Saturday, 23 July 2011


Julia Gillard can save herself the $12 million. I’ll write her Carbon Tax ads for her for free. Here’s how they go. Cue suitably sincere, positive-sounding Voice Over: “The Carbon Tax not only offers a better future for the Planet, but also offers a better future for us all. Most of us will be financially better off. Businesses will be compensated, along with hard-pressed families. Dirty, filthy polluting industries will disappear, while a vast array of wonderful, new environmentally clean industries will now have the necessary funding to flourish. New jobs will be born, as we enter a clean, happy, financially secure new world. The Carbon Tax. A better future for us all.”
The visuals will feature very real people, although they will be actors, but hopefully ones you don’t recognize from other ads. There’s nothing worse than seeing an attractive young woman (representing our future) living in a bright, carbon-free world and then suddenly popping up with a heavy period or irritable bowel syndrome in the next ad break. The scenarios will also look desperately authentic, although not too down-market. Striking the right balance between depicting people who are ‘poor’, but not making them look like total povos, is something we will have to keep our eye on.
But one thing we all agree on. NO FAMOUS NAMES. We don’t want a repeat of the Cate and Michael drama.
Finding a few familiar renewable schemes – windmills, solar panels and so on – will be important, although we might give Kevin’s roof insulation fiasco the big miss.
Instead, we’ll have lots of fun showing the jobs that will be created in the future by the proceeds of the Carbon Tax, because they don’t actually exist yet, so we pretty much have creative licence to show whatever we want.
And therein lies the problem.
I’m sorry, Julia, but I have to come clean. Our ad campaign ain’t gonna work.
Why? Because you can’t advertise the benefits of something that doesn’t exist. Imagine if McDonalds were to come out with an amazing ad all about their new, healthy, fat-free, cheap-as-chips, awesome-tasting burger and then when everyone was salivating like crazy they admitted that the kitchen was still working on the recipe. Not only would they would be in breach of every piece of legislation regarding the advertising code and ethics, but quite rightly they would be the laughing stock of the fast food industry.
The Carbon Tax ads will be every bit as dishonest and deceitful. The Multi-Party Climate Change Committee has yet to reach a consensus on the specifics of the tax. Without the details, the intentions are meaningless.
The brutal truth is that if you have to rely on advertising to persuade the public at this stage in the game, you’ve already lost the argument. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the government’s announcement that they have awarded $12 million to an advertising agency to spruik the not-yet-finalised Carbon Tax. It’s a desperate NSW Labor style attempt to dress up pure spin as legitimate advertising.
Tony Windsor was quick to bell the cat. Displaying a praiseworthy (and hitherto well-camouflaged) sense of propriety on this subject, the member for New England very accurately labeled the decision as unacceptably “spending public funds for the purposes of propaganda.” Rob Oakeshott, (also displaying the equally hitherto unseen qualities of brevity and conciseness), cut to the chase: “This is a dumb.”
Governments love advertising. But the justification has always – rightly – been about the necessity to inform the public on the minutiae of policy outcomes; in other words, letting people know specifically how certain projects or laws apply to their particular circumstances. This is the only acceptable criteria for government (as opposed to party political) advertising. There is no point passing complex legislation that people either don’t understand, or aren’t even aware of. Whether it be the ill-fated Workchoices campaign, the more successful GST ads, campaigns about government rebates, tax concessions or whatever other legislation has passed through parliament, advertising is a worthwhile tool for imparting the right degree of information in a palatable format. Of course, the rules have been cynically bent over the years, by all governments, so that a political (or persuasive) narrative is allowed to creep in, blurring the lines between what is partisan political ideology and what is practical, objective information.
The worst offenders have been, thus far, the former NSW government. Two years ago,  before they had even put a shovel to the bitumen, they were busy asking half the advertising agencies in Sydney (mine included) to pitch on a campaign to sell the wonders of their new multi-billion dollar Metro. Selling its benefits before it evn existed. Sound familiar?
Describing in advertising terms why the consumer needs such-and-such a new tax, or law, or rebate is where that threshold from advertising to propaganda is crossed. The ‘why’ is the job of the politicians, and to a lesser extent, of the media, to convince you of. The ‘how, what, when and where’ is the legitimate job of government advertising.
Party political advertising, on the other hand, is entirely about the “why” and to a lesser degree the ‘what’. It is about forging an emotional connection to a candidate or a party, based on shared values and a vision for the future. “Kevin 07” was a marvelous piece of advertising because, much like Gough’s “it’s time” campaign, it captured a sense of the excitement and optimistic mood of the nation.
And this is what, inevitably, the Carbon Tax ads will attempt to be. They will seek to persuade the consumer why a Carbon Tax is a good thing, rather than how a Carbon Tax will work. Naturally, the ad agency will go out of their way to dress up an overtly political message as an informational one, but in doing so they will fall into the trap that successive New South Wales government campaigns repeatedly embraced. An emotional, feel-good message that unacceptably crosses the line from governmental information to political spin.

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