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.


Costigan Quist said...

This is the trouble with coming up with some ideas about which political advertising works and then, when it doesn't seem to actually work, reaching for the excuses why it wasn't anything to do with the advertising.

I'm not saying the ideas are wrong; but I'd be a lot more interested in a study that looked at campaign messages across lots of different elections and saw which ones actually got the punters to vote the "right" way.

This study feels like someone reaching the conclusions they wanted to reach without much evidence to back it up.

Neil Stockley said...


I'm not sure that you've quite got Dr Robinson's point, but then neither of us has read her chapter. So I think your last comment is very unfair -- I have read some of her other material (her PHD thesis for instance) and it is meticulously "backed up".

There are a number of studies that look at campaign messages across a number of elections -- for instance you may like to look at the books by / edited by Dr Jennifer Lees-Marshment.