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The Politics of Persuasion

May 2024

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As the demographics of Australian voters change with every election, so too do the methods and channels parties and candidates deploy to engage them. We explore how political advertising is evolving to capture the hearts and minds of voters.


They say the first casualty of war is truth. The same could be said for politics. Since long before the advent of social media, marketers have been forced to grapple with how to neutralise untruths in advertising perpetuated by their political opponents.

 

The weaponising of misinformation in the modern political era was first seen via a Liberal Party newspaper ad in the last week of the 1980 Australian election campaign warning voters the Labor opposition had plans to introduce a “wealth tax” based on the value of assets voters owned.

 

Its fake news equivalent was the “Mediscare” offensive during the lead-up to the 2016 election where, through a series of TV advertisements, former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke warned of the privatisation of Medicare if the Liberal party was returned to government. During the 2019 election campaign, the Liberal-National Coalition used a similar tactic to scare voters about so-called “death taxes” should Labor win the election.

 

Glenda Wynyard, the managing director of full-service agency Media Precinct, says there are numerous ways for political parties and marketers more generally to promote authenticity in their narrative. She says the key is to use a broad array of digital media platforms to enter into a dialogue with audiences - rather than just promote one-sided messaging.

 

Wynyard says there is a reluctance, particularly on the part of more established parties, to embrace new media consumption patterns. This is despite feedback consistently proving that using traditional platforms, such as physical newspapers, is no longer as relevant to voters.

 

“We are seeing that digital consumption patterns have changed dramatically. Adoption is even higher than before and attention needs to be paid to newer media options otherwise parties will fail to connect with voters of all ages.”

 

Wynyard says there are lessons to be drawn from the approach taken by some of the Independent candidates that consistently leverage each election to their advantage. Instead of waiting to start campaigning six to eight weeks out from an election, savvy political marketers pick up on a topic they think will become a hot issue. They then use this issue to find an opportunity for their candidate to speak to the topic, advertising digitally to drive increased awareness and support from within their electorate.

 

Independent MP Zali Steggall, who recently moved to introduce a private member’s bill to bring political advertising in line with commercial advertising, says in terms of outreach the fundamentals of consumer marketing and political marketing are not that different.


“While one format is asking consumers to put their trust in a product, the other is asking voters to put their trust in a politician - so similar rules apply. The biggest difference is that consumer advertising is heavily regulated, and there are rules and penalties for engaging in misleading and deceptive advertising. This is not the case in political advertising.”


Voters want to see how their democracy sausage is made


Wynyard says the demand for more transparency within the Australian political advertising sphere is one of several changes seen within the voting public’s behaviour in recent years.

Wynyard says the changing demographic of voters - particularly between the Liberal and Labor parties - together with the way the digital targeting strategies are influencing how those 18 years and over are exercising their democratic rights, are also driving shifts in the Australian political landscape.


After the 2022 federal election, the Australian National University (ANU) compared Australians' voting intentions in the lead-up to the election, as well as how people voted that year compared to the 2019 election. The data showed age and education played a key component in how the election was won and lost, with these two factors proving much stronger predictors than gender, country of birth, location, and household income. There was a large-scale shift away from major party voting, with the combined major party primary vote of 68.3%, the lowest since the 1930s.


There was a major decline in the Coalition primary vote and an increase in votes for the Greens. Those who voted for minor parties increased from 8.6% to 12.9%. Steggall says this signifies the Australian public’s appetite for change. “In the last election almost 30% of voters put their support behind candidates from minor parties or independents. This says a lot. There has been growing dissatisfaction with the major parties and the voting public have welcomed the opportunity to put their support behind candidates who more closely reflect their communities.”


The findings also painted some interesting pictures of changing voter demographics. In general, Labor voters tended to have higher levels of education, lived in capital cities and had a higher income. Coalition voters trended towards being older, non-Indigenous, with a lower household income.


By contrast, Greens voters tended to be female, younger, have children under the age of 18 in their households and skewed towards high discretionary spending. They believe they have a balanced perspective on life, the world, and environmental impacts, and tend to view themselves as intellectuals.


The ANU report also showed those who voted for another party trended to high levels of education, lived outside of a capital city and had a relatively low household income.

Most Teal voters were found not to be ‘disaffected Liberals’ as first thought, but instead tactical Labor and Greens voters, according to the study.


The report also showed gender played a part in the Labor Party’s success, with females less likely to vote for the Coalition compared to males. The largest difference in voting patterns by gender was for the Greens (22.5% of females voted for the Greens compared to 16.4% of males). Young Australians were more likely to have voted for Labor and substantially more likely to vote for the Greens.


Wynyard says a key takeaway for all political marketers is not to underestimate the power of the female voter.

 

“Undecideds and those that will vote Independent or Green tend to skew strongly towards females. They feel completely overlooked by current parties who they believe neither represent their beliefs nor advocate on their behalf. These women want to have a voice and are sick of sitting on the sidelines.”


Strategies with byte


You don’t have to look hard to see that digital media has been increasingly making a mark on the Australian political arena.

 

Numerous studies show digital media now has the highest reach as well as the highest day-part consumption of all media platforms. Eager to make the most of digital’s strong user engagement, savvy political marketers are also utilising alternate platforms such as podcasts, other audio mediums and social media to target voters in ways never seen before.


The likes of podcasts and social media allow the parties, trade unions and individual candidates to better address the voter’s concerns or running agendas in a more relevant and meaningful manner due to the deep engagement level of their highly targeted audiences.

The audiences tend to listen to these platforms on a solus basis, meaning that the ability to create an intimate dialogue with the voter is at its highest. Wynyard cites the ability to utilise the popularity of true crime podcasts as the perfect environment to talk directly about crime, for example.“ This is because it is exceptionally strong contextually and highly relevant to the psyche of the voter listening. You cannot achieve this in a mass market scenario with attention levels as high.”


Wynyard says digital displays and video capabilities also extend into custom intent targeting, allowing for the incorporation of non-commercial URL targeting into digital strategies – a strategy not available to political marketers during previous elections.

 

“This means that someone arriving on a Greens landing page can be targeted with a particular message when they re-enter into a digital commercial environment with extremely specific messaging talking to a particular topic.”

 

Wynyard says while many political marketers recognise the value of social media through paid opportunities and organic chances to connect with the voting public, political parties rarely fully evolve their profiles so that they can capture different types of voters and leverage social platforms to their fullest.

 

“They tend to dilute their messaging to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach rather than talk directly to a younger male voter on Snapchat or embrace a Millennial female on Instagram.

 

“Context is crucial because people on these platforms take in and process information differently than they do on more traditional media channels. Ensuring that the messaging best fits the media it is served on provides greater gravitas to that message.”

 

Steggall agrees digital targeting strategies are typically based on serving an audience more and more of what they like and interact with. However, cautions that this risks the information people receive is akin to an echo chamber.


For a healthy democracy, it’s important people have an opportunity to hear a range of perspectives, even ones that challenge their own beliefs, she says.“


Even traditional media is shaped by likes and clicks now, which in turn can influence the subjects and the narrative they take when reporting on an issue. Depending on the style of media, promoting outrage over a balanced story can be a tactic to drive more engagement from their audiences.”

 

Wynyard says the large political parties should take heed of how the independents successfully build brands that resonate with voters.

 

“You can’t manufacture authentic connection with constituents overnight, or indeed, during a six-week election campaign. Meaningful engagement with voters is a solid foundation that needs to be built brick-by-brick at every touchpoint. You need to be consistent with the way you communicate and ensure you do this regularly and relevantly.”

 

This is especially prescient in the current economic climate where consumer and business confidence are at their lowest point since the ‘80s stock market crash, causing widespread voter apprehension.

 

“If political candidates and their teams don’t change their dialogue to reflect the underlying issues impacting voters then they are putting their own political futures - and that of their party - at risk.

 

“Behavioural advertising has the ability to be extremely strong and it would mean that the communication strategy would have greater appeal to the voter. However, it is my experience, that in Australia it is rarely used properly. Most parties have a handful of campaign topics that they are determined to focus on and these remain in place until the end of the campaign period. It is rare that they optimise to voter intentions or concerns, which would be far more powerful.

 

“Stop talking to those that are only going to tell you what you want to hear. Having a proper dialogue with a broader community of people rather than preaching to the converted, is the best approach any politician or political party can take.”


Making every eyeball count


When it comes to persuading the voting public around to your way of thinking, a media strategy with a strong ROI is critical to getting bang for your messaging buck, Wynyard says.

 

The Australia Institute data shows a total of $12.5 million was spent by parties and candidates on 26,945 paid political ads on Facebook and Instagram in the two months preceding the 2022 Federal election. The Labor Party had the highest ad spend across all candidate and party pages, at $5 million, 62% higher than the Liberal Party which spent over $3 million contesting the election.

 

The political ads run on web pages of candidates and their parties during the same period generated over 645 million impressions Australia-wide.

 

The same data source shows 28% of political ads were seen by people aged between 25 and 34, making them the age group with the highest share of impressions. Again, females accounted for a higher proportion of ad impressions than males across ads of all parties.

 

Wynyard says that when it comes to ROI and gauging voter sentiment and behaviour, many political marketers choose not to look under the rug. While some parties take heed of the results of political polling when seeking to measure their advertising, social listening is often a far better gauge, she says.

 

Steggall says while digital media analytics are useful to gauge how strongly the audience engages with a particular topic or campaign there are other ways to measure how your messaging is resonating with its intended audience, no matter how the message is communicated.“


I was elected to represent my community so I will go where they are. Some will be online, some will talk to me in person and others prefer printed newsletters and writing letters. [But] at the end of the day, a political campaign’s success can be determined by success at the ballot box or at least a swing in votes.”


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