Sour Susie takes ALP campaign from nice to nasty in 30 seconds

26 August 2013

Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party have taken off the gloves and come out swinging. But their latest campaign ad may just have hit below the belt.

It shows a housewife (well, a woman in a kitchen with kids about) nicknamed "Sour Susie" by the papers, berating Tony Abbott for being less than upfront about the potential job cuts necessary to fund his proposed initiatives.

Shades of Whingeing Wendy from the 1987 Labor campaign. You remember the ads ("Mr Howard you said this ... Mr Howard you said that ..." in that slightly whiney voice).

How did things get so nasty? It all started out so nice. Rudd announced that the Labor campaign would end the "wall-to-wall negativity" characterising so much of politics, and Abbott of soon launching an "absolute barrage of negative political advertising".

But Labor abandoned the moral high ground pretty quickly, and for an obvious reason: negativity works! Not mudslinging per se, but rather emphasising how the opposition will hurt voters instead of how your party will help voters. Political ads follow four basic principles - keep it simple; keep it focused (on a single issue); make it visual; emphasise losses not gains. This is the underlying "science" of persuasion.

The "you lose" ads by Labor follow these rules pretty closely if you think about it.

"If Tony Abbott wins, you lose." And what will you lose? Your job. Simple, focused, and all about losing something valuable. The visuals are good too.
The spotlight that leaves various sectors of Australian society "in the dark" when it is shut off (presumably by Abbott's budget cuts), is a powerful metaphor. You may not like the negativity, but from a persuasion perspective, the ad ticks all the boxes.

Overall, the Liberal Party largely hasn't gotten down and dirty yet. The "new hope" ad is a real feel good ad, with uplifting music and imagery, but not much to say about anything. But we know they are perfectly capable of heading for the gutter if need be. Anybody remember the "headless chook" ad from earlier this year when Julia Gillard was still PM?

Of course, on YouTube, it's no holds barred. Anybody can be an advertiser for the party they like, so the outlandishness of some of the "ads" shouldn't surprise anyone. In general, though, the more outrageous the homemade ad, the fewer the number of views. Apparently, YouTubers can distinguish the silliness from the substance.

It's not exactly clear who's winning the social media battle. Search "Tony Abbott" on Facebook and you'll find the official page has garnered 180,746 likes. But No 2 on the list is 160,280 likes for a page entitled "Friends Don't Let Friends Vote for Tony Abbott". The imagery is brutal, showing Abbott's head superimposed on a dinosaur. The official Rudd page has 106,066 likes, but No 2 is a page called "Kevin 'The Stud' Rudd". Once again, the images ain't pretty, with Rudd dressed in a kangaroo suit adopting a NYC gangster rap pose.

We probably haven't seen the worst of it yet. Look for a late barrage when the Coalition releases its budget details. But negativity in political advertising ain't going away any time soon.

Charles Areni is professor of marketing at the University of Sydney Business School.

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