Dee Madigan’s book The Hard Sell reveals how Australian political advertising works. It can also be used to highlight obstacles to deliberative democracy.
Dee Madigan worked for many years in the advertising industry as a creative director. She became involved in political advertising, being part of the campaign teams for several politicians in the Australian Labor Party. With this background, she was highly knowledgeable about what might be called “The selling of Australian politicians” (in the tradition of several accounts of US presidential campaigns).
Madigan has written an exposé entitled The Hard Sell: The Tricks of Political Advertising (Melbourne University Press, 2014). She tells about various standard techniques used in advertising efforts on behalf of politicians, for example branding of parties, preparing advertisements, the use of positive and attack ads, different platforms (television, social media, etc.) and focus groups.
This is a no-nonsense guide that is engaging in its style and content. For example, in the chapter “TV isn’t dead but the internet is awesome” she writes:
With the advent of social media things got even more frantic in the ad world. Agencies started employing “social media experts” (which was anyone with a Twitter account) to run campaigns. These “experts” were full of lines like, “It’s about starting a conversation.”
Every time someone says this, I’m tempted to whack them over the head with my laptop.
Because it is utter, utter bullshit.
The role of any form of marketing is to persuade. And anyone who says the conversation itself is the purpose is either fooling themselves or fooling you. (p. 133)
She writes about the Australian political scene but also draws on research and experiences in other countries, especially the US where political marketing techniques are most highly developed. The Australian political system is different from the US in several ways. One of the most important, for the purposes of political campaigning, is that voting in the US is voluntary, so much effort is expended trying to encourage supporters to actually vote. In Australia, where voting is compulsory, the orientation is more to try to get so-called “swinging voters” — who don’t pay much attention to politics — to vote for the preferred brand.
Madigan acknowledges that shady activities can occur, such as unfair and manipulative slurs in ads, but she basically believes in the system, arguing that dodgy practices are constrained in various ways, and can actually be counterproductive. She could hardly be an effective player in campaigns if she was too cynical.
She is a supporter of Labor, but The Hard Sell is quite balanced in providing insights, pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of efforts on behalf of Labor, Liberals and other parties. You don’t have to be a Labor supporter to learn a lot from the book.
Here, I want to use Madigan’s book for a different purpose, namely to highlight features of the Australian political system that are obstacles to the goal of deliberation in political decision-making, in particular deliberation by citizens. The word “deliberation” in this context means carefully considering information, options and goals, often in discussions with others.
In a jury trial, the jury members are involved in a process of deliberation. They hear the evidence and assess it, and then discuss with each other their observations and views with the goal of reaching a consensus on the verdict. This is quite different from listening to ads and deciding what product (or politician) to buy.
The idea of jury deliberations has actually been applied to political decision-making in what are called policy juries or citizens panels. A group of 12 or more randomly selected citizens is brought together for several days and asked to address a particular issue, such as nanotechnology policy. They get to hear presentations from advocates and researchers, receive printed materials to study, spend time discussing options with each other, and deliberate towards a consensus position. The panels are coordinated by independent facilitators, rather like referees at sporting matches, whose aim is good process rather than any particular outcome. They help the group find its own way towards mutually agreed recommendations.
Hundreds of such policy-panel deliberations have been organised in recent decades, in many different countries. The results are encouraging. Jury members take the process very seriously, carefully consider the evidence, learn from each other, and come up with recommendations that most external observers see as sensible, even wise. Perhaps best of all, most participants report that the experience is satisfying for them personally. Some even say it is the best thing they have done in their entire lives. Genuine participation, with deliberation, is empowering. The experience with citizens’ juries provides some of the best evidence that deliberative democracy is a worthwhile ideal.
In looking at Australian political campaigning, as so clearly presented by Madigan, in light of the goal of greater deliberation, I will consider branding, focus groups, voting and news cycles. This isn’t a comprehensive coverage of ideas in The Hard Sell but is sufficient to illustrate that any political system susceptible to marketing is unlikely to foster deliberation.
Many politicians get cross when we in advertising refer to “political brands”. They feel we are emphasising the selling over the doing. But that just shows they don’t really understand what a brand is. A brand is who you are, what you say and what you stand for. Equally, it’s about how the voter feels about you — the emotions that are elicited when they think of you. It is the emotional and psychological relationship a political party has with their voters.
So, yes, political parties are brands, and individuals within parties have personal brands. Unless parties understand this they will struggle to connect with voters. (p. 2)
The value of a brand is that it short-circuits thinking. At a supermarket, a shopper who relies on brands does not check prices or contents: the brand is enough to ensure a purchase, or at least a preference. When products are essentially identical, brands make choice easier. They can also command a premium. Some fruit juices, for example, come from the same cannery but are put into differently branded containers. Some designer clothes are little different from cheaper copies. Purchasers may be buying image rather than substance.
Any political system in which branding plays a significant role is likely to be the enemy of deliberation. In Australia, political brands are highly influential. Labor and Liberals try to create favourable images, sometimes contradictory ones to different sections of the electorate, with the hope that voters will identify with them.
Branding of parties means that voting doesn’t require examination of policies or performance. The key is image.
Political party identification actually can induce people to accept positions contrary to their personal beliefs. In the US, researchers found that when a policy position was labelled Republican or Democratic — namely endorsed by their favoured party — many voters would accept the policy even when it conflicted with the belief system supposedly associated with their party. What this means is that a Republican voter might accept a policy if it is labelled Republican but reject it if it is labelled Democratic. In short, these voters don’t think for themselves.
If deliberation is to become important in a political system, branding needs to be minimised. The most radical solution is to get rid of political parties. Imagine going to a polling booth and finding that the ballot paper only has names, without any party identification. However, this doesn’t get rid of personal branding.
An alternative to the electoral system is to use random selection of decision makers, as in a jury. Branding doesn’t give any advantage when choices are made randomly. Indeed, election campaigning becomes superfluous.
On any given night, somewhere in Australia, there is a group of eight complete strangers being paid to sit around a table in a room and give their opinion about something: a flavour of ice-cream, the merits of eight grooves in a tampon instead of six (no, I am not joking), or a particular ad for TV. And behind a glass window, there is another room filled with people watching them. (p. 31)
Focus groups might sound like a form of deliberation, but they are closer to a type of opinion poll. Furthermore, they are used for market research, a non-deliberative purpose.
Australian political parties use focus groups extensively to test out ideas. Madigan’s special interest is how focus groups are used to assess political ads. She creates an ad, or at least the draft of an ad, and then it is introduced to a focus group. The response can make the difference between running it and canning it. This use of a focus group is designed to help select tools — ads — that more effectively manipulate voters. The word “manipulate” is appropriate here because ads are not aimed at fostering insight or reflection but at producing an outcome or, to use the relevant metaphor, inducing the selection of the desired political brand.
Then there is choice of who is selected to join focus groups.
In elections, focus groups are chosen according to targeted demographics; in short, they are the “low-hanging fruit”. “High-hanging fruit” are those who are voting the other way — there’s no point trying to get them as you’ll never reach them. And the fruit on the ground are yours anyway so you don’t spend much money trying to get them either. The low-hanging fruit are the soft voters — they have voted for you at one of the last two elections, and are considering voting the other way this time around. (pp. 36–37)
Parties hire recruitment companies to survey people and, using their answers to key questions, identify those who soft voters. These are the ones invited to focus groups and whose opinions are used to select ads — that are, as a result, oriented to soft voters. So the entire operation of focus groups in political campaigning is targeted at these sorts of voters. In Australia, they are often called swinging voters, because they may swing back and forth, from one election to another, between one major party to another.
(Australia has preferential voting, so a vote for a minor party usually ends up supporting one of the two major parties, especially in the House of Representatives. In any case, the idea of swing in the “two-party preferred vote” is highly influential in the way commentators and party officials think about elections.)
So focus groups are, during an election campaign, a particular type of market research, namely targeting swinging voters with persuasive ads.
Putting so much weight on the views of swinging voters puts deliberation even further from the agenda, because many of these voters pay little attention to political issues: they are more swayed by the brand than policies and by promises rather than performance. In a fully functioning deliberative democracy, the views of all citizens would be taken into account, and those who are most informed would be more respected and possibly influential.
Madigan’s main interest is political advertising, but she recognises the value of traditional forms of campaigning. In particular, she acknowledges the importance of politicians actually meeting voters, for example through door-knocking.
In a large electorate, a politician cannot possibly meet everyone, so door-knocking is carried out by supporters. And in this there is plenty of data and analysis about how to be more effective. Parties, or agencies working for them, build up databases about citizens. Again, those targeted in efforts to meet and interact with voters are the “low-hanging fruit.” Furthermore, meetings with voters are designed to be efficient, usually last two minutes or so, enough to make an impression but no longer than necessary. Spending an hour with a voter is not an efficient use of resources, especially with a voter with strongly held views.
Madigan reports that up to 20% of voters make up their decisions on the way to the polling booth. One key influence is the how-to-vote card. Near polling stations, supporters of different parties set up shop with tables, banners and leaflets. Most important is the how-to-vote card, indicating exactly what boxes to number to support a particular party or candidate.
Many voters do not know enough about the candidates, parties or issues to make a decision based on informed choice, so they choose a brand — a party — and follow its instructions. Some Australian governments have made this even easier by introducing voting “above the line”: a voter can give a tick to single party, without giving preferences to other parties or candidates, and the party chosen selects the preferences. There is all sorts of horse-trading between parties as they seek to acquire preferences from other parties.
All of this could be overcome by simple changes to ballot papers. Instead of listing political parties, just the candidates could be listed — in a random order. Different ballot papers would have the names printed in different sequences. This would mean that the usual how-to-vote card wouldn’t work: instead of ticking according to the card — 4, 5, 1, 6, 3, 2 for example — the voter would actually have to identify their favoured candidate by name and put a 1 next to it. This doesn’t sound like much, but many voters pay so little attention to elections that without a how-to-vote card they would be clueless.
There is a phenomenon called the donkey vote. Some voters, rather than submitting a blank ballot — which seems the most sensible option if you don’t really care who is elected — instead number the candidates sequentially: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. This means that the candidate allocated the top position on the ballot gets extra, unwarranted votes. If different ballot papers had the candidates listed in different orders, then donkey votes would give little or no advantage.
Of course, parties could still hand out how-to-vote cards giving the names of their preferred candidates. Furthermore, some desperate candidates might change their names to Liberal Party or Labor Party, seeking the ultimate in brand identification. Randomising names on ballot papers would be only a small step towards encouraging greater awareness by voters. On its own it would not do a lot towards deliberation.
The mass media, especially television, remains a potent influence on voters. Political parties have various ways to influence the news, for example putting out media releases at suitable times (to encourage or discourage coverage, depending on the story), cultivating journalists and using spin. Madigan covers all this, including the peculiarly Australian aspects of parliamentary elections, such as the blackout of political ads on radio and television three days before elections (newspaper and online ads are allowed).
Madigan notes that the 24-hour news cycle, in which something more than a day old is no longer newsworthy, no longer exists. The news cycle is much shorter, in part due to social media.
As news cycles get shorter, so do political memories. The amount of credit you get after an event also gets shorter and shorter. It’s why politicians are increasingly looking for short-term wins rather than planning for the long term. (p. 160)
The news cycle, long or short, is hardly conducive to deliberation. It has been well documented that most news coverage lacks context, history and careful analysis. Hearing the news provides little insight into the pros and cons of issues. It does very little to encourage deliberation. This is especially true when the news is subject to politicians’ efforts to sway opinion via what is called “spin.”
Spin is designed to argue a viewpoint and direct people’s attention. It is one side of the truth. Democracy is built on the principles of debate, after all. The danger is when the media presents it as the whole truth. (p. 163)
“Democracy” is seen here by Madigan as built on debate — but a debate between opposing spin doctors, each using the media to present a one-sided, partial truth. This form of debate is all very well, but citizens are positioned as the audience, not as participants in the debate.
In any debate each side has both the right, and indeed the responsibility, to present their arguments in as compelling a way as possible to garner the most support from the audience — or, in this case, the voters. That is a fundamental part of democracy. And just as some people are better with numbers and others at fixing stuff, some are experts at communicating. So it makes sense to use these people in this area. Especially now that so much of political debate takes place in media forums in which effective, persuasive communication is essential. (p. 156)
This passage articulates the conventional idea of politics as a professional activity, in which political operatives, along with communication specialists such as Madigan, attempt to persuade voters to adopt their brand. Citizens become the audience, watching the performance and occasionally — at elections — expressing their preferences.
Deliberative democracy is something quite different. It involves the erstwhile audience members becoming the performers. Rather than just debating preformed views, they explore options, imagine alternatives and work towards collective judgement.
Some questions then arise. Is there any scope for the skills of Madigan and other political communication specialists being used to promote deliberative democracy itself? Is deliberation simply one more product to be sold to an audience? If not, what is the process for transforming political systems into more participatory forms? What would be the role of persuasive communication in a set of deliberative processes?
Ideally, the process of promoting deliberative democracy would itself be participatory: the means would reflect the ends. Perhaps, in doing this, Madigan or others like her can contribute. Meanwhile, we can learn from The Hard Sell the essence of party politics as marketing, and better understand why politicians have such difficulty imagining participatory alternatives.
Thanks to Lyn Carson for invaluable comments on a draft.