Forget about who's starring in the Carbon Tax ad. Is it any good as an effective piece of advertising?
Thus far, all the attention has focused on the appropriateness of having a multi-millionairess and Hollywood superstar appearing on behalf of the average Aussie. Both Michael Caton and Cate Blanchett have hurried into the fray to inform us that they, too, have a right to speak on behalf of the issue. Of course, they do. But it’s irrelevant. And doesn't answer the question. Is the ad any good?
In terms of generating awareness, the ad has been a blockbuster. There can hardly be a person in Australia who has not seen or heard of the ad by now. Job well done.
But awareness is a double-edged sword, and in this instance the impact of having our most famous actress appearing, and then being criticized for appearing, has managed to "vampire" the message itself. The discussion is about Cate, not carbon. From an advertising point of view, this becomes a problem.
Having gained massive awareness, does the ad persuade? From my point of view, this is where it fails dramatically. It is, quite simply, a dud ad.
Those who believe in the benefits of a Carbon Tax are already persuaded, as we saw Monday night on Q&A. Although they get a warm inner glow from seeing Cate and Michael espousing the cause, they are irrelevant to the success of the ad. That can only be judged by its impact on the core demographic.
Opinion polls show overwhelmingly that the majority of average voters over 50 are opposed to the tax by a factor of 2 to 1. Michael Caton may be "saying yes" to a Carbon Tax, but the odds are that his alter ego Darryl Kerrigan - still living under a flightpath in the suburbs and loving nothing more than a two stroke engine on full throttle - would be “saying no” and telling Greg and Julia very firmly where they can stick it.
The job of the ad is to persuade these naysayers or waverers to support the Carbon Tax. Hence, the rather unoriginal "Say Yes" slogan. The biggest danger when trying to persuade someone of the merits of your cause is to lose your focus. Being single-minded, as every advertising person knows, is by far the most effective way of being persuasive. The Government has struggled with the messaging of this tax from day one, wavering between trying to sell it as a "good thing for our planet" to the base self-interest of "a million people will be better off." This ad - not a government ad, but it may as well be - falls into the same trap. It wants to be all things to all people, but in doing so, completely undermines itself.
The various issues are raised and dismissed in cursory fashion, as if to dwell on any of them isn't worth the effort. "Say yes to new money for clean energy that never runs out," has to be one of the oddest, most dishonest and grammatically torturous lines to ever appear in an ad, political or otherwise. Dissecting it sheds no light. New money? What does that mean? If it means that some of the Carbon Tax will be used to fund research into renewables, then fine - but how much? What percentage? Is it the money or the clean energy that never runs out? And what clean energy are they referring to? The only one that can replace carbon sufficiently to meet our needs and will "never run out" is nuclear energy. Is that what they mean? Of course not. But to pretend that windmills etc can do the job is to grossly mislead. These are weasel words and it does no credit to the ad.
By all means have Cate and Michael fronting the cause, but do the consumer the courtesy of not treating us like idiots. The ad promises a magical tax that will create jobs (no mention of the ones that will be lost), adequately compensate all those less well off (no mention of 'changing behaviour') clean up pollution and magically fund new forms of energy. Sounds like a fairy tale.
Which leads us to the biggest negative about the ad - even worse than the clunky syntax – which is the ghastly visual approach, reminiscent of a Wiggles promo. Or worse, a Ronald McDonald Happy Meal ad. Presumably the creatives got carried away by the fact that two of our best actors had agreed to appear in their ad, and couldn't get theatrical imagery out of their heads. This is the sort of visual approach you would expect from two juniors who had just come fresh out of advertising school. It trivializes the message, and more importantly, plays into the hands of climate sceptics by presenting the whole issue as a facade. A childish game of charades, where nothing is real. The set piece topics (compensation, cleaning up pollution, funding research) are made to feel as fake and phony as the cardboard cut outs themselves. For an issue as fundamental to the economy and future of our society, this is beyond banal. It is excruciating.
The end scene, with a radiant Cate pulling a rope to reveal a sunny world of blue skies and windmills is both patronizing and deceptive. Advertising that deceives rarely works effectively in the long run, as people become more familiar with the issues and resent that they were being treated as mugs. Windmills have no hope of replacing base-load energy, and are in fact both here and in the UK the subject of much unhappiness and controversy in those communities where they are sited. As for solar energy, just look at what's going on in NSW. Not much happiness there either. A cardboard backdrop of a glowing nuclear power plant would be more honest, but somehow I can't see it making the cut.
The summation of the ad encapsulates the problem with the entire proposition. There isn't one. Cate is a great actress, but great actors need great material in order to shine. The trite offering we get is that finally we can all "do something about Climate Change" if only we "say yes." And that of course is the problem with the "sell". It wouldn't pull the skin off a rice pudding, as one of Sydney's best creative directors used to say. It's all about doing "something" as opposed to doing "nothing." And that’s pretty much it.
Whether that is a powerful enough persuader, only time will tell. From an advertising perspective, it's pretty thin gruel.
Copyright Rowan Dean 2011