Friday, August 1, 2014

The Hard Sell: The Tricks of Political Advertising, by Dee Madigan

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

In this revealing insider's account, Dee Madigan explains all aspects of  political advertising.

Dee Madigan has worked in advertising for some two decades, helping sell the world’s largest brands, such as Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle, HBSC and Unilever. An on-again, off-again member of the Australian Labor Party, Madigan in the early 2010s decided to devote herself to working on several ALP campaigns, bringing her corporate selling skills to the job. She had previously done some political campaigns for the Howard government and the NSW state Labor government. Viewers of the ABC’s Gruen Transfer will recognise Dee as a regular panelist.

The Hard Sell is a warts-and-all look at how political advertising campaigns are put together. It very much takes you into the sausage factory, to view the entrails - focus groups, money, spin doctors and voter manipulation. Madigan does a thorough job of taking the reader through every aspect of the advertising process, from how much money is used and where it comes from, to the effectiveness of the ads themselves.

For the 2013 federal election, we learn that Labor spent about $20 million dollars of its $30 million dollar war chest on advertising. Of this the public kicks in about two thirds through their taxes. Decisions then have to be made on the most effective way to buy advertising space. For example, money clearly has to be put aside for marginal seats where the contest is close.

Who do political ads target? Here is the most vexing aspect of the book. As it is the swinging voter who decides elections, they are the obsessive subject of focus group research. Your typical swinging voter may only decide who he or she will vote for whilst walking to the polling booth. Swinging voters are disengaged and generally disinterested in politics. These are the people that the major parties spend millions of dollars advertising to.

The chapter on focus groups is fascinating. Subjects are grouped in a room, with a one sided  glass wall so the focus group can be studied. Groups are separated by gender: apparently men and women are inhibited by having a member of the opposite sex in the room. The responses of the subjects can be quite depressing, according to Madigan:

“Sometimes the comments do little to restore your faith in humanity. The sexism often directed at female politicians and misinformation about asylum seekers is incredibly disheartening, as is the increasing sense of entitlement, and the unwillingness of many participants to want to share good fortune with others that many participants exhibit.”

The best way to grab these swinging voters is through negative ad campaigns. Positive ads don’t work, as they simply reinforce people’s already held views. Negative ads, however, do  work. Despite the public saying they hate them, they definitely respond to them. They’re also increasing over time. Our political campaigns have significantly more negative ads than they did fifty years ago. The main reason the negative ads work so well is because they create fear, fear that you’ll lose something or your security is under threat. So the upshot is negative ads are used to scare swinging voters, who are uninformed about politics to begin with. As Madigan also notes in her book, television ads are the worst way to get complex and nuanced messages across. Images work on the emotions, so the aim of these ads it to whack people in the gut, not stimulate the brain.

Are you depressed so far?

The Hard Sell raises a lot of questions about the value of spending so much tax payer money on such a dubious practice. The last chapter of the book poses the question of whether political ads actually work, and doesn’t come up with a definitive answer. If anything, Madigan’s book will (hopefully) start a discussion on ways that political advertising could be reformed.

The Hard Sell is smart, amusing, informative and peppered with interesting research and plenty of fascinating factoids. It doesn’t mince words either. Dee Madigan has done us all a great service by showing how political advertising campaigns are made. Highly recommended!

The Hard Sell: The Tricks of Political Advertising, by Dee Madigan. Published by Melbourne University Press. ISBN:  9780522866308  RRP: $24.99

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