Cash splash: A record-breaking federal election ad spend approaches

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 19 March 2019

The coming federal election will bring a record-breaking avalanche of advertising spending from the major political parties. 

The last national poll, a marathon eight weeks in 2016, saw $16 million spent on television, radio and print electioneering advertisements, about 90% of it by the two majors, the Liberal Party and the ALP, according to analysis by Nielsen. 

This federal election will more than double that because MPs are now allowed to use their $137,000-a-year office budgets on TV and radio advertising, and Queensland businessman and rich lister Clive Palmer alone has already spent $21 million on his federal campaign.

The major parties are expected to open the election campaign, once a date is announced (most likely soon after the 2 April federal budget), with a bang.

According to Nielsen, the Liberals spent $8.7 million in 2016, about 15% more than Labor’s $6.3 million.

Both opened with a big splash but the bulk of their budgets, about 70%, was saved for the final two weeks of that campaign. And more than half of that (53%) was spent in the last week.

Last election Nielsen tracked 86 creatives for TV, 33 for radio and 169 for print.

“There's a lot of advertising going on but other brands tend to quiet down a bit because it's very difficult to get a target group when you've got a lot of political advertising going on,” says Mungo McCall, Nielsen’s Client Service Director - Ad Intel Portfolio.

He says the most "extraordinary" factor in this federal election is Clive Palmer.

“We started tracking advertising for him in September last year, and so far he's spent $16 million on TV and radio,” he says.

All up, the spend across print and broadcast is more than $21 million and the official campaign hasn’t started.

The big question is whether the parties will go for a positive or negative campaign. Nielsen analysts rated the Liberal Party in 2016 at 75% in positive messaging and 25% negative.

Labor was the opposite, about 25% positive and 75% negative.

A preview of things to come, the style of the coming federal campaign advertising, can be found in the NSW state election due 23 March.

The Australian National University's Andrew Hughes, a leading researcher in political marketing in Australia, says the state Labor Leader Michael Daley looks a lot like former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2007. That Labor Party campaign, with a positive tone, unseated the 11-year Coalition Government of John Howard. 

“That Michael Daley ad, the one where he's talking all positive and it's nothing negative at all, the opening scene is nearly the same as the opening scene from the Kevin Rudd ad from 2007,” Hughes says.

“I'm guessing that's the way Labor might run federally, a strategy to be positive and put down any community fears about a Labor government.”

The Kevin 07 ad 

In 2016 the messaging was heavy in content. Hughes says the current crop of TV ads from Labor in NSW has toned down the load of information.

“Now, I said that in 2016, that you should put less content in ads and let a lot more heavy lifting be done by the ad itself through the imagery,” he says.

“I'm not going to take any credit, but it looks like they've listened to someone because those ads are three or four tag lines.”

For the Coalition, most of the images are running negative. “Black and white, bit of colour here and there to splash up the fear factor, but too many words on the screen,” says Hughes.  

One of the unknowns of the campaign, and one hard to track, is spending on social media and in closed platforms such as online gaming.

The US elections marked the rise of electioneering via social media and via text message.

“Digital will be interesting if they go down the US path,” says Hughes.

In the US campaign, Facebook messaging was customised for different groups or audiences, using memes and video clips

But much of that activity won’t be seen outside those targeted groups. 

“I think we'll see a lot more micro-targeting this time round,” says Hughes. “It's available to them, and it’s very, very cheap at the moment. And, of course, it means that it's a little bit harder for the opposition to see what you're up to.”

Text messaging also is a direct marketer’s dream as well as a way to raise campaign funds. Online and via text marketing, Democratic Party presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders gets an average of $US27 from each donor.

Hughes thinks Prime Minister Scott Morrison will run a lot more positive messaging than he has in the past.

“He needs to put that positive spin on his government because at the moment, the perception is mainly negative,” he says.

But he might, like Donald Trump did, run a fear-based online campaign and keep the positive messaging for the mass market.

“Trump did something similar in 2016," says Hughes. "A lot of positive stuff on TV because it reinforces images - the celebrity apprentice, the TV host. But then going negative online, where you couldn't really see that he was because of his targeting messaging strategy. A lot of the ads were buried so you didn't get a sense that he was running a negative campaign.”

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