The battle between Yes and No and being part of history

Jon Skinner, The Core Agency
By Jon Skinner, The Core Agency | 7 December 2017
Jon Skinner

With the government in the final stages of passing the same-sex marriage bill, it marks the final chapter of what’s been a fascinating, if not occasionally polarising, journey for the advertising industry.

The battle between Yes and No started for our agency in April 2016 when we received a call from the organisers of the Yes vote, Australian Marriage Equality, asking us to pitch for their branding strategy and identity creative development. Needless to say, we jumped at it. It’s not every day you get asked to play a role in an historic Australian event. While we have a great collection of brands on our client list, there is something extra special about the opportunity to help stand up for something you truly believe in.

Our branding concept was simple in that it used the rainbow colours on all the states and territories to show how Australia had previously unified for a greater good - federation. Coupled with the EQUALITY banner message it was bright and optimistic without being overtly ‘Oxford St’.

The central requirement was always to engage and promote messages of fairness and equality for all - to the people of Tangalooma, Taree and beyond, not just Sydney's Taylor Square. The measure of success for the brand set by Tiernan Brady and his team was how widely it was adopted by the many diverse campaign groups, like-minded businesses and of course the broader community.

We needed to encourage discussion around the broader concept of equality, rather than the narrower discussion about the meaning of marriage itself. The campaign had not even started yet and the public were already showing signs of fatigue over the issue. Maintaining interest and motivation to vote were critical.

In the months that followed, the Yes campaign got into gear as the machinations of Canberra did its best to reframe the debate, move the goalposts and deny ordinary Aussies the tick boxes they had been promised. An enthusiastic group of agencies and production houses got onboard the Yes campaign to offer their creative services and facility favours.

Though, looking back at the assorted campaigns that rolled out during the lead up to the postal survey, it’s fair to say the work was, with very few exceptions, pretty average for what is such a powerfully emotive subject. When you look back at other landmark social issue ads such as the Grim Reaper commercial during the HIV/AIDS era, I am pretty sure none of us will be talking about any of this work in 30 years’ time.

Probably the biggest production for the Yes campaign showed a growing band of Aussies marching down to the local postbox to pop their envelopes in the slot. Though, even an appearance by Thorpie couldn’t lift the execution to match the emotional power of the Irish same-sex marriage referendum spot it was modelled on. It came down to like-minded big brands such as ANZ with its fantastic, ‘Hold tight’ campaign to deliver great and timely work.

One of the major and most polarising talking points of the campaign was the ‘Say No to No’ campaign. The concept was basically a petition to creative agencies, media companies, photographers and directors to not do any work promoting the NO campaign.

And this is where we get to the weird juncture in this story.

I remember when one of our art directors came to tell me about it and it immediately sat uncomfortably with me. While myself and the agency, by definition, were passionate supporters of the Yes campaign, there was something just not right about signing up to a petition that sought to restrict the No campaign’s access the persuasion and production skills of our industry. While I think it was successful in its aim of further ostracising the No camp, I don’t believe it did our industry any favours when the story was picked up and reported in the mainstream media.

Surely the ambition of advertising is to be the place where big ideas go into battle?

Where brands, organisations and causes try to out-reason each other?

To provide informed and compelling arguments rather than just gag, stifle or shut down the other side of the debate? I would argue that the initiative could have done more harm than good, with fair-minded mainstream Aussies preferring to hear both sides of a debate before making up their own minds.

Fast forward to 15 November when our agency was crowded into the boardroom to watch the result from the postal survey get announced live on TV. After the seemingly endless preamble by the nation’s top statistician (forgive him, it isn’t every day a statistician gets a captive audience…) we finally discovered that Australia had voted Yes with a proportion of 61.6%. A cheer went up and a sense of satisfaction swept through the whole agency knowing, in a small way, we had contributed to one of the largest acts of democracy in recent years.

And now, this week with the law (hopefully) being rubber stamped, it’s still hugely satisfying to see people wearing EQUALITY branded t-shirts knowing a piece of work we have created will mean so much to them for years to come.

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