The Labour Party has a massive image problem. It’s seen by the public as too politically correct, earnest, dull, mean-spirited and authoritarian. Hence the nanny state label attached to the last Labour Government. This week’s launch of Labour’s “Let’s Not” viral website campaign attempts to combat Labour’s negative image by offering up something irreverent, humourous, and light-hearted to the Facebook generation - those in the 18-40 age-bracket who get a lot of their information from the internet. These are also the people who are less likely to engage in politics and to vote. And they’re the group that are probably most alienated from Labour, due to the party’s anti-fun image. The “Let’s Not” campaign is relatively apolitical, with many of the jokes having little or nothing to do with politics. From Labour’s point of view, then, it’s a perfect approach for our post-ideological age. The party has noticed the anti-political mood and cynicism amongst young (non) voters and is seeking to match that with it’s own lowest common denominator approach to communicating its politics. Unfortunately for Labour, the “Let’s Not” web site is more likely to be seen by most as gimmicky, superficial, condescending, insular, and missing the zeitgeist by about ten years. [Read more below]
There’s always a risk that when political parties attempt to appear as ‘down with the kids’, they miss the mark entirely and just end up being perceived as lame and ‘try hard’. So the main problem with the “Let’s Not” viral campaign is that it’s not actually likely to be particularly funny and appealing to its target audience. While there are some authentic laughs to be had on the site, the ratio of genuinely funny and irreverent jokes to that of ‘try hard’ and stupid is far too low.
More seriously, much of the ‘humour’ is made up of political ‘in jokes’ that might be funny to Labour’s parliamentary staffers – who no doubt came up with this concept, together with Trevor Mallard – but will draw a blank from the target audience. For example, the stuff about Tau Henare and Trevor Mallard fighting in Parliament will pass most young people by – it happened many years ago and is hardly an enduring political story. The whole thing has the feel of a very insular club, as much of the content is inward-looking rather than outward looking.
The gimmicky nature of this web genre is also passé. This type of advertising was pioneered earlier in the 2000s, most notably by the insurance firm, AMI (and was originally derived from Monty Python and Southpark style production values). So it might have been cutting-edge ten years ago, but today it mostly comes across as contrived. The CTU and the Greens used similar online viral-style ads in the 2008 general election, but their attempts at humour were superior.
What it really shows is that Labour’s campaign is still run from Parliament by out-of-touch insiders that think that sneering at their opponents is the way to win over the public. The approach owes a lot to the style of the now-departed John Pagani, but clearly Trevor Mallard is very firmly in control of Labour’s campaign, and his decidedly negative approach is a harbinger of a very ‘dirty campaign’ leading up to the election. A big concern is that Labour obviously still has a rather condescending and arrogant attitude to politics in which the “we know best” sneering approach is valued. Unfortunately, although this arrogance might appeal to the party faithful, it’s voter poison.
Labour’s superficial politics
The “Let’s Not” web campaign reinforces the notion that the Labour Party currently has a very lightweight approach to policy and elections. So at a time when the public are asking Labour to provide alternatives and to show that it has substance, it could well be quite counterproductive to answer that demand with a superficial campaign such as this. Voters and commentators want to see Labour putting up real alternatives to the Government – especially on economic policy, yet Labour continually puts off delivering anything and instead prefers political point scoring.
The lack of authenticity is also a risk when dealing with young voters – who are very savvy about being conned. If something doesn’t really ring true, if it seems contrived, or not really honest and genuine, then they feel patronised and condescended to. This approach reminds me of a comment that a young unionist recently made about the CTU’s launch of the new low-income ‘union’:
‘One of the CTU’s main things seemed to be this fabulous website (not just static, but with videos!!) that was going to appeal to and attract young people and it was so obvious to me as I saw the site and heard Helen Kelly talk that no young person in their right mind was going to spend any time on the site or regard it with anything other than complete disinterest. However, get those workers a pay rise and you'd have them. The CTU’s approach just seems like a misunderstanding of young people – that they are all style and no substance, when in some ways they’re pure substance - i.e. “show me the money”.
Of course, Labour has to do something. And the “Let’s Not” campaign is at least a bit more interesting than your standard party website. They’ve taken a minor risk, but it just seems that – despite appearances - the site fails to break out of Labour’s core way of doing things. It might create a minor amount of excitement amongst party activists, but in the end, amongst the target market there will be more yawns than laughter as a result.