A little over a week ago, I was sitting in makeup getting prepped for the last pre-election episode of Media Take. As is often the case, ZM was on the radio. And during a commercial break, two campaign ads came on.
The first was a version of National's "Let's Tax This", produced for radio. It was as wilfully misleading as every other iteration of the campaign, but also pungent and, in a commercial radio fashion, funny. The second was yet another cut of Labour's "Let's Do This", with the same Jacinda VO as the TV ad. A month before, the TVC had been a marvel – purposeful, full of momentum and climaxing in the jam-packed campaign launch where Labour's new leader hit her lines perfectly. Sliced up yet again, it sounded a bit like blather.
I think in political marketing terms, this is the story of the campaign. National went out with Keep NZ Moving Forward, a really terrible TVC that was not only deeply unimaginative (it was the 2014 ad, with runners, instead of rowers) but, with its eugenicist vibe, actually quite creepy. Labour's "Let's Do This" knocked it out of the park.
But in due course, National re-emerged from the bunker with "Let's Tax This", an extremely effective negative campaign that also happened to be, again, wilfully misleading. Steven Price writes here about helping with late, unsuccessful complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Advertising Standards Authority. He believes both authorities got it very wrong. I think had either considered complaints about commercial communications structured this way, the threshold might well have been met. It comes down to how you see political speech at the peak of an election campaign.
The ad did mislead, and I suspect communications around it may have been even more misleading. At 3.30am on Sunday, the Uber driver who took me home from a party told me it was good that Labour hadn't won, because they were going to put up his income tax – to 40%, he'd heard. When I suggested that wasn't actually true, he was incredulous. If if wasn't true, why didn't Labour just go on TV and say so?
They did, of course. But giving an earnest, inevitably nuanced explanation about about tax was still talking about tax, and surrendering the narrative when they wanted to talk about poverty, need, health and economic transformation. It was a vulnerability Labour itself had created by abandoning the safe harbour of "no major changes until the next election".
Perhaps there was no really good way of responding, and Labour was locked into a frame about economic management that it couldnt work a way out of. But it took too long to produce this video of Michael Cullen talking about Labour's record in government and there was a sense that the creative vitality with which Labour began its campaign had not sustained.
This isn't to say that Labour has "lost" the election – who forms a goverment is yet to be determined – but I think it sheds some light on how it faltered after soaring in the polls.
Political advertising was also different this time for a reason that's barely been talked about. Back in March, Parliament decided to abandon the long, expensive and often boring "election broadcasts" on TV, for which parties have received state funding for many years. The funding went into a general advertising budget for each party.
In place of a few big videos, there were many smaller videos. This terrible "Had Enough" rant from New Zealand First, the possibly-too-ironic little videos from TOP and – as it dawned on the Māori Party that the party it would like to coalesce with, Labour, was also its only meaningful opponent, one called "Born out of Betrayal" (which was on the currently MIA Māori Party Facebook page).
The shift to a broader, more fine-grained advertising environment had another effect: a loss of transparency. Because the Facebook I see is not the Facebook you see, it became very difficult to see which party was saying what to who. We may literally never get an accurate picture of what the campaign advertising actually was.
Anyway, we discuss this and more on Media Take tonight at 10pm on Māori Television, with Sir Bob Harvey, Ben Thomas, Deborah Mahuta-Coyle, Jennifer Lees-Marchment, Vaughn Davis and Melanie Tuala. It's a pretty useful show, I reckon.
This week's episode can be viewed here on-demand.
As can the bonus korero.
And you can catch the whole thing bundled up with some other stuff we've made in the hour-long version of Media Take at midday on Sunday.