January 27, 2004

Dumb and dumber…oink!

Stevenson.bmp Yesterday I said html “The ‘Re-Pete’ ads are just plain dumb.” But this (gif 35 Kb) is even dumber. This looks like what is called in the trade a “quick and dirty” flyer. It’s designed on the fly in black and white so it can be photocopied (often in a parliamentarian’s office, though I’m not alleging that in this case) and distributed by volunteers.

It’s an effective but defective piece, by which I mean, in another election context it might work. In fact it may even work in the local context, depending on voters’ views of Ray Stevens, the Liberal candidate. (According to a poll in the Gold Coast Bulletin today Stevens is only pulling a 32% first preference vote, so he may be vulnerable to a personal attack). But in a statewide context where the Premier has played for the sympathy vote on the back of a personal attack ad from the Coalition, it doesn’t work.

ABC News Online headlines the story as “Beattie orders campaign out of the gutter”. Good stirring stuff, except will anyone believe that Beattie had nothing to do with it?

One of the Coalition’s ads attacks Beattie because of his frequent use of the word “sorry”. This attack only bites if voters believe that Beattie is insincere. In this case it’s hard to believe he is anything else. After the Shepherdson Inquiry Beattie could credibly attack the wrong-doers because they acted on their own without central authorization. Milner is right at the apex, Beattie is at least constructively responsible. Voters will easily believe that this time the only reason Beattie is sorry is because he was caught out.

The ALP could easily have justified this flyer, but for the pig caricature. All the rest is factual, consisting mostly of clips from newspapers and a few bolded phrases. It claims that Stevens favoured an 80% pay rise while he “says the figure was closer to 15 per cent”. One of the news clippings refers to the councilors trimming the rise to 50%, so I’m not sure about Stevens' claim. This argument doesn’t take Stevens far anyway – pay rises to pollies are never popular, and in arguing for them he is right off message. Even the pig is not that objectionable, but most voters statewide won’t see it, they will only hear its oink.

Talking about message, have another look at the flyer. All good marketing literature should have a clear call to action, but this one is lacking one. Sure it implies that you shouldn't vote for Stevens, but a really effective piece would have come out and said it.

The Coalition response also fails the message test. Liberal Leader Quinn is quoted as saying that "This is the bottom of the gutter, you cannot get any lower." I haven't seen his press release, but I would have thought the message should have been "This is what Peter Beattie and Labor are all about - do one thing and say another. The only way Queenslanders in Gaven can tell him this isn't good enough is to vote for Ray Stevens."

It's an odd campaign. Neither side seems to want to criticise the other, and as a result, they don't have their lines straight.

Posted by Graham at 05:26 PM | Comments (1)

January 26, 2004

Coalition launch finds a better range on message

The launch of the Coalition’s campaign yesterday featured a change in tactics. The Coalition parties are no longer claiming that they can form government. This is a pre-condition for winning seats at the next election. They have to change the campaign argument from one about who should form government to one about how Queensland voters can make the Beattie government behave.

This puts the focus of the campaign back on the government and away from the opposition. They need to do this because voters tend to vote against parties, not for them. It also signals to voters that the Coalition is being honest with them. In a sense this makes the Coalition less political as voters do not expect politicians to level with them and say that they can’t win. Being less political makes them more appealing and therefore more electable.

It also works with the image they have been trying to build of Lawrence Springborg as a vital young man with a fresh approach to politics. The same can’t be said about the other recent changes in tactics. The “Re-Pete” ads are just plain dumb. How can they reconcile this series of ads with this piece I found prominently displayed on www.springborg.com?

1] No Negative Personal Advertising - Press Conference, Queensland Nationals Headquarters, 7 February 2003 As part of his ‘positive politics’ agenda, Lawrence Springborg says he wants the next state election fought on ‘new ideas’ for Queensland and secures a commitment from the National’s Management Committee that there will be no negative personal advertising at the next State Election. In State Parliament, Beattie refuses to match the commitment.

The “Re-Pete” ads are negative and they are personal. They target Beattie (not his team, which our polling shows is a weakness) for always saying he’s sorry and his frequent promises to “fix it”.

Latest polling by Newspoll has Springborg on a net 26 Approve/Disapprove. That’s much better than his predecessor Mike Horan who had a –8 rating when he was deposed, but it’s a long way short of Beattie on 41. Springborg risks damaging his approval rating more than he might damage Beattie’s by launching an attack like this from a position of relative weakness.

I can see a number of Labor ripostes. How about this one? Peter Beattie to camera – “Lawrence Springborg promised that the next election would be fought on new ideas. He said that there would be no negative personal advertising at the next State Election. I took him at his word. I like Lawrence and I like to find the best in people, but now I’ve seen the latest National Party ads and they are negative and they are personal. It makes you wonder whether the National Party stands for anything more than trying to sneak back in to government on a protest vote.” A response like this would turn the attack back on the Coalition personally attacking Springborg, but acceptably more in sorrow than in anger, suggesting that anonymous power-brokers were just power hungry and would do anything to get into government, as well as hurting the Liberal Party in Brisbane where the National Party connection is still a weakness. It would undermine the protest vote argument very effectively.

The Coalition ads target Beattie for saying “sorry”. This opens up another possible line of attack. In our focus groups voters are always impressed with politicians who change their policies in response to voter pressure. They see flexibility as a sign of strength as long as it works in their favour. That Beattie says he is sorry is a plus. Another line of attack would go along lines that the Coalition criticizes Beattie for saying sorry – what do they do when they make a mistake? Labor could produce a list of Coalition “sins”, and ask “If you voted for a party that refuses to say it’s sorry, what sort of a message would you be sending?” Or you could push much the same message off the back of a short ad of a mother with her kids training them to say “I’m sorry”.

The truth is that while the Coalition has a slogan – “Restore the balance” – it hasn’t advanced any cogent arguments as to how voting for them will do that. Merely reducing the size of Beattie’s majority isn’t enough. The reduction in majority has to be tied to tangible policy benefits. Geraldine in our latest focus group summed it up best "This slogan bothers me because it is just that - not sure what is meant by it. If they are simply wanting to increase their numbers then a more effective Opposition would be a good thing. But they still need to have some clear policies and priorities". That’s why the other advertisement that they are currently running which concentrates on health policy is much more effective. It uses a woman actor who could be a young Pauline Hanson and excerpts from real letters written by health bureaucrats to real patients to demonstrate that there are problems in the health system.

Again there are problems. The front woman talks as though she is a voter, but in fact she isn’t. According to Nationals’ director Roger Harcourt that’s OK because she is just “talent”. Sorry Roger, that’s not good enough. I can see a possible ALP theme developing that the National Party will do anything to sneak back into government. The actor and dismissive explanation of her play into that.

The ad also tells voters to vote against Peter Beattie when all the available evidence suggests they want to vote for him. If the Coalition is serious about the protest vote campaign they have to realize that it is actually framed as a species of vote for the incumbent, not against them. Voting for the opposition is a way of improving the performance of the incumbent, not a way of voting against him. The other problem is that the campaign needs to provide an answer to what should happen with the health system. In the NSW election voters agreed with the Opposition about the problems, they just didn’t think they were offering any solutions and therefore didn’t see them as being worth voting for. I can see a repeat of that pattern in this election campaign.

One puzzling aspect to date is that the Coalition has changed tack, but Labor is still running their one positive ad and nothing else. The risk that they run is that they may be seen as being arrogant and out of touch if they refuse to engage. They may be gambling that the Coalition does not have the weight of advertising to get their message across, or their focus groups may be telling them that the protest vote message is not persuasive. It might also be a Doberman and Schnauser gambit. That’s the one where the little dog harasses the ankles of the larger dog which merely furrows its brow and goes about its business, moving on to the next lamppost in a clear display of superiority versus irrelevance.

The Opposition not only has a lot of work to do, it needs to rethink its strategy, with less than two weeks to go.

Posted by Graham at 01:52 PM | Comments (3)
Graham Young
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