AdWatch: Labor’s negative ads

Sunday, 25 August 2013 

As with the debate-nobody-saw on Wednesday night, the contest should be more open than the polls suggest. Yet as with the debate, while the Coalition remains surprisingly exposed given what the government has been through over the last three years, Rudd’s campaign seems reticent to take advantage. At least it became clearer that the public doesn’t mind negative at all, it’s what to be negative about that’s the issue. But the debate showed how much Rudd, rather than maintain the aura of incumbency he so well established when he returned, has needed to take up the negativity himself. Shouldn’t the ads be doing that?

The potential, but also the limitations, to Labor’s campaign is evident in the two main negative ads it has run in the campaign. The first is the better of the two, basically a re-run of the “Whinging Wendy” series from the 1987 campaign. The home is on the comfortable side of average, so easy for voters to (or want to) identify with, made no less so by the “expose” that the women acting in the ad is an … actor.

The basic idea is for the viewer to be taken through the argument of an unattached voter, although in this case, the script sounds too much that of a Labor supporter for this to really work. Nevertheless it makes a start of getting to the key message of Labor’s campaign; mistrust of what Abbott would get up to if he got in.

But only a start. The problem Labor has in its scare campaign on Abbott’s cuts is that, as we saw in the Q&A between Bowen and Hockey on Monday, Labor has already lost the argument that it spent too much. To now make the argument that the Coalition will also cut too much requires a bit more than just numbers that don’t add up, or that they are being politically expedient (much the same thing). The argument requires Labor to show not only that the debt problem is not that bad (helpful if interest rates are cut again) but that the Coalition will not just cut for the economy’s sake but to fulfil some other agenda.

The latter looks to be possible because it is probably true. Commentators have been quick to point out the dilemma the previous Treasurer got himself in by sticking to a surplus, but no one seems to have pointed out that the Coalition are in the same trap. This is a legacy of Howard’s time when surpluses were seen as a product of the genius of the World’s Funniest Treasurer rather a simply of economic conditions that meant governments round the world, whether centre left or centre right, could achieve them. The Coalition’s need to prove that the world has not really changed since 2007 and that the debasement of right-wing fiscal policy in 2008 never happened, remains their chief vulnerability.

But targeting the Liberals’ ideological fixation on the surplus requires dealing with another point of confusion that has emerged with the campaign, the focus on Abbott. While Abbott was put in to restore the party’s “brand”, he has also looked to remain politically viable in an environment that is unfavourable to it. This has required a curious mixture of expediency and flip-flopping combined with a few choice hints to the base that he may not really mean it – most characteristically in his handling of climate change. But the drive for political orthodoxy comes not from Abbott but from those who put him in – indeed Abbott is not fully in line with them, especially on what has been their sorest point, the Paid Parental Leave scheme.

It should be remembered that Labor’s figure of $70bn cuts comes not from Abbott, but Hockey, who has been angling over the last year or so to be the most favoured darling of keepers of the flame like Minchin and Reith and who threw the figure around in a moment of exuberance as a sign of his ideological credentials. It is this jostling from behind, and which we recently saw again from Abetz on industrial relations, that is the real drive to the ideological agenda behind the cuts.

This is the reality behind the campaign that should be reflected in any good ad – and why Labor’s second negative ad is not. For a start we have Abbott as a brooding Svengali over the innocents below, a caricature that wouldn’t be recognised outside the True Believers (for this blogger a more unsettling typical characteristic of Abbott is that dead laugh which always sounds to be substituting for what he really wants to say).

Labor’s failure to stop a rise in Abbott’s popularity (and prevent a fall in Rudd’s) has possibly unsettled them. But as Mumbles notes, a lift in an opposition leader’s ratings is not unusual for a campaign (except, oddly enough, it would seem, when the opposition leader actually wins). But the problem is that Labor has targeted Abbott as a lazy way of interpreting what is in reality a broader dissatisfaction with the old politics that Abbott is required to represent.

But if Abbott is a caricature, the bigger problem with the ad is that everyone else is too. Dividing Abbott’s victims into different “types” is typical of the outlook of political/advertising strategy that slices and dices the electorate into different “demographics”.

Under capitalism everyone thinks they’re special (including this blogger) rather than a “type” and they certainly aren’t inclined to think of themselves as victims as they are portrayed here. Voters are generally optimistic; the concern is not that they will be ticked off in some cost-cutting shopping list, but that they will be governed by a party where practical governance will be secondary to internal needs. Labor has made an ad of caricatures attacking caricatures that few are likely to identify with, making it useless. The ad sums up the political thinking that has so far infused Labor’s campaign.

Labor’s time is running out. The only saving grace is that as the election date approaches and the Coalition victory becomes more assured, the temptation within the Coalition to claim it as an ideological victory rather than just an electoral one becomes overwhelming. It is already leading to mis-steps from Abetz and Minchin, and now again with Morrison’s “buy back the boats” plan that makes no sense either practically, fiscally or diplomatically but for internal ideological reasons only. Howard is back to reclaim the past and reassure all that it is 2004 all over again. But it is not. To take advantage of it, Labor will have to do better than ads about what will happen to the “little people” that relate to no one, except perhaps the sensitive consciences of small “l” liberals in Toorak.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Sunday, 25 August 2013.

Filed under Tactics

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4 responses to “AdWatch: Labor’s negative ads”

  1. Rebecca on 25th August 2013 11:58 pm

    Brilliant post.

    The crux of all of this is that:

    (a) Rudd needs to recapture the positivity and strength he was projecting just a few short weeks ago
    (b) leave the negative stuff to HQ and (c)utilise some of the brilliant UK/US talent in HQ to design ads that actually work.

    The ‘Real Leadership’ pitch on Gruen transfer a few weeks ago was far better than any of the rubbish adverts they’ve been running on prime time.

  2. Bill on 27th August 2013 7:03 pm

    ‘Our plan will deliver’/ ‘stop the boats’ (he counts boats instead of sheep if he needs to sleep ..). Just had that SAME stupid ad in the same friggin ad break within less than a minute. AAGH. Make it stop !! Make HIM stop.It’s in his DNA. He can barely say a sentence without slipping that one in!

    Stop the boats? Hah! (we’ll see …).

    As for the simplistic slogans … they reckon people are intelligent enough to see through all that stuff. Hmm, I seem to remember learning that the classic ‘bell shape’ of IQ says roughly half the population are above 100, the other, below. Must be that other lot he’s aiming for. Say it enough times to the less smart/lazy thinkers etc .. they’ll buy it. In the meantime, he doesn’t give a toss about ramming his message home /getting on our t*ts (the other half/non liberal voters)with those incessant ads.

    Mercifully, it should stop anytime soon?

  3. No Crap App: w/b 26 Aug 2013 | No Crap App on 31st August 2013 2:01 pm

    […] The Piping Shrike: AdWatch – Labor’s negative ads […]

  4. The other Michael who comments here occasionally on 8th September 2013 8:54 pm

    Shrike, I’ve always loved your work but I can’t help but feel that, in the end, KRudd couldn’t bear the hopes you’d invested in him.

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