firmly connected to the global economy and what’s going to happen in the back half of this calendar year is anyone’s guess.

It’s worth noting that SMI doesn’t collect numbers on adtech, email and similar digital activities and that’s something advertisers are spending more and more on. However, it doesn’t account for the whole decline. So if media spend is a leading indicator of the economy, it’s a white knuckle ride for many agencies and media owners as they hope the market picks up soon.

Duncan Shields, Redengine SCC creative director 
When I emigrated to Sydney, my first gig was working on the Kevin ‘07 campaign and it’s fair to say that there’s been a whole lot of change in Australian political advertising since then. From Action Contracts to wars with “fake” tradies who “just want to get ahead through an investment property” (poor buggers). I thought I’d seen it all….

Cue Clive Palmer and his very own canary-coloured take on America’s current winning formula. There’s no denying Clive’s success in the awareness stakes with more billboards than I care to count. His TV ads fuelled much of the material I enjoyed during the Sydney Comedy Festival and a reasonably-sized feature on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is a huge tick in the earned media column so you could argue that there have been a few positives for the Palmer camp. Will this awareness convert favourably at the polls? In a Trump, post-Brexit world it really is anyone’s guess.

Have political parties become better at social media?
Being a constituent in the hotly contested seat of Warringah, Tony Abbott's been on my socials more than usual, and whilst it causes me mild discomfort to say this, it appears that old T-Bone has been receiving sound advice on his social content strategy. The use of a ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ inspired video to illustrate a key campaign platform (the northern beaches tunnel) showed a fair bit of media savvy, albeit with a far-too-long-for-social video.

Brendan Greaney, Exactly Different creative founder
How have election ads differed from previous years?
The ads themselves haven’t changed that much. What has changed is how many they’re running and where. This is the first election where the parties are spending more on digital than traditional, which means they’ve been able to make hundreds of highly targeted messages aimed at specific audiences.

What major trends have you noticed in political ads this year?
It’s more of an un-trend but I have missed the wacky ads from the minor parties, like Nick Xenophon’s cringeworthy rap efforts from last election. The only one to stick his head above the parapet this time around is Bob Katter with his ‘unashamedly Australian’ beach party ad. It’s the Aussi-est thing you’ll ever see.

Thoughts on the Clive Palmer’s ad blitz? 
Whatever you think of Clive, it will be all down to the heavy lifting of a strong, consistent branding campaign. As for the ads themselves, they’re pretty much what you’d expect from Clive. A stream of nonsense spoken rapid-fire by a bloke in an ill-fitting shirt.

Thoughts on Captain GetUp!
Captain GetUp! Is the biggest own goal of the election. It might have sounded funny in the brainstorm but I reckon the attempted irony will leave most punters scratching their heads. ‘A fictitious super hero named after a left-wing group but spruiking a right-wing message…wait, what?!?’ 

Tim Riches, Principals group strategy director
What major trends have you noticed in political ads this year?
Lack of overall brand clarity – especially for the Liberals. The party’s visible internal conflict has destroyed the clarity of the brand in the minds of the population, in my view. Both on broad issues like same sex marriage and climate, the party’s “women problem” and economics by threatening major market interventions in the absence of energy policy.

Labor seems better, but not great. Labor has been able to position around unity, preparedness to focus on complex and contentious issues like climate and changes to traditional sacred middle-class cash cows like negative gearing and family trusts. But, I don’t really think they have laddered this very effectively to an overarching campaign proposition. “A Fair Go for Australia” doesn’t capture the important point around taking on big challenges, above and beyond general fairness.

The Greens have also lost focus and haven’t made much of an impact.

The widely held view is that voters are frustrated with self-interest, internal incoherence and personality politicking rather than leading the country to address important, complex challenges in an uncertain world. If we accept this premise, then Labor’s ability to put forward the appearance of (a) a more disciplined team, (b) a more visible, deeper bench of talent across key portfolios, and (c) a collection of past leaders still united by the cause of party, positions them better in response to that insight.

And on the flipside, it’s easy for Labor to remind the community of the Liberals’ problems simply by showing pictures of Dutton and Abbott, and also connecting the dots to the more fringe elements like One Nation and Clive Palmer. It’s a great way to tap into Liberal brand weakness.

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