Why Labor’s negative messaging may have cost it the election

Labor's persistence and insistence on using negative advertising this election may very well turn out to have been one of their biggest mistakes and one that could have cost them government.


Well the figures are now in. Not there is any doubt at all to them. According to the latest figures from political advertising tracking website Ebiquity Labor spent nearly $4 to $1 on negative messaging compared to positive advertising this campaign.

The main reason for this strategy was to arouse interest and engagement with Labor’s messages, attack the credibility of the Coalition and turn Malcolm Turnbull into a big scary monster, and to provide information to the electorate on the ills of voting for Malcolm Turnbull.

By the end of July 2 I am guessing that this may be said in quite a few campaign rooms but not that of the Coalition’s

The basis for using negative advertising in a campaign is that it is meant to do these things well. It helps accentuate the fear, triggering the so called fight or flight response we all have built into us, and thereby making us more engaged with the message.

Flight or fight then means we are meant to be more likely to change our behaviour to avoid that from happening. In other words we either want to take flight from Big Bad Malcolm or we will want to fight him. And we do that by voting for Labor and Bill who would stop all of those things.


The problem is in research that I conducted recently on televised political advertising using real time responses via psychophysiological measures, in as close to home environment as possible, none of those things were achieved.

Viewers were not aroused. They did not remember the information in the advertising. And as for dislike nearly all had it for all forms of political advertising, especially the negative, switching off the message itself and developing a stronger negative attitude towards all forms of political advertising the more they had exposure to it.

This means Labor’s attack ads, along with all those who use them, are nearly useless. And if the attitude towards the advertisement is anything to go by then what this means is that Labor was creating a negative attitude towards all of its advertising, not just the negative. The same with the Coalition.

Oooopsy…according to this chart from Ebiquity on the advertising split in the 2013 election it seems Labor likes to lose elections by repeating the same strategy which didn’t work.

Labor was actually pushing some voters away from it and inadvertently pushing them towards the very parties that they needed to prevent from taking seats at this election so they could win Government: the Greens, Nick Xenophon and the independents.

For some this meant as they switched off from the negative ads, and as their negative attitudes towards the major parties and use of these tactics grew, if there was a viable alternative to the majors then hello change of vote.

That is especially the case where if your pre-existing brand attitude and experience to one of those alternatives was positive and familiar. Not necessarily trustworthy, but not likely to sell the house and everything in it for something small and insignificant on the political stage.

This is one of the reasons why Nick Xenophon has been polling so well. That and he is a mighty fine exponent of positive PR.

Where we don’t have that same brand familiarity or experience then that is a different story unless it is in the Senate, where we don’t mind having a few people in there to keep everyone honest.

Negative advertising makes alternatives such as Nick Xenophon seem positive by comparison, regardless of their policies. Combined with their tapping into more positive, populist policies (wait a minute….isn’t that the point of democracy, to be the most popular party at the election???) and campaign strategies using authentic and natural engagement.

And the use of social media or shoestring budgets help reinforce how they seem like a breath of fresh air to the major parties. These parties run mainly positive campaigns, reinforcing to the voter that they’ve done the right thing and helping solidify trial behaviour.

This was reinforced in my findings where I found that the most liked and recalled ad was made not by a political party but by an advertising agency making a positive Greens ad for the TV show Gruen Nation.

Although negative advertising has a strong negative response towards it, positive does not. Hence why the Coalition have been running a small noise, small negative advertising strategy thus far. Only on Friday when the blitz started did the ratio of positive versus negative spending drop slightly below $2:$1.

Over here, hello, I’m over here…stop looking at Mediscare, look at me and leave Malcolm alone: worst ad of the campaign in terms of the theory, but in terms of the effectiveness absolutely the Coalition’s best. 

They wanted you to be bored, disengaged and eager for the end. This made it all the harder for Labor to get the emotional bounce they needed from their advertising as they were at times fighting nothing. No scary monster. No horrible policy of death. Not even a Tony Abbott like a Kevin Rudd during the 2010 campaign.

It wasn’t hard then to see why it was they have gone after a scare campaign on Medicare as health is a strong point for their brand, and health is also one policy area where people are worried about loss. But with so many switched off thanks to their negative advertising strategy, and with little source credibility because of the fact they are politicians and who trusts them, it was always going to be a difficult battle to get the response they were after.

For the Coalition all they had to do was keep it smooth and steady and be future focused in positive messaging. Hats off to the team from Crosby Textor, the Coalition’s campaign strategists, because they have nearly achieved their prize.

If Labor had gone positive all the way then this would have put the spotlight on the ability and credibility of Turnbull’s performance in government much more, and given far more incentive for those in the marginals to switch across to Labor. Instead of talking about 100 positive policies Labor needed to use 100 positive messages.

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