John Singleton, “A brand new market leader,”
The Bulletin, March 15, 1983, pp. 26-28.
I reckon political advertising has absolutely nothing to do with election results. I have always thought so. I said so even when I did political advertising campaigns. But at least I knew what I was doing; the same cannot be said of what happened in this election.
Let’s go back to the beginning of ad-time. There are two schools of marketing thought. The first is that the public is an ignorant blancmange who will buy anything if you spend enough money advertising it. This is the school of thought to which all academics belong, people who have never had to make a quid in their lives — which is just as well, because this theory doesn’t work and it is the shortest cut to bankruptcy I know of, outside the policies of our two major political parties.
The second school of marketing thought is that the public’s wants are created in a way that no one will ever understand.
The media play a tiny part, so does advertising, so does talks in pubs. Everything contributes to a natural evolution. The real job is to find out what people want and give it to them about five minutes after they have decided.
The legitimate job of advertising is to let the public know that what they always wanted is now actually available.
Legitimate advertising is “The Gospel,” the Good News, but rarely does advertising have the chance to play this legitimate role. Mainly it is in the business of persuading the public that two identical products really are different. This is so startlingly unsuccessful that the biggest growth brands on Aussie shelves are no brands at all. No Brands. No Frills. No marketing is taking place.
Now, let’s pause for a commercial.
I started all this political advertising furore in Australia back in the 60s when I had a proper job. Those days, I had an advertising agency called Spasm; and one of our clients in Melbourne was a man called Ian Rice, who also started Kentucky Fried down south.
For Heaven knows what reason, this otherwise sane and decent man decided that he wanted to get on the Melbourne City Council. We got some psychologists to go and speak with the constituents and what they found will surprise no one: no one knew who was on the council and no one heard from any of the councillors from one election to the next. So, we mailed the electorate with the clichéd nice family photo of the nice Rice family and with a simple, single, promise that he would write to them twice a year to square off. Naturally, he walked in. First go.
Marketing had entered Australian politics for the first time. And maybe the last.
(Unfortunately, my old Melbournian partners now very effectively use the exact methods that Dr Peter Kenny and I evolved for the No Dams movement.)
I was, during that period of the late 60s and early 70s, asked to analyse most major campaigns by most major parties in most major elections.
There was the “Gortlam” election where no one knew the difference, so stuck with the old brand: Gorton.
Then we had the Bill and Sonia Show and, for no other reason than that Billy didn’t look right, everyone agreed and thought it was time for a change. And it was.
The advertising enforced what the public already knew. It didn’t create one vote. It didn’t lose one, either. It was a nice bit of showbiz on the cake. And the Whitlam brand was undisputed market leader.
Then the poor Snedden brand was launched and my old mate Bob Askin asked me to help get it off the ground. How could I?
Snedden brand was just Whitlam brand without the image of brains or presence. It was no good pushing how the Snedden stood for genuine free enterprise (which the people wanted — and still want — but which is unavailable) because it obviously didn’t. The only chance for Snedden (and it was remote) was to push the at least honest socialist ingredients of the Whitlam out into the open and hope for THE BIG BLUE from its makers, known as the Labor Party. Instead, THE BIG BLUE came from the makers of the Snedden.
Askin stood firm among the furore of the time. So did some other directors, Joh and Doug Anthony among them. But Don Chipp ran for cover because he is an honest man (how could he be associated with denigrating the socialist ingredients of the Whitlam when he knew his Snedden was really made out of the same stuff?). And, worst of all, Billy Snedden himself — the founder, THE MAN HIMSELF — disassociated himself from such a marked product difference. Why? Too weak? Too nice? Who cares?
We were back to two brands. Both the same. Stick with the market leader. Whitlam again.
Then came the botulism scare — or its political equivalent.
The Governor-General, a mysterious Queen’s representative of some big-brother consumer affairs department in the sky, decided that the Whitlam brand gave you cancer and killed your children. Mostly simultaneously.
The brand was pulled off the market. On the spot.
A new brand was allowed all of the market — the Fraser brand — and then, some time later, the Whitlam brand was let back on sale. It has as much chance after any brand after such a scare: none. Zero.
Meanwhile, the Fraser brand was seen to supply exactly the same product as the Whitlam had — no better but no worse. At least it didn’t give you cancer. And you wouldn’t believe it, but they even tried to re-launch the Whitlam one more time. And spent millions on it before it was ditched for the Hayden. (But the Hayden was the same product as the Fraser, with even less attractive packaging.) No matter how nice, it was just the same old stuff. Why switch? So no one bought the Hayden, either.
Then came the weird and wonderful circumstances of 1983. The Fraser brand, with a year of market monopoly to go, decided to compete with the Hayden in any event.
But, even before the ads could run for the Fraser or the Hayden, the new product planners in the Labor Party research room replaced the old Hayden brand with their new improved Hawke package.
There was panic at the station as the word was passed around.
The Fraser brand people tried every rough-house trick they could think of. They said that the Hawke brand was just like the old Whitlam brand. The Hawke also made your teeth fall out, your hair turn green, gave you cancer and killed your children. But the public weren’t as stupid as the politicians and, even before Fraser himself said it, they said it: Bullshit.
Everyone was mightily impressed when Greg Chappell and John Newcombe and Lisa Curry and Colleen Hewett and others came out and said that they only used the Fraser brand. But it didn’t really help when some of them said that they didn’t recommend the Fraser. Except for Colleen Hewett who said for 50 grand she’d sign a song for anyone, thank you very much.
Then the Fraser brand people really panicked. They just ran big photos of the Hawke brand in their ads — which is exactly what the Hawke brand people did, too.
So we who already knew the Hawke was the only alternative to the Fraser were now told again. But by both advertising campaigns. Amazing.
We aren’t idiots, us mug public. We knew it, whether they knew we knew it or not. The products were still the same.
But everyone was bored with the Fraser brand. “Let’s give this one in the nice new pack a go,” everyone said.
So it was that the Hawke brand became market leader for the next three years. Because the Fraser people did nothing to improve their product.
And nothing really changes and things continue to go downhill slowly for everyone.
Except advertising agencies with political accounts.
John Singleton, well-known as a top advertising man and radio personality, is planning a further article on the campaign.
It has been held over for a week pending legal advice.
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