OPINION: Brand politics in the age of truth

Karl Bates
By Karl Bates | 4 September 2013
McCann Australia chief strategy officer Karl Bates.

As we hurtle towards polling day on 7 September, the expectations of the Australian voting public are mirroring the mood of voters in other countries – revealing interesting insights into the recipe for political success.

The most pertinent trend is the increasingly fraught relationship between truth and politics – two words rarely used in the same sentence any more – which has become even more complex in today’s intensive political communications environment. This insight and others emerged in a recent Truth About Politics study conducted by McCann New York among respondents in the US, UK and India, which found that 72% of people agreed with the statement: “When it comes to politics, it is impossible to find the truth these days.”

In Australia, the emergence of fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact and the ABC’s FactCheck, and their revelation that the majority of statements made by politicians on both sides are false, is a timely reaction to the rise of political spin. This belief by the public that there is little or no truth in politics has led many voters to hold politicians in rather low regard. Asked to rank different professions in order from least to most truthful, respondents to the Truth About Politics study placed politicians in the untruthful pile along with car salesmen, bankers and advertising executives.

It’s no different in Australia. Roy Morgan’s Image of Professions 2013 survey, which asks respondents to rate professions based on honesty and ethical standards, also ranks politicians at the bottom of the heap, just above car salesmen, ad men and real estate agents.

For the 62% of consumers in the global survey (and 67% in the US) who said politicians were less truthful today that they were 20 years ago, the top reasons for politicians’ perceived lack of truth were thought to be because ‘they think they can get away with it/there are no penalties’ and ‘they do/say anything to get elected’. Some food for thought for Australian pollies was the discovery that the more an issue is seen as fundamental to a campaign, the less consumers believe politicians are telling the truth about that issue.

In general – and this is true across the globe – there is a hunger among consumers to bring back more truth to politics. Seventy-five percent of consumers globally said they’d even give up a personal pleasure (chocolate, sex, alcohol, magazines or reality TV) for a month, if it would make the politicians in their country more honest. Yet despite this hunger for change, the Truth About Politics study detected a sense of resignation among some consumers, almost as if getting the truth from politicians was too much to expect.

The majority of people, however, are looking to the internet for the truth they believe is lacking in politicians. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the internet is bringing a new degree of transparency to politics and all areas of public life, with research respondents claiming online research has made it easier to discover the truth about political claims – or indeed about any marketing claims.

Interestingly, while 74% of consumers globally felt their social media feed was balanced when it came to political posts, the majority of people still turn to TV news more than any other medium for political coverage. It would seem that while social media is a popular source of breaking news, people then flip to TV for more robust coverage.

In Australia, polling by Essential Research shows that 63% of voters get a lot or some of their information about politics from commercial TV news and current affairs, followed by newspapers and news websites (61%). On the trust stakes, ABC and SBS news come out on top, with 67% of voters saying they have a lot or some trust in the public broadcasters.

For marketers, the lesson here is the thirst for truth. The top things people say they want from politicians – to understand the lives of ordinary people; strong values; and to always tell the truth – are the same things they want from brands.

While politicians are under intense scrutiny every three years in Australia, brands must meet this standard with consumers every day. Welcome to the Age of Truth.

Karl Bates
Chief Strategy Officer
McCann Australia

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