Thursday, 27 August 2009

How do you make political ads that work?

This has been one of my main interests in politics for many years now.
A New Zealand academic has offered up some useful suggestions.

On his Liberation blog, Bryce Edwards has been summarizing and commenting on chapters from Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008 (edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig of the University of Otago Politics department).

He says that “’Vote for Me’”, the chapter by Dr Claire Robinson on political advertising, is one of the most interesting in the book. Having read a lot of Dr Robinson’s material and had the benefit of her advice, I can well believe it.

Edwards says that Claire Robinson found most of the advertising lacklustre – there were no classics like the dancing cossacks this time. She is critical of Labour’s advertising, found National’s bland and uninspiring (but then they were the frontrunners) but is much more positive about the Greens’ adverts and believes that NZ First at least pushed their brand (although they finished up with no MPs).

Just as interesting are the principles we can draw from Claire Robinson’s reported observations. Here’s my take:

· political adverts need to engage with voters and be inclusive (for instance – show your party leader adverts interacting and listening to voters, address viewers directly);

· to help in projecting this sense of engagement and inclusion, you need to seem externally and not internally focused (for instance, avoid using the word “I” in your adverts, as much as possible);

· you should project the image of a diverse voter base, especially if you are the market leader or a major party;

· if you are following a niche targeting strategy (like the Greens), don’t be afraid to use the same types of images and symbols that business marketeers use to reach that niche (for example, children, well known scenes and symbols, high production values);

· if you are a third or fourth party your campaign images - if done well - can help you seem different and fresh, above “politics as usual” (but see below);

· negative messages about your opponents are not enough (ok, third term governments seeking a fourth term almost always resort to these, but if people aren’t listening to you or those messages, then this is not going to work); and

· to be successful, a political advertising campaign needs to be based on a positive storyline – optimistic, action-oriented and looking to the future.

It seems Claire Robinson was very impressed with the Greens’ adverts. So was I. Yet the party did not do as well as expected on polling day. According to Bryce Edwards, she puts this down this down to the Greens’ mid-campaign decision to declare their preferred coalition partner, effectively siding with the Labour Party. Such an announcement:

‘was out of keeping with their message about transcending politics, [and] effectively meant they were only communicating with their core supporters from that moment on, and could not expect to attract new supporters from the other side of the political spectrum’ (p.88).

Here’s one more lesson learned: you can have a great campaign narrative but you have to embody it as well.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Pollwatch: Lib Dems ranked third on the environment, gaining little traction in economic debate -- ICM

Yesterday’s Guardian summarised the main findings of the ICM political poll for August. ICM have now published the full results on their website, so we can see in a bit more detail what they mean for the Liberal Democrats.
The question that I always find most interesting is:

“Irrespective of how you yourself will vote at the next election, which political party do you think is putting forward the best policies on . . .”.

As usual, the Liberal Democrats’ best rating – 16 per cent – was on the environment. But we came third, behind the Conservatives and Labour. Allowing for margins of error, the three parties were level pegging, which is not much cause for comfort.

That’s not all: 18% said that “another party” (meaning the Greens, presumably) had the best environmental policies. That figure has doubled since February, the last time ICM asked who has the best policies on a range of areas. And more voters picked “another party” on the environment than on any of the issues surveyed.

This is not the first time the Lib Dems have failed to top the ICM poll on the “best for the environment” question. Yet we should be doing better than this on what is supposed to be our strongest issue with voters and where we have long claimed the moral and intellectual high ground. I will post about this more over the coming weeks, but the Lib Dems may well have become too complacent over the last few years about our leadership on green issues.

On "the economy generally", just 9 per cent said that the Lib Dems had the best economic policies, compared to 33 per cent for the Conservatives and 22 per cent for Labour.

As for which party had the best policies for “sorting out the economic crisis”, the Conservatives held a 9 point lead over Labour, up from 2 points in February. Just 9 per cent picked the Lib Dems.

On these scores, the Lib Dems fared little better or worse than we did six months ago.

The ICM figures show, once again, that Vince Cable’s well deserved reputation with the political literati has not sprinkled any star dust on the Liberal Democrats or our economic credibility. Maybe the public has cast us as the “caring party” that stands up for ordinary people and does not really see Lib Dems as hard-headed economic managers. But there’s no escaping the fact that, as the general election draws closer, the party needs to put across a clearer story on the issue that is uppermost in voters’ minds.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Lessons from Gordon Brown's narrative failure

Liberal Democrats regularly beat ourselves up for “not having a narrative”. As I have argued many times, we always have a narrative but it’s not necessarily the one we might want. Yet our problems on this front are as nothing compared to Gordon Brown’s.
In today’s Guardian, Tom Clark describes the philosophical and marketing swamp in which the PM is now mired. He lists the worst of Brown’s abortive attempts to define what his premiership is meant to be all about, from the moralising of two years ago to last autumn’s promises to get tough with the bankers.
In each case, there was a cycle of failure that repeated itself. Brown issued bold statements of intent that were, in many ways, in line with the public mood. But they did not amount to a vision for government. Nor did Brown tell a clear story about what had happened and what was coming next. Most importantly, nothing came of them. Politicians in office are judged over the long term by their actions and achievement as by well as their words; all this forms part of their brand narrative. They have to make things happen and when action is promised but not forthcoming, the public has nothing tangible to latch on to; disillusionment soon follows.
Hang on - Brown has held high office for more than twelve years. He was chancellor for more than ten years – with an unprecedented amount of power over domestic policy - and has been prime minister for two. We should be able to see and believe what he stands for, where he wants to take the country; even if the PM has to help us. Just as we understood “Thatcherism”, we should able to see “Brownism” is about. But like Margaret Thatcher, Gordon Brown needs to tell stories to make it real.
The “ism” may be there after all. Tom Clark suggests that from all the micro-measures and ad hoc experiments, especially when Brown was at Treasury, we can identify his core values and principles:

“ . . . attempt to run a market economy with ruthless efficiency; then funnel as much of the proceeds as feasible to the very poor . . . with [a] strategic conviction that the state is vital in both parts . . . "

That’s a good summary but Brown has plainly not been successful in these aims -- though, it must be said, the global financial crisis has not helped.

When it comes to communication though, there’s less much room for debate. Tom Clark identifies the harsh reality:

“Brownism . . . will never be intelligibly defined by the man himself.”

I agree with Tom Clark. But read those words again, slowly. They go to the heart of why Brown has failed as a leader.

Political leaders have to tell compelling stories if they are to succeed. Leaders base these stories on a clear understanding of the people they are speaking to – their hopes, their emotions, their fears. Nobody else can do it for them. The leaders who do not tell such stories crash and burn. Think Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair – and Paddy Ashdown. Or Michael Foot, Iain Duncan Smith – and Ming Campbell. Brown seems destined to join the second group. (True, this is a big ask for a leader who has been a long time in government. Yet Australia’s former PM Paul Keating managed it well enough to win the 1993 federal election.) Tom Clark wants Gordon Brown to change his ways but I think it is too late now.
But there’s more. In order to tell powerful stories, successful leaders also know their own minds, understand their own values and are clear about what they themselves believe in and their goals for the future. Michael Deaver once said that one of the biggest lessons he learned from working with Ronald Reagan was:

“You've got to know who you are before you can communicate it.”

Love them or hate them, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher are two very good examples of leaders who knew who they were.

Maybe that’s the real problem with Brown’s premiership: he has still not really decided what Brownism is. And, perhaps, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have the same challenge.