Political advertising and the dark side of influence
Ken Murray explores the rules and regulations – or lack thereof – surrounding truth in political advertising in Australia.
I was watching the recent inauguration protests and the headline read, “Anti-Trump protests taking place in seven continents”. I mentally paused, thinking back to grade three geography. ‘Wait, that means there’s a protest in Antarctica’; simultaneously this realisation was vocalised by the journalist.
I’m sure we all agree Trump didn’t win on proof of policies and aptitude, but he did and does have far superior marketing – many marketing commentators have covered his brand and positioning in great detail.
It takes me back to one of the first great business books I read as a young marketer, Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy.
“Political advertising ought to be stopped. It’s the only really dishonest kind of advertising that’s left. It’s totally dishonest.”
Perhaps that statement is a bit idealistic – dishonest advertising and marketing still transpires, right?
Now consider these two things in Australia:
- the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) governs political advertising at a Federal level, and
- the Broadcasting Services Act covers broadcast rules and, in the context of political advertising, the main rule is to ensure a short authorisation at the end of the commercial.
But what about the key question: can our politicians lie to us in advertising?
Let’s see what the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) has to say:
“Many public complaints regarding political advertising raise issues about the truth and accuracy of the advertisement, in particular concerns that the advertising is misleading. The Advertising Standards Board considers complaints under Section 2 of the Code of Ethics, which does not cover matters of truth and accuracy.
“The ASB ordinarily refers public complainants with concerns about the truth or accuracy of advertisements to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) or the State/Territory consumer affairs/fair trading body.
“However, although these organisations deal with claims of false and misleading advertising, their jurisdictions are limited to matters involving trade and commerce and do not extend to political advertising.
“Currently, there is no legal requirement for the content of political advertising to be factually correct. Complainants are advised to raise their concerns with the advertiser directly and/or with their local Member of Parliament.”
This means there is no bureau or governing body or legal governance, penalty or restitution to enforce or manage dishonesty in political advertising.
In the age of information, political marketing, like all other types, is not just on TV. It’s Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, display, search and remarketing. It’s everywhere we go.
The typical Trump supporter believes what he says as truth and the typical protestor can easily demonstrate a video where Trump contradicts himself on the same topic but it does nothing. Why?
To understand the phenomenon that is taking place here and, furthermore, why there should be more aggressive regulation of political advertising as Ogilvy suggested, we must first understand the criteria for truth and belief.
This goes back to the ancient Greek philosophy of epistemology, specifically: the ‘criteria of truth’. It sparked other ontological/philosophical interpretations of truth theories such as:
- authority: opinions of those respected as experts in their field,
- coherence: the level to which the ‘facts’ are integrated as a whole,
- consensus Gentium: if ‘everyone’ in the ‘world’ believes it, it must be true (everyone and world is subjective to their circle/tribe),
- consistency: the ‘truth’ must be presented in the same way repeatedly,
- custom: everyone else says or does it, like mnemonics or rituals, and
- time: ‘survived the test of time’ as a criteria for truth.
The plethora of channels available to marketers to reach their target audiences has reached unprecedented levels and complexity. There are experts out there, some perhaps reading this article, who know they can craft a campaign which represents a message of ‘truth’ where they can:
- feature on channels or via influencers or experts in a position of authority,
- write the copy, lead page and video campaign with perfect coherence,
- demonstrate a consensus around the ‘truth’ within the prospect’s tribe (127 friends liked Liberal Party Page),
- use remarketing and other tools to convey a consistent ‘truth’,
- leverage an existing memetic, ritual or social custom, and
- provide case studies or time-tested evidence.
Ogilvy called it in 1963 – marketers can influence the perception of truth, even more so than journalists, and he forewarned this would be dangerous.
Now, America, you have Trump. We have our politicians and, in the end, they are only accountable to the people.
There are no regulations in place to manage their promises and policies, messages and ads. This is what we have. Personally it is morally difficult for me to disdain and condemn people who use the same tools and strategies. For example, if the gloves were off for all types of marketing, would V Energy drinks still only improve you ‘a bit’?
All I can say is we’re all in the business of influencing people and we should all do what works. The only defence against this type of campaign is critical pragmatism and that takes willpower and effort which we know is only finite and heavily contingent on what motivates the person.
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