Election 2016: Liberal in box seat after positive ad campaign

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 1 July 2016
Will Turnbull's positivity trump Shorten's scare campaigns?

Malcolm Turnbull is in pole position heading into tomorrow’s Australian federal election (2 July) after the Liberal Party outspent Labor and ran a more positive campaign.

In one of the least memorable general election campaigns of recent times, more than $12 million was spent on advertising on metropolitan TV, radio and print, according to analysis by Ebiquity.

Despite few memorable campaign moments, with the exception of Liberals' real ‘fake tradie’ ad, bookies are backing a Malcolm Turnbull victory with Sportsbet’s odds on Labor sliding to 8/1 at the time of writing.

And experts AdNews approached think the Liberal Party’s campaign strategy has been more positive and possibly more effective, although it is still expected to be closely fought.

The two major parties accounted for 90% of the total spend, with the Liberal Party spending $6 million and Labor Party spending $4.7 million – a difference of almost 30%.

This is a similar amount to the last federal election in 2013 despite this campaign dragging on for three weeks longer.

Both parties splurged heavily (about 50%) in the final week, which is consistent with previous campaigns.

Voter fatigue

The unusually long two-month election campaign could be a tactic by the government to drive voter fatigue in the hope people will switch off and stick with the status quo, which would assure a Coalition victory.

“It’s been very noticeable that they’ve been more than happy to have a long campaign and make it very hard for Labor to get the engagement and momentum they need with their messaging,” ANU political marketing expert professor Andrew Hughes told AdNews.

“There’s a lot of clutter and noise for the average consumer to consider to make their decision so they become more confused and maybe disengaged. It’s been hard for Labor to get a clear bit of air time when it has been critical.

“All this noise plays right into Liberal’s hands … there’s been a three-week period where there was hardly anything going on at all with ads being run. If you had all that clear airtime why not reinforce and remind people to change their vote."

Hughes believes the Liberal Party has been one step ahead of Labor the whole campaign, correctly predicting their media planning strategy and providing Labor no room to move.

Night and day

Although major party spending has been similar to previous elections, both parties have executed very different campaign strategies.

The Liberal Party has focused on less creative than Labor (six major LNP campaigns to 11 ALP) and the government’s messaging has been far more positive.

“The Liberal Party had more ads and creative last time around, closer to 10. They certainly gone lighter on the unique creative they’ve been running,” Ebiquity chief executive Richard Basil-Jones tells AdNews.

“In both 2010 and 2013, it was the final two weeks where most of the spend happened, where the real activity was. That’s consistent with 2016. The first two days were very strong, then for six weeks we saw very little, a sprinkling of lightweight ads, and it really kicked in over the last two weeks.”

The medium of choice has been TV, which accounted for 93% of the spend tracked by Ebiquity, however this doesn’t include digital (see below for digital analysis).

Labor spent far more on radio ($292,199 to the Liberals' $4112) while the Liberal Party was the bigger spender in print ($97,853 to Labor’s $42,718).

“The big game is TV when it comes to federal elections,” Basil-Jones says. “What tends to happen with the press is they focus more on local candidates and we pick up more in the regional markets, which is the same for outdoor. It’s not party ads as much as candidate ads.”

Ebiquity’s data, which analyses media in the five major Australian capital cities, found that both major parties spent a disproportionately high amount in Sydney (41% of total spend for Labor and 48% for the Liberals) despite Melbourne's similar population. Both parties spent around a quarter of their budgets on Melbourne, followed by similar proportions in Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.

Outside of the two major parties, the Australian Greens spent a total of $400,000 of which half was invested in the Victorian capital to help Melbourne MP Adam Bandt defend his seat and hopefuls in the seats of Batman and Wills.

Positivity vs negativity

A key feature of this election campaign has been very strategic around messaging sentiment. About 75% of Liberal ad dollars has been on positive campaigns, such as Back the Plan and Four Main Points.

Conversely, Labor has focused 75% of its adspend on negative campaigns, led by more than $2 million on 'Seriously Out Of Touch' – the most costly campaign of the election. Labor spent more than $1 million on four separate scare campaign creative that alleges Malcolm Turnbull wants to privatise the Medicare payments system – claims the government has vehemently denied.

“It took the Liberal Party almost a month after the election was called before they brought out their first negative campaign, whereas Labor had a negative campaign on day one,” Basil-Jones observes.

“If you are in opposition, it’s very difficult to claim and promote all of your achievements. What you can do is put forward your own policies going forward, but really it’s fertile ground to be criticising the government in place. We’ve seen that in the past.”

Hughes believes Labor has used negativity to try and drive engagement, getting people to fear the consequences of voting for the Coalition.

“The other interesting dynamic is Labor has done negative messaging against the Greens. It shows that Labor are worried about losing a couple of seats.”

Politics of fear

But do scare campaigns actually work with an increasingly wary public? Basil-Jones believes success has less to do with positive or negative sentiment and more to do with the quality of the creative.

“My sense is it also depends on what is happening in a particular market in a given time,” he explains. “If there is a mood for change and a real sense of dislike for a particular party then the negative messaging may be striking a chord and can resonate with the voting public.”

Hughes believes Labor could have improved their chances by campaigning for hope, citing the successful Kevin 07 campaign and more recently Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in the US.

“I think this is consistent with how we’ve seen Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten in public. Turnbull is always smiling and I’m sure that is because of his campaign team telling him to always smile as it counters Labor messaging that he is a scary monster we have to kick out of office,” Hughes says.

“He’s not a scary monster, he’s a grandad. Labor’s attempts at scare campaigns have been negated by Liberal running positive messaging, positive Malcolm and occasionally throwing a distractor strategy like the Fake Tradie ad.”

Experts AdNews hass spoken with broadly agree that the creative used in this election has been average at best.

AdNews enlisted Hughes to run the rule over each party’s campaign and mark its effectiveness. Check out Hughes’ scorecard.

Labor wins digital

One area that Labor appears to have wrapped up campaigning on the digital front. Analysis by Dynatrace (below) shows that Labor content has been shared nearly three times as often as Liberal and Greens content on Facebook and retweeted ten times as often on Twitter.

The most viral content has been related to Labor's Mediscare campaign, with a video ad starring Bob Hawke shared more than 11,000 times.

"Labor is significantly far ahead in terms of the amount of time they're publishing content and the engagement they are getting on that content," Dynatrace Australia head Dave Anderson says. 

"The most significant content was with Bob Hawke, which obviously resonated really well with a Labor Party audience. Between Labor and Liberal they are attacking each other over Medicare, whereas the Greens are publishing opinion pieces on those policies and their engagement levels are really low even though they are sharing frequently on Twitter.

"The Labor Party is also using a lot of analytics and retargeting on their sites. They try to then re-engage with that person regardless of the platform they are on ... which is in contrast to Liberal and the Greens. Labor is growing its audience much faster than the other two parties."

How this influences the vote on Saturday, 2 July remains to be seen.

Election social infographic - Dynatrace

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