Robinson is very critical of Labour’s opening TV address, suggesting it was overly inward- and Clark-focused. She makes three points about this:
- Instead of including images of its key and target supporters, ‘11 minutes of the 12-minute address featured an interview with Clark’ (p.80)
- Clark ‘spoke off-camera to a hidden interviewer and did not once address viewers directly’ (p.80) – ignoring the need to be seen as engaging with voters
- Clark made 33 ‘I-statements’ in her 11 minutes. Robinson says that ‘I-statements are a sign that a speaker is more internally than externally focused’, and these were fewer in previous Labour opening addresses: 21 in 2005, 5 in 2002, 4 in 1999 (p.80). In comparison to Clark’s 33 I-statements in 2008, Key only used 10, the Greens used 2, and Winston Peters used none at all.
Labour brought upon itself voter cynicism by its overly manipulated advertising images. Its heavily presidentialised approach, as usual, led ‘to another round of people questioning the truth behind the image’ when so much photo manipulation was involved: ‘Billboard and early newspaper advertisements contained an attractive photoshopped portrait of Clark in which the mole on her chin had been removed, her teeth straightened, and her eyes whitened’ (p.80).
An analysis of Labour’s political advertising shows that the party had little to offer voters in 2008. Instead of putting forward any sort of positive message, or even offering anything new in terms of policy, Labour relied on a negative campaign against National to retain power. Robinson points out that this approach wasn’t entirely different from 2005, and that year’s Labour slogan of ‘Don’t put it all at risk’ was merely updated with a new slogan of ‘This one’s about trust’ and a general campaign theme of ‘trust and strength in leadership’ (p.80). She notes that early on Labour seemed to experiment with a nationalist/statist sub-message of ‘Keep it Kiwi’ which built on support for Kiwibank, Kiwisaver and Kiwirail, but this wasn’t developed any further. By going with this negative strategy of attacking National, ‘Labour essentially acceded that it was National’s agenda they were all dancing to’ (p.81). What’s more, the reliance on accusing Key and National of policy flip flops was never going to fly, as Labour had already been futilely pushing that for 18 months with absolutely no corresponding dent in National’s polling support.
A big problem for Labour in 2008 was the issue of coalition partners, and which parties it might be able to govern with after the election, but this didn’t lead it to change its political campaign strategy. As Robinson points out, ‘Labour has always had difficulty accommodating coalition partners in its campaign messages’ (p.81). This continued in 2008, with Robinson providing the example of Labour’s campaign language:
Despite having used the term ‘Labour-led government’ in almost all of its parliamentary publicity for the previous three years, Clark reverted to talking of the ‘Labour government’ in her opening night address, even claiming the establishment of Kiwibank as a Labour initiative (despite it being a Jim Anderton/Alliance policy initially). (pp.81-82)
Overall, Labour’s political advertising language was not inclusive. In fact, engagement with voters – or lack of engagement – was Labour’s biggest political advertising mistake says Robinson: ‘Clark did not engage directly with voters…. This was an election fought and won over the issue of engagement. That Labour did not understand this was a symptom of it being out of touch with the electorate’s needs’ (p.87).
National’s campaign advertising was significantly more engaged with voters than Labour’s. Robinson stresses this point:
A major difference between Labour and National was the level of leadership engagement with ordinary New Zealanders. National’s opening night address was full of images of National leader John Key listening to people. These were not unfamiliar images. Since he had become leader in 2006 he had taken many opportunities to be filmed walking around markets, shopping malls and factories talking with, listening to, and physically interacting with ordinary voters. Key appeared more than aware of the need to be seen engaging with as many people as possible. When he spoke to voters he addressed them directly down the barrel of the camera. Such a technique mimics close social distance and is important for establishing a relationship between politician and voter (p.82).
Furthermore, National succeeded in pushing an image of a more diverse National voter base:
Included in the opening night address were images of young Pakeha and Asian children in a school choir; milking shed workers; health care workers at a private clinic (including women and Asian workers); factory workers (mainly Polynesian and young men); technology salesmen; Porirua market goers; Pacific people; older people at a party afternoon tea, including Indians in turbans; and a large audience at a conference (p.82).
Unsurprisingly, National’s weakest campaign component – its billboards – get a thumbs-down from Robinson: ‘The billboard messages were not simple; they contained messages that were not easy to interpret in a matter of seconds. Graphically they were not strong, lacking the bold typography and layout expected of a well functioning billboard message’ (pp.82-83). On a positive note, however, the main billboard slogans were ‘more optimistic and action oriented message than Labour’s negative’ slogan (p.83).
Overall National’s campaign was bland and uninspiring, which Robinson puts down to National’s market leader position in the campaign which meant the party required ‘a “don’t rock the boat” approach to avoid drawing negative attention to itself, and to not risk losing the support it had in public opinion polls’ (p.83).
Mimicking the Greens, Robinson has entitled her chapter ‘Vote for me’, and she awards the Greens the prize of having ‘the most single-minded and memorable slogan of the entire election campaign’ (p.84). She also bring attention to the highly professional production values of the images that accompanied the slogan, as well as their decidedly middleclass focus:
they were crisp, clean, colourful, and the kids were attractive. These might be the sorts of images found in expensive children’s clothing catalogues. In adapting the campaign image for TV, the Greens used the image of the girl with Rangitoto in the background, panning back from her while the voice-over of well known Kiwi-mum and middle-aged actress Robyn Malcolm asked ‘who should you vote for on November the 8th?’. The implied audience was middle class parents; the Wadestown or Remuera mothers who shop at Pumpkin Patch (p.84).
From a political marketing point of view, the message also impressed Robinson, as it worked to create an impression that the party was different from the others and above conventional pragmatism. Thus, the party was ‘on track to attract a wide range of new voters with their message about Green values being above politics; a message that was not only a return to the Greens’ niche, but one that transcended party lines’ (p.88). The billboards reinforced ‘the primary idealistic message of Green values being beyond politics’ (p.85).
Yet Robinson feels that this highly professional and impressive political marketing was undone by the Greens mid-campaign decision to declare its coalition partner hand, 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). This ‘puzzling’ decision ‘demonstrated a lack of appreciation of the benefits that could have been gained from not aligning themselves with any party’ (p.88).
New Zealand First
Obviously New Zealand First’s campaign failed to yield the necessary 5% party vote, but the party’s campaign impressed Robinson nonetheless: ‘That it still managed to attract over four per cent of the overall party vote is a testament to its strong voter orientation’ (p.89). New Zealand First’s political advertising pushed a strong political brand:
In the opening night address Peters articulated the populist language he was renowned for, referring many times to New Zealand First protecting ‘our country’ from a menacing ‘them’. Peters attributed news media attacks on him and the party throughout the year as the result of the party standing ‘in the way of vested interests who have a different plan for New Zealand’. Take out Winston Peters and New Zealand First ‘and then there is no-one to stop them cutting New Zealand superannuation, getting rid of the SuperGold Card, selling off our assets and cutting your wages. But we will not let them win ...’. Protecting and saving New Zealand from ‘them’ was the party’s core message in 2008 (p.86).
The advertising imagery nicely backed up this brand – especially with leader Winston Peters shown in some evocative settings:
he was portrayed as a lone crusader protecting the interests of the elderly. There was an image of Peters banging on the door of an empty shop with the sign ‘Blue Chip. Out of business’ on the front door as he talked of over 180,000 ordinary New Zealanders losing billions of dollars in investments. There was an image of Peters standing in front of Auckland police station as he announced that the party had delivered on its promise to increase police numbers by 1000. Another image was of Peters standing outside a Kiwibank branch with two thumbs raised as his voiceover talked of some political parties selling off Kiwibank if they got the chance (pp.86-87).
Political advertising and the Electoral Finance Act
Possibly the greatest contribution made by Robinson’s chapter is in her discussion of the EFA and its definition of political advertising. The legislation’s adopted definition of what constituted an election advertisement was extremely broad: any form of words or graphic that could reasonably be regarded to be encouraging or persuading a person to vote for or against a party or candidate. This very wide definition was the subject of much legal activity as well as parliamentary and media debate. The issue of the definition was of considerable significance, as it meant that third parties did not know whether they needed to register, political parties had trouble calculating their expenditure, and many people did not know when a promoter statement was necessary.
The institutions charged with interpreting the EFA had to determine whether a variety of types of political communication constituted election advertisements. On one particular complaint – regarding the display of red Labour Party balloons with the party’s logo and website on them – the commission took eight months (from April to December) to make a decision. Commission members were apparently divided over whether party logos could be regarded as an election advertisement and therefore sought a decision from Crown Law, which took seven months to arrive. Eventually the commission decided that a logo was not an election advertisement unless it was disproportionately displayed. This was a key ruling, and Robinson strongly disagreed at the time, saying ‘This is in fact a very simple issue. Without question, logos are election advertisements in terms of the definition contained in the Electoral Finance Act’ (Robinson 2008).
Robinson put forward the view that the commission’s decision was based on a ‘flawed definition’, and was actually pragmatically-driven by the implications of the decision: ‘What is inconvenient is the ramification. Once it is acknowledged that party logos are election advertisements, the Electoral Finance Act will be rendered absolutely, unequivocally dead in the water’ (Robinson 2008). In her 2009 chapter Robinson argues that if such a tight and literal interpretation was used, clearly this would have seen virtually all political parties and MPs being prosecuted for breaching the EFA:
It is understandable that the Electoral Commission might wish to avoid using this specific instance to make a wider call on party logos as election advertisements because of the ramifications; every time a party logo was published (and party logos are found on everything from stationery to car signage, number plates, clothing and ball point pens) it would need a promoter statement, and where a promoter statement was absent it could have required referral to the police (p.75).
There is no question that commercial logos are persuasive. There is no reason to consider political party logos any differently. Political party logos encourage or persuade voters to vote, or not to vote, through repeated exposure and association with people, events and messages. The party logo encapsulates the essence of the party; it may be thought of as the bookmark or the placeholder for a political party (p.76).
This fits with what Robinson had previously written, saying, ‘nothing will be resolved until the Government accepts that everything that political parties do at all moments of the electoral cycle is electioneering, and that there is no difference between parliamentary and party communications’ (Robinson, 2008).
The use of advertising was central to the 2008 election, largely due to the EFA, but most of it was fairly lackluster, according to Robinson. In the past, we’ve had enduring and memorable ads in our elections – such as National’s 1975 ‘Dancing Cossacks’ TV ad, or more recently the ‘Iwi/Kiwi’ billboards, and the ‘Clark/Cullen Taxathon’ ads, but Robinson says that ‘2008 will not go down in history as one of those campaigns. Not a lot of controversy surrounded the message content of any political party’s advertising campaigns’. Interestingly, she credits third parties such as the Whale Oil blog and the CTU as creating the ‘most creative’ ads, which were obviously seen by very few voters as they were only online.
Robinson’s analysis of political advertising is not a straight subjective evaluation of the merits or otherwise of the various billboards and TV ads, but a wider look at party strategy in 2008, using the lens of the political marketing academic discipline and literature. She defines political marketing as being that ‘which is directly concerned with the strategic engagement of commercial marketing techniques and concepts by political parties’ (p.73). Robinson’s particular thesis – and indeed the subject of her PhD – is that ‘a political party or candidate with a market orientation (a strategic concern with, and sensitivity to, the satisfaction of the needs of voters) is likely to achieve enhanced electoral performance’ (p.74). It’s her observation that in past MMP elections ‘parties that demonstrated their market orientation in their political advertising messages also achieved their electoral goals’. So, was that the case in 2008? Yes, it seems. In fact, Robinson is fairly critical of the political advertising of all four parties, pointing to where they fell down. But it is National that seems to have followed the political marketing model most closely, with obviously successful results.
Robinson’s chapter is one of the most interesting in the book and it deserves a wide audience.
Claire Robinson is former Head of the Institute of Communication Design
and Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Creative Arts at
Massey University, New Zealand. Her research interests include political
marketing and political communication, with specific emphasis on the
visual communication of political messages.
Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008, edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig
Published by Pearson Education, 2009.
More information here.
Table Of Contents
1. Introduction: Mediated Politics - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward, Chris Rudd
2. Party Strategy and the 2008 Election - Bryce Edwards
3. The Election Campaign on Television News - Margie Comrie
4. Leaders’ Debates and News Media Interviews - Geoffrey Craig
5. ‘Vote for me’: Political Advertising - Claire Robinson
6. Newspaper Coverage - Chris Rudd and Janine Hayward
7. The Maori Party and Newspaper Coverage - Ann Sullivan
8. Online Media - Peter John Chen
9. Conclusion: Don’t shoot the messenger? - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd