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Election 2016: Marketing Lessons from History

It's Time - one of the most successful election campaigns in Australia

Looking back at the 2016 Australian election campaign most would agree that it was one of the most boring of all time.  Despite this, there are several lessons for every marketer in this election campaign; some classic lessons in advertising as well as branding. And some lessons learnt from elections past.

Some claim that there are only two election campaign strategies: it’s time for a change, or it’s not a time to change. A quick look at Labor’s advertising history highlights the point. Two famous campaigns demanded change — 1972’s “It’s Time” and 2007’s “Kevin07” — while Bob Hawke’s jingle in his 1987 double dissolution pleaded for Australians to do the opposite and “let’s stick together, let’s see it through”.

“It’s Time” and “Kevin07” are two of the most memorable ad campaigns in Australian election history, alongside the Democrats’ “Keep the Bastards Honest” in 1980 and the Liberals’ 1949 campaign consisting of 200 15-minute satirical radio programs.

Kevin '07 - a memorable election campaign
Kevin ’07 – a memorable and successful election campaign

While “Keep the Bastards Honest” came from a line in the middle of a speech made by Democrats leader Don Chipp, the other three were developed as classic advertising campaigns. And the formula behind them was almost identical. All used more emotional persuasion rather than rational, all were single minded in their message, all had memorable taglines, and all made the most of new and innovative media.

Research in Britain shows that famous and emotional campaigns are more effective than rational ones. It’s one of the reasons why the three aforementioned campaigns worked so well. Yet the tendency for election advertising across the 2010, 2013 and 2016 campaigns has been rational.

Prime Minister Turnbull in a Coalition TV ad
Prime Minister Turnbull in a Coalition TV ad

And not only rational, but with multiple messages in the one ad. Advertising best practice says the message in an ad should be single minded. It makes it easier to comprehend. Yet Labor’s launch campaign last week had six messages in it. The Liberals had five, albeit all based around a core message of jobs growth.

A great tagline should also be clear and memorable. “Strong New Economy” and “We’ll Put People First” might be clear, but they’re far from memorable, and will quickly disappear into the ether like 2013’s “Choose Real Change” and “A New Way”.

 “Kevin07” and “It’s Time” were not only memorable slogans, but the campaigns around them tapped into innovative media opportunities of their day. “Kevin07” was the first in Australia to tap into the embryonic social media trend. “It’s Time” was the first to be plastered all over merchandise such as T-shirts, and the jingle around it was the first to be released as an LP. Research and local area marketing were also new techniques picked up early by both parties and still used extensively today. The media innovations in 2016 are live streaming, geo-fencing of social media, virtual reality and full screen mobile ads. Neither major party appears to have made significant use of any of these technologies.

Another marketing tactic at the disposal of campaign heads is to build a strong brand around their party’s leader. Great brands are built on four key pillars: they are different, relevant, well regarded for their quality and popularity, and people know and understand them.

Bill Shorten appears in a Labor TV ad
Bill Shorten appears in a Labor TV ad

Kevin Rudd, with “Kevin07”, was the first politician in Australia to latch onto being a brand. He conversed with the people, he didn’t pretend to be anything else but himself, he had ideas. He understood the four pillars and how to leverage them. He emphasised his points of difference, he was the most relevant politician to the way things were happening in 2007, and he seemed to be a good quality and popular fellow from Queensland. People felt that they knew him well. It was classic brand theory, executed well.

So why, nine years later, have politicians turned back from the successful personal brand path laid out so well by Rudd? Part of it is to do with the perceived failure of brand Kevin Rudd three years later. Australian businesses have an unusual habit of getting behind innovative ideas for a brand, but when they fail, they revert to what they did before, rather than learning from what specifics led to that failure, and trying again. This is exactly what happened with Rudd. People, who thought they knew, understood and liked Kevin Rudd the brand, realised he wasn’t quite all he had made out to be. Again, all absolutely explained by the four pillars of classic brand theory, but the party heads reverted to the previous norm.

Bland personal brands and one-way, rational messaging won out as we entered the Gillard and Abbott years of prime ministership. As we reach the end of this campaign period, it appears that neither major party has taken heed of the marketing lessons of previous campaigns, resorting instead to bland messages largely reliant on negative attack ads and scare techniques. It seems likely that within weeks nobody will remember anything about the marketing of the 2016 election campaign apart from the fact that it was so uninspired and generic.


Adapted from article by Andrew Baxter in The Australian Newspaper, May 20 2016