MB writes: I’ve asked a number of the contributors to our discussion at Avid Reader around the CPD’s Pushing Our Luck to write up some of the themes and thoughts from the night. First cab off the rank is Jesse Richardson:
It was the Tuesday before the federal election just been, and I still couldn’t quite believe the polls. How had the progressive side of politics managed to lose this battle of ideas?
With our economy in amazing shape, it seemed positively insane that we were facing the prospect of not just defeat, but scarily big defeat. To Tony Abbott. Leadership woes or no, what the actual f*ck?
So I did the only thing that seemed appropriate at the time and spewed forth a rant of vitriolic profanity of the sweariest order onto my computer screen. It was a cathartic stream of consciousness writ silly, but as I read back over it, it occurred to me that maybe it could be useful to just call a spade a spade and just put it out there. Labor’s messages weren’t getting through, and so I wondered if using humour, graphic design, and extremely profane language might be a way to get the message across to politically disengaged swinging voters.
I put the website together in only a couple of hours, and it went viral almost immediately. My server crashed with thousands of people trying to access the site simultaneously and so I had to go to a cloud server. Over the next three days leading up to the election the site received an unprecedented 400,000 Facebook likes and reached millions of Australian voters with a progressive pro-Labor message. Some people may like to conjecture that the site helped to stem the tide of defeat and keep Labor in an election-winning position for next time. I like those people and consider them both good-looking and clever. However, it’s probably a bit of a stretch. It was created out of desperation, and although I got many emails from people saying that it had helped them or people they knew to see policy issues in a clear and fun way, where previously they’d just been confused, I also got emails from people saying that they were voting for the LNP because they felt insulted.
I can’t be sure about what effect it had in terms of outcome, but what I can be sure of is something I’ve learned through my career in advertising: it’s not a battle of merit, it’s a battle of perception. How you frame things is at least as important as the thing itself. Pepsi consistently beats Coke in blinded taste tests, yet still sells substantially less. The facts matter, but so does how you communicate them. You can communicate the same idea seriously or with humour; as a boring press release, or as a satirical viral video. Simplicity, engagement and relevance add up to something that people will like, and share, and maybe even think about and remember.
In terms of actual real life policy, I honestly can’t think of an area where the now-elected LNP government had something that most people would genuinely prefer over Labor’s policy if they were laid out side by side. I really don’t think there’s even one, is there? Maybe their paid parental leave scheme that most of the LNP seems not particularly fond of?
The left didn’t lose the battle of policy ideas, it won it convincingly; however it lost the battle of perceptions. People in Western Sydney believed that Abbott would stop the boats, the battlers believed that the LNP would be good at managing the economy, almost everyone believed that the LNP government was stable, etc. The reality is that Labor’s asylum seeker policy was just as inhumane as the LNP’s; Labor had a demonstrably better evidence-based economic platform than the LNP’s dangerous ideologically-driven ‘let’s cut everything related to public service and social justice’ policies; and Tony Abbott is only the leader of the LNP in the first place because he caused a leadership spill on a policy issue that basically said climate change was crap – a spill that he only won by a single bloody vote (don’t trip up now, Tony).
Recently I had the pleasure and honour of appearing on a panel with Prof. John Quiggin from UQ and Zombie Economics fame, as well as Dr. Mark Bahnisch and Miriam Lyons from the Centre for Policy Development. The event was to launch a new book called Pushing our Luck. Ideas for Australian Progress. It’s an extremely good read – smart, relevant, insightful and compelling. It features 10 key ideas from leading Australian progressive thinkers, and you should definitely order a copy and support their campaign if you’re interested in Australian politics and society.
Ideas such as those put forward in this book are vital for progressive politics, and now is the perfect time for us to be championing such ideas; but realistically very few politically disengaged swinging voters are going to read it. However, that’s not to say that the ideas, research, insight and wisdom that went into writing it are irrelevant to them. It just means that we need to take great ideas like these, spread them among the progressive movement, and find ways to communicate them that will cut through, resonate and stick in people’s minds.
We need to be smarter about how we fight the battle for people’s perceptions. There’s an opportunity for progressive political parties, organisations and people alike to embrace digital media especially to this end, so here’s a few notes from an ad guy’s perspective about how and why we should take a more creative approach to political messaging:
• Genius is complexity made simple. We need to sacrifice being exhaustively correct for being effective. This doesn’t mean dumbing things down, but it does require a lot of work and craft to get it right. Apple’s operating systems are much simpler than Microsoft’s, but they’re not dumb by any measure – quite the opposite.
• Be visual. The human brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than written information. Simple, well-designed and art-directed imagery and graphics are not indulgent, they’re crucial to success. If you’re part of a progressive organisation, I implore you to spend a bit extra to get someone experienced and professional to take care of your campaign work.
• Everything else being equal, the truth is compelling. Prejudice, fear, misinformation, and privilege are powerful motivators, but more so are justice, compassion, truth and the ideals of equality and fairness. Human beings are social and moral creatures, and though the limbic system is easier to trigger, it’s still ultimately subordinate to our frontal cortex. The very best communication engages both our rational and emotional selves.
• In the advertising industry we understand that what’s important is the customer – their perspective, their psychology, what motivates and engages them. If we come at things from this perspective, our communication will be effective; but if we come at it from our own perspective, or the client’s perspective, we’re bound to fail. It’s not enough to be right, we have to understand our audience and adapt accordingly.
• Humour is our friend. You’ll notice that there aren’t many conservative comedians. The reason is that comedians are the harbingers of social progress. They release the social tensions that people are feeling by taking the piss out of things that deserve to have the piss taken out of them. The Simpsons has probably done more to challenge conservative thinking than any politician in the last 20 years, because no one wants to be the person that everyone else is laughing at. Jon Stewart and the Daily Show writing staff are fucking heroes, and Australia desperately needs this kind of political comedy and commentary.
• Narrative is also our friend. We’re competing for people’s attention in the information age, and the old model of interrupting content to get a message across simply isn’t viable. Yelling slogans isn’t effective, engagement is. Especially in the digital space, our messages should be shareable, likeable, short and compelling. If you want to see how to do it right, visit Upworthy.
So, we have three years to get it right. As individuals, organisations, and a movement united by a common purpose and enemy we need to use this time to win the battle of ideas as well as the battle of perceptions. Oh, and one last thing – make sure you give people a clear call to action at the end of your piece of communication, like so: please help the cause by sharing this blog post on Facebook, or use the share button down there to tweet it.