Picture this: You’re at home with your family, watching television, when you’re interrupted by a commercial. The sinister music starts, teamed with a low, serious, urgent voice advising you that the next potential Prime Minister of our country is a liar, an inept leader, a traitor. This potential Prime Minister and their party are weak, their policies are ruining our country. The commercial is possibly – probably – mentioning “boat people” and “border protection.”
As I write this, Australia is two months away from its next Federal Election. As the media go into overdrive reporting every side of national politics, there’s something else we can expect to see on our televisions in addition to interviews, commentary and debate… political advertising!
The use of TV advertising to influence Australian voters is not a new concept.
The birth of modern political advertising is said to have started with Gough Whitlam and the ALP’s ‘It’s Time’ campaign. Comprised and delivered by advertising agency Hansen-Rubensohn–McCann-Erickson, the campaign contained nearly everything we’d expect to see in a modern marketing or advertising campaign – research, focus groups, quantitive polling, and modern communications techniques – to roll out a fully integrated campaign, across TV, radio, print and cinema. All that was missing from the now 44 year old campaign, was a social media strategy (in 1972, the invention of Facebook was still well over 3 decades off, so I’d suggest this can be forgiven).
For over 44 years now, it has become common place to see television commercials supporting (or undermining) our major political parties – their leaders, their policies, their practices. Often these will be bankrolled by the parties themselves, but it is also common to see commercials that have been funded by mining companies, advocacy groups, trade unions, multi-millionaires. Essentially, the voice with the most money gets heard.
When information is broadcast into our homes via a TV commercial, we typically believe that the content of the commercial is factual and correct. For the most part, regulation by the national Advertising Standards Bureau (ABS) ensures that the majority of advertisements conform to particular standards that ensure the content is true and accurate.
Political and electoral advertising does not fall into this majority. Indeed, according to ABS, there is “currently no legal requirement for the content of political advertising to be factually correct.” Who then, is responsible for the exceedingly expensive commercials we see, that have the very real power to influence and sway the voting public?
Well, The Australian Communications & Media Authority is responsible for regulating the political advertising we see in the broadcast media. The Australian Electoral Commission (and/or the applicable State/Territory) ensure that the advertising is properly authorised (you know, the speedy voice at the end of a commercial advising “authorised by the Commonwealth Government, Canberra”). Yet neither is responsible for ensuring the content is true, accurate or factual.
It’s an interesting state of affairs. Many commentators are pushing for reform, pointing to Britain where political (and religious) advertising has been banned for more than 60 years.
With just over two months until the election, we can expect to be inundated with political advertising. And while reform seems to be far off, the least we can do as voters is to question what we’re seeing. Is it true and accurate, and most importantly, should it sway your vote?