Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Making things happen and dancing cossacks: political narratives 101

A few days ago, I came across on You Tube two old but still striking examples of the political narrative as party election broadcast.

I remember both of the adverts well. They feature here in a documentary of some sort, about innovative advertising in New Zealand elections. The first is a New Zealand Labour Party broadcast from the 1969 general election campaign. The party had been out of office for nine years (three terms) and believed, as did many observers, that their turn was coming around again. Labour’s slogan, after nearly a decade of conservative National Party rule, was “make things happen”.

In this clip, Bob Harvey, whose thrusting young advertising agency handled the Labour campaign, explains how he started re-making the image of the party’s c.27-stone leader, Norman Kirk, from grossly overweight slob to prospective prime minister.

Just as interesting is the way the advert projected Labour’s campaign narrative: if you change the government, we can make New Zealand better. The story was about the future, not the past and the archetype was the strong and purposeful community, working through politics to deliver positive results for everyone. As well as an upbeat campaign song, New Zealand symbols, including exports, new industries, farmers, old people and people working, were used to make the story real. (You’ll notice the iconic photo of a Vietcong prisoner being brutally executed during the Tet offensive of 1968 too. The Vietnam war was one issue on which Labour differentiated themselves from National.) And Harvey was trying to make sure that Kirk embodied the campaign narrative, as a credible leader who might, well, make things happen.

The broadcast looks a little quaint today but was certainly innovative forty years ago. Yet Sir Keith Holyoake’s National government clung on by their fingertips. Most Kiwi voters thought that Norman Kirk and Labour still weren’t quite ready. Three years later, Kirk led his party to a landslide victory, using the slogan “It’s Time for Labour”. “Change”, the classic narrative for opposition parties, hit home with a bored and restless electorate that wanted new faces and political action and believed that the economy was firing strongly enough to sustain it. And the re-imagining of Kirk was complete (though, as I recall, Labour’s tv campaign was a little less imaginative in 1972).

The next case study in the documentary comes from the National Party’s 1975 election campaign. That campaign is still some of the powerful political storytelling I have seen. By election day, New Zealand had been hit by the first oil shock, a collapse in the country’s terms of trade and double-digit inflation. And the government was shattered by the death in 1974 of Norman Kirk. Labour no longer embodied its narrative. Meanwhile, the pugnacious populist Robert Muldoon had taken over as National’s leader and marketed himself – incredible though it seems now – as an economic wizard.

In six different advertising spots, from which a few brief excerpts appear here, National’s campaign told simple stories to an anxious electorate. They did it by using simple, colourful cartoons with potent symbols and clever heuristics.

You’ll see the negative archetypes here, possibly as never before – “the enemy within” (trouble-making trade unionists and brawling, brown-skinned Pacific Island immigrants) and “the rot at the top” (the Labour government that had failed to manage the economy). Both came together in the infamous “dancing Cossacks” that powerfully symbolised National’s claim that the Labour superannuation (pensions) scheme would allow the state to nationalise all the farms and businesses in New Zealand and bring communism to the South Pacific.

This time, National swept to victory. Labour was decimated and Muldoon went on to be prime minister for eight and a half years. The crude appeals to prejudice and the “reds under the bed” scaremongering had Labour crying foul. The cossacks remain controversial to this day. [You can see the superannuation advert in full if you click here and scroll down to the bottom]

Like them or not, the National Party adverts are a textbook case of a successful political narrative. They talked about the issues of most concern to disgruntled Labour supporters and “swing” voters and engaged, very directly, with what these voters were thinking and feeling, as identified through the astute use of market research.

The National campaign structured these emotions – fear - into simple, easy-to-understand stories and played them back to voters. And they offered policy planks as “happy endings”: cut immigration to the bone, bring in a form of voluntary trade unionism, replace Labour’s superannuation regime with a very generous pay as you go scheme. Muldoon and his hard-hitting campaigning style embodied the campaign’s narrative.

Mike Wall, who masterminded National’s advertising campaign, is surely correct when he says in the clip that Muldoon would have won handsomely with or without the cartoons. But he adds:

“The commercials fitted in and somehow captured the mood of the campaign that Muldoon was running.”

Oh, yeah.

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