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Reason Just Ain’t That Reasonable: Where Political Campaigns Went Wrong

November 15, 2016

An article published in Campaign Brief written by Matt Stephen, Senior Account Manager at Painted Dog Research.


2016 has certainly been a year to remember – or perhaps forget – in politics. In the US, Donald Trump has surpassed all initial expectations to become Republican nominee for President. In Britain, citizens voted to leave the EU in a result that defied the polls and shocked the world. And here at home, a mere six years after Julia Gillard scraped into office without a majority, Malcom Turnbull left us all feeling a very disturbing sense of déjà vu.

Each of these outcomes have come off the back of some of the fiercest political campaigning in recent memory. So what are the winners doing right and, more importantly, where have the losers (and Malcom Turnbull) gone wrong?

Was Turnbull too positive?

A lot has been said about the Coalition’s commitment to a ‘positive’ campaign and whether this strategy was a success. Certainly on the immediate face of the election result, it was not: at the beginning of the year, the Coalition held a 56% two-party preferred majority in the Morgan Poll, 12 points ahead of Labor. How could such a lead be all but erased in such a short period of time?

In the uncertain days following the election, multiple government Ministers including Turnbull himself lamented the traction that Bill Shorten’s ‘Mediscare’ campaign had made with voters. This was despite their firm and scathing rebuttal that Medicare was never planned for privatisation and that Shorten and Labor had told Australians an “extraordinary, outrageous lie.”

So was the Coalition’s commitment to a positive approach a mistake? Should they have fought fire with fire and run their own scare campaign?

Research evidence in fact lends support to the Coalition’s strategy. A multitude of academic studies evaluating this topic have found that positive campaigns are – in general – more likely to garner larger numbers of voters, with said voters more trusting and optimistic toward positive candidates. In contrast, evaluations of both candidates become less favourable after negative campaigns. So it’s very possible that Mediscare damaged voter perceptions of both Turnbull and Shorten.

In non-compulsory voting nations such as America, this effect has been found to lead to decreased voter engagement and turnout. Of course, in Australia, voting is compulsory… so it’s possible that Mediscare aided the strong success of minor parties and Independents such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the Nick Xenophon Team through via protest votes.

Rational Appeals Are Irrational When It Comes to Winning Elections

So if the positive approach was well founded, how did the election ever get so close? Many commentators have cited the election policies (or lack thereof) from both sides and a resulting sense of disillusionment among voters, and few can disagree. From a marcomms standpoint though, perhaps where the Coalition lost ground was not in the positive tone of its campaign, but in its use of rational appeals.

The Coalition’s campaign rested on appealing to voters’ sense of logic and reason. Jobs, economic growth and political stability formed the cornerstone of its argument. However, as Dr Drew Western (author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation) wrote, “a dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions — bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work. When campaign strategists start from this vision of mind, their candidates typically lose.”

No one in the marketing and advertising industry needs to be convinced about the power of emotion in persuasive advertising, and neither do the most astute campaign strategists. Think of Barack Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ campaign, Bill Clinton’s ‘Hope’ ad when he ran for office, and (on a less enjoyable note), Donald Trump’s current promise to ‘Make America Great Again!’.

There’s also been the recent success of the Leave campaign in the shock Brexit referendum result. Unlike the Remain campaign, which almost by default had to adopt a complex rationality-backed economic argument, the Leave campaign exploited citizens’ growing unrest with the simple message to “Take Back Control”. Little rational explanation was ever employed (or needed) with this approach. Its poster of a long queue of foreign immigrants, plastered with the headline “BREAKING POINT” and supported by the sub-heading, “The EU has failed us all,” is another prime example of this messaging approach.

What these successful campaigns have in common is their harnessing of emotion to win the hearts of voters, rather than trying to appeal to dispassionate minds. They’ve successfully tapped into citizens’ sense of patriotism, nostalgia, hope, fear, and regrettably even hate.

Research supports the effectiveness of emotional appeals in political advertising. In 2006, the first scientific study (see: Campaigning for Hearts and Minds by Ted Brady) was released examining emotional influences on voter decision making. Utilising a series of experimental design studies run during real political campaigning, emotional appeals were found to be more persuasive than rational appeals in nearly three quarters of all political ads. Even changing the music or imagery of ads while retaining the same text was found to provoke completely different responses.

Importantly, the type of emotional appeal used is critical and can have different effects. Fear appeals, for example, “have the capacity to redirect the attention of viewers and persuade non-believers” – an effect seemingly well exploited by both the ALP and the Leave campaign.  Enthusiasm appeals meanwhile cause greater interest in campaigns, greater desire to volunteer, and greater inclination to vote in elections – an effect that Donald Trump could well be capitalising on.

Returning to the ‘positive vs negative’ argument, it’s important to note that both strategies have been found to be effective depending on the extent and type of emotional appeal employed. Campaign ads that stir up hope, pride and enthusiasm can stimulate voters’ interest and participation in an election. The Coalition’s campaign, whilst positive in tone, clearly missed the mark on all of these aspects. Combined with the impact of fear appeals used by Labor, suddenly it is less of a surprise that the election became such a tight race.