Wednesday 11 December 2019

Labour's lesson on the risks and rewards of political advertising

In the Labour Party's proposed advertisement, Gerry Adams (pictured) was depicted in marital union with Micheal Martin Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
In the Labour Party's proposed advertisement, Gerry Adams (pictured) was depicted in marital union with Micheal Martin Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Mandy Johnston

Political campaign advertising in Ireland seldom inspires. In this country, the use of paid advertising to influence the debate - and ultimately voters - is confined largely to general election campaigns. Unlike America, we are spared the scourge of 'always-on' campaigning, where some advertising agencies solely work in the political field. Political advertising in Ireland is mostly created by advertising executives who are used to designing campaigns with consumers in mind, not voters. There is a huge difference.

It can happen that Don Draper types get very excited at the prospect of playing with politics and power. But it can also happen that freewheeling minds are not always conducive to attracting potential voters. A devil-may-care attitude may not always sit easily with the typical ultra-cautious Irish candidate. God forbid that creativity ever gets a foot in the door of our political arena. All hell could break loose. So the advertising agencies cannot be left to their own devices - they require constant attention and need to be managed tightly by the campaign teams.

In the run-up to any election, political messaging obviously becomes more intense and important and so the boys and girls in the backrooms finally get a chance to shine - and to break out their crayons and start using their imagination and creativity.

In the last couple of weeks, the worlds of backroom politics and advertising collided as the Labour Party could not contain their excitement or suppress their own cleverness over a "possible/draft" advertisement. The offending advertisement depicted a marital union between Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams together with a motley crew of unlikely guests. Mon Dieu, pass me the smelling salts. Some say it is desperation, others just call it political survival.

The debate that followed the publication of the "proposed/draft/mocked-up/barely-thought-about advertisement" lampooning the mythical union was uncharacteristically ambiguous. There was no consensus - people were split.

Some thought the fact that a debate about future coalition relationships was taking place on foot of the exposure of the advert meant that its objective had been achieved. It was in fact a stroke of PR genius - free advertising, some said. Granted, it is probably the most exciting left-of-field, out-of-the-box, non-conformist attempt at humour by anyone from this mind-numbingly boring Government, all previous attempts at humour having died of loneliness.

Others on social media held a different view, claiming it was a trivialisation of the recent passing of the same-sex marriage referendum. Most who were opposed to the prospective union could not quite articulate what exactly they objected to because when something does not feel right, it's hard to define and even harder to articulate.

I think I have found where the problem lies. The proposed advertisement did not signal Labour Party prejudice against same-sex couples, nor did it ridicule same-sex marriage. However, it was saturated in condescension. By using the marriage equality issue in this way, the Labour Party somehow managed to cheapen its value and worth. It smacked of a better class of politically correct liberal, having a titter among themselves up on the high moral ground. Voters do not take kindly to being talked down to or, worse, sneered at, in a smart-alec sort of way.

Political advertising is so hard to get right. There are times when, even if it looks and sounds clever, no amount of focus group testing can predict what way it will be received until it is launched in the real world. A positive, visceral feeling or an affirmative gut instinct is perhaps the most elusive emotion to evoke in a political campaign. Introducing negative campaigning is, at best, a dangerous game of Russian roulette.

The passing of the referendum on same-sex marriage is arguably the only substantive social change this Government - and Labour in particular - can put forward as being a genuine attempt at achieving equality.

An international first, one we can all be proud of as a nation. It was foolish to ever go anywhere near it. It is their golden child. Not to be touched.

But Labour are right in their overall approach. They have little choice now but to embrace the unexplored and take a walk on the wild side if they are to get their party returned to government. Languishing in the polls as they watch their Coalition partners Fine Gael rise faster in public opinion than the Exchequer figures can carry them, Labour have no time to be complacent. They need to go hard, or many will literally be going home after the election. Like the student who left all of their studying until the night before the exams, Labour have a lot of work to do if they are to ensure a return to power.

So the PR war to claim credit for the restoration of our economy rages on in the background. We may well witness many more stunts like we did last week as the parties move from political point-scoring into actual political campaigning.

What is so funny about Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams getting married anyway? Stranger things have happened in politics. Two warring families reunited through marriage, old wounds forgotten, dysfunctional distant relatives who might make the guest list, all culminating in a big day out in February. What could possibly go wrong?

Irish Independent

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