In 2008 the Green Party was set to become the third largest party in Parliament. To get there the party attempted to take a qualitatively different approach to the past – adopting a highly professsionalised and market-oriented strategy. Taking the ‘Americanisation’ of politics towards its logical conclusion the Green also embraced a very celebrity-focused method of campaigning, while still relying on some traditional minor party media stunts. The party also attempted to break out of its ‘left ghetto’ but with mixed success. These are some of the issues that I focus on in the section on the Green Party within my chapter entitled ‘Party Strategy and the 2008 Election’ which is part of the recently published book Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008 (edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig). This blog post is the ninth of a series of explorations of the chapters from the new book, and it constitutes the original draft section about the Greens that I wrote for my chapter. Subsequently this draft was substantially reworked, edited, and condensed for the final book, so please see the published book for the final and ‘authoritative’ version. [Read more below]
Traditionally the Green Party has produced its own election advertising, making the most of the creativity of its membership and activists. But the 2008 advertising was produced by a professional advertising agency. The Greens contracted out their design and production of its political advertising to Auckland creative start-up Special Group – a small ad company made up of experienced marketers who have worked on campaigns for companies such as Audi, DB Breweries, Levis, Nike, Sony, Volkswagen and Volvo. Using a commercial photo library, a picture was found of Aila Morgan-Guthrie (the main girl-by-water billboard) and her father, Alistair Guthrie, a professional photographer was thus employed to supply images for the rest of the billboards.
A highly-branded but policy-empty campaign
That the highly polished Greens’ advertising contained few words and jettisoned policy or sloganeering principles was no oversight or mistake. Instead the ads were a perfect example of modern marketing theory in which words and claims are seen to be of limited power. In fact, the objective of most advertising today is not to sell anything directly, but to build awareness of a brand. Therefore these ‘positioning’ billboards were drawing on voters to associate the Green Party with the positive and beautiful things in their pictures, while also attempting to push a more profound or trite message – depending on your point of view – that voters should not just vote for their own interests but in favour of future generations, and therefore by voting for the Greens you would be altruistically voting in favour of children. Essentially the party was attempting to tap into the anti-political mood, suggesting that the Greens were above the usual election campaigning. In this, the advertising was reminiscent of the Greens’ 1999 billboards in which the party stated, ‘This is not an election campaign. This is our life’s work’.
John Ansell, the creative advertising professional behind National’s 2005 iwi/Kiwi billboards heaped praise on the minimalism of the Greens’ Earth and children billboards, saying that ‘great ads are more about what you leave out than what you leave in’. In this case, what was left out was policies, political programme, ideology, and principles. As one academic specialist in creative visual advertising quipped, ‘If you replaced the Green Party logo with a National or Labour Party logo, would it make any difference?'
The Green Party used to abhor the commodification of politics, and its MPs used to criticise other parties for their use of marketers to sell party votes as if they are just another product like a box of soap powder on the supermarket shelf. The new business-like marketing management-driven advertising campaign of the Greens suggested that the party itself was becoming more populist, pragmatic and vacuous. While this market-oriented professionalisation was perhaps most evident in the campaign of the Green Party, it was actually a trend that is strongly present throughout all the parliamentary parties fighting the 2008 general election campaign.
The newfound belief in a highly professionalised campaign was partly a reaction against the Green’s incredibly poor 2005 election campaign which involved all the worst elements of an amateur campaign. In particular, the 2005 advertising was universally condemned as politically and creatively awful. The billboards were ugly, cluttered and contained bland but incoherent messages that attempted to be clever.
More generally the party shifted towards a more market-oriented strategy in a response to a number of pressures. Going into the 2008 election the Greens were burdened by some very poor opinion poll results and some of these showing the party to be dropping below the crucial five per cent threshold. This was of special concern, as the party faced its most ideal political conditions for some time, yet the party was failing to reach what it felt was its potential. Climate change was now a mainstream issue, as were general environmental problems. Added to this, however, was the fact that the rival Labour Party was weak, which meant that the Green Party should have been benefitting with higher public support.
A shift towards partisan independence
Furthermore, the Greens’ long running quandary of how to orientate towards the different blocs of possible coalition of parties was of particular importance in 2008. Traditionally a leftwing political party, the Greens naturally oriented towards supporting a Labour-led government. But after being repeatedly left out of government for Labour's previous nine years in office, the Green Party was strategically inclined to distance itself from the perception of it being an appendage to Labour. Since last being blocked from joining the Labour-led coalition government, many in the Greens were keen to increase the party’s leverage by repositioning the party as a more independent party that might play a stronger role in determining which of the two major parties got to form the government. In ideological terms this meant shifting the party out of the left-flank party status that some felt ghettoized the party. Traditional Green Party slogans were pushed internally to justify an ideological reposition – such as: “We’re neither left nor right, but right out in front’.
To create more leverage the party had to indicate and justify the possibility that it could jettison support for Labour, leading to a National government in some form or another. To justify why the Greens might not gift the Labour Party preferential status the Greens had to paint Labour and National as being similar. New co-leader Russel Norman made this his duty, coining a line that the two parties were effectively ‘Mother Coke and Father Pepsi’. And when both major parties made an attempt in the lead up to the election campaign to be seen as similarly sympathetic to green concerns, Norman damned both parties as ‘disgusting’.
Internal party dissent, however, caused this strategy to be wound back in 2008. Many within the Greens regarded any talk of supporting the National Party as a step too far. It became obvious to the leadership that Sue Bradford was not prepared to continue as an MP through to the end of the parliamentary term if her party went into the election with any prospect of assisting the formation of a National government. The Green caucus therefore decided that it had no option but to align itself with the Labour Party in some form, albeit with the Greens preaching their political independence.
A strategy was therefore to state that the Greens would indeed go into the election with a declared party of choice for government, but that the decision would be made by evaluating the two different coalition options via an audit of the policies being offered by Labour and National. The intention was to suggest that the Greens would not always be automatically tied to Labour, but would take their coalition decisions on an election-by-election basis as a result of policy analysis. This also enabled the Greens to portray their process as a reflection of the party’s rationality, honesty and transparency.
Having declared Labour as their preferred coalition partner in mid-October, the strategy became one of attempting to pick up left-leaning voters that comfortably vote for the Greens in the knowledge that Labour was likely to be defeated. The Greens also attempted to make use of the public’s mood for change.
As might be expected, the Green Party had a dispersed distribution of power in the campaign. But in recent elections the party has employed a Campaign Manager, and in 2008 this was Gary Reece, who worked closely with parliamentary media staff and the party leaders.
Jeanette Fitzsimons took a lower profile in the campaign than she had become accustomed to since the death of co-leader Rod Donald, and granted new co-leader Russel Norman – who had entered Parliament in July – to front many issues. But little effort was made to sell Norman’s credentials to the public. Yet at the same time, other Green MPs and candidates were incredibly invisible in the Greens’ national campaign. It seemed as if the party had been replicating the more hierarchal and leadership-focused methods of the older and more conventional parties.
Stunts and negative campaigning
The Greens struggled, as always to get media attention, resorting to the staple of minor party campaigning: the campaign stunt. For example, Green MPs unveiled a $3 billion cheque at Wellington Hospital to represent the amount unnecessarily spent on treating preventable illnesses; and the stomachs of three pregnant women where painted with ‘Vote for Me’ for a photo stunt at the University of Auckland.
The advertising agency advised the Green Party to use an element of negative advertising in their campaign – involving attack ads against their opponents. But because such an approach can be counterproductive – especially because it would conflict with the party’s main campaign which attempted to be positive, it was recommended that negative advertising be only put out to that segment of the Greens’ market that would be receptive – the youth vote.
Hence a new campaign was devised entitled ‘Some things are bigger than politics’, in which a more aggressive and non-traditional approach would be taken with the use of viral online videos, posters, and t-shirts. The attention of this campaign was to tap into the anti-political mood amongst youth, those less inclined to vote, and those generally alienated by party politics.
A faux-amateur video was created by the advertising agency that advanced negative attack messages very strongly. In the press release accompanying the launch of the viral video on YouTube, the Greens announced their new aggressive approach by stating that ‘There are no sacred cows as far as the Greens are concerned’. Although the party claimed that the message was positive by ‘juxtaposes the trivial and time-wasting bickering of the mainstream political parties with the work the Greens consider to be the real business of politics’, it was effectively dealing in the type of personal attacks that the Greens previously claimed to abhor. The video made fun of the physical fight between Labour’s Trevor Mallard and National’s Tau Henare by superimposing Trevor Mallard’s head onto the animated image of the body of a boxer etc. Others on the receiving end of personal attacks were John Key and Ron Mark. The Greens called it ‘a humorous viral video’.
The celebrity-isation of politics
The party also made an effort to sell itself on the basis of celebrity endorsements, by including cultural and sports stars on its billboards, using an actor to launch its 2008 election campaign, and even having an actor running for Parliament.
The Green Party launched its election campaign without revealing a single policy. Instead the party put their faith in the newsworthiness of using the popular actor Robyn Malcolm as their MC. A more novel endorsement of the Greens was performed by Whale Rider actor Rawiri Paratene who campaigned for the party as an electorate candidate. He was upfront in admitting that he did not actually want to win the seat of Maungakiekie, and that his candidacy was purely a campaigning gimmick rather than a serious attempt to get elected.
This certainly was not the first time that ‘the celebrity as candidate’ technique has been used in New Zealand. It was done rather famously by New Zealand First in the Selwyn by-election of 1994, when the party selected Tim Shadbolt – whom until that point was not even a member of the party. Other celebrity candidates have included talkback host Pam Corkery for the Alliance, feature journalist Debra Coddington for Act, ex-All Black Graeme Thorne for National, ex-All Black Tu Wyllie for NZ First, and athlete Dick Quax for Act. (Of course, political parties have also constant sought certain celebrities to stand for them in elections, such as sporting heros like Michael Jones, Peter Blake and Edmund Hillary).
Early in 2008 the Greens launched pre-election 'Proud to be Green' billboards that were a sign of things to come. Gone were the wordiness, policy-orientation and slogans, and in their place was a new image-conscious approach that made use of celebrities instead of ideas. Two 'Proud to be Green' billboards separately featured trans-Atlantic rower Rob Hamill together with co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimmons, and actress Miranda Harcourt alongside co-leader Russel Norman. Rob Hamill then stood for the party in the Taranaki-King Country electorate. Like Paratene, Hamill is undertaking the campaign on the basis of trying to boost the party vote rather than get elected.
New Zealand has not had a tradition of celebrity involvement in parliamentary politics, but this is changing. Perhaps surprisingly, it has been the Greens at the forefront of this ‘Americanisation of New Zealand politics’. Such a shift according to some political scientists, is part of ‘a despicable trend that epitomizes the banal and the mindless in public life, empowering image over substance and producing pseudo-charismatic leadership’ (‘t Hart and Tindall, 2008: p.4).
The intention of the endorsements was to make the Greens appear more mainstream. It also speaks to the ideological uncertainty that the Greens were in. The party was in the process of shifting away from the margins or the perception that it is too flaky, radical or extreme. It also reflected that the party was losing its political monopoly on environmental issues like climate change and no longer had any defining identity issue in the campaign. When parties face such crises of identity they often flay around looking for something to save them – and celebrity endorsements are seen as an easy solution in a society where we are ‘amusing ourselves to death’ because ‘our society is shaped more by entertainment than by politics and is more enamored with celebrities than moved by leaders’ (‘t Hart, Karen Tindall, 2008).
Of course there’s also a strong dose of political opportunism involved. Political leaders want to take short cuts to gaining popularity, and selling their message, so they think, ‘When a celebrity talks, people listen’. With the Greens struggling in opinion polls in 2008, and struggling over their loss of ideological cohesion, it’s likely that they’ve seen celebrity endorsements as a quick fix. ‘t Hart says that ‘When a party is lying on its back, it starts looking around for potential saviours to pull it out of oblivion. In these circumstances, criteria such as ideological purity, appropriate gravitas and grass roots experience quickly lose relevance’ (‘t Hart, Karen Tindall, 2008).
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