by Colin Jowell

When in doubt, rebrand. Or at least change the packaging. It’s that school of thinking that could have justified rebranding a new tax as a “levy”. It was important to see the reaction of the market before criticizing the tactic, but with the poll data in, now at levels that would have made a former Labor government spill, the result is clear- a tax by any other name still stinks.

Every time I hear someone say “Advertising no longer works”, I say “tell that to the Government." The Government, and aligned government bodies are great believers in traditional advertising- just look at the spend figures and it dwarfs most other brands. There’s a strong believe that if you buy the media you can make the masses believe almost anything. It’s like the last ten years of earned media never happened. Making matters worse, this is all really just a teaser campaign to the product launch, even though we hardly see teaser campaigns mostly due to their wastefulness and consumer fatigue. People barely have time to digest the message, let alone its surrounding intrigue.

Inevitably, a teaser campaign rests on a “bait and switch” and the budget game is no different- prepare the people for the worst so the reality looks like a relief. But this time, the budget seems to have ignored one of the most well respected tenets of Behavioural Economics - loss aversion  – that people strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Trading off a “levy” vs a paid parental scheme is not the kind of decision consumers like to make.  And knocking pensioners isn’t knocking just one group, it’s knocking all us who are going to be one day. You’d need a really successful marketing tactic to pull that one off.

Judging from the last election, the most successful tactic in the current governments approach was content, not advertising.  Newspapers and influenced media who bayed for a change in government. No amount of “tut-tutting” on MediaWatch had any impact on the polls. And if you look at what is missing now, it’s exactly that kind of unilateral media support. With the exception of a few true hard line columnists, it’s been hard for the press to reconcile and support the proposed changes and still look like they are writing in the interests of their audience. Pictures of Tony Abbot and his fighter jets were as ill-placed as the windblown Julia Gillard doing the knitting in the Woman’s weekly.

The last ten years of marketing development mean that truth, or a least a really good impersonation of the truth, is what counts. If that truth can’t come from the core of the product itself, at the very least positive word of mouth, peer reviews, and “independent media content” can plug the gaps. But the current campaign behind the proposed budget is lacking all of those key components. Maybe they were hoping the ‘independent audit' would be a valuable source of authority that would make up for it? So far, not so good.

The best hope now is that the final recommendations make losers out of a neatly quarantined group, allowing the press to find some way to claim that we are in fact all winners. In the war of self-interest versus empathy, self-interest always wins. And that is, sadly, the most salient truth of all.