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Have voters become immune to fear-based political spin?

May 2019

This is a self-funded case study using our Advertising Testing solution.

Recent reports suggest that Clive Palmer and the United Australia Party are outspending the other major political parties – combined – by a staggering ratio of 2 to 1. Reaching the widest possible audience and creating mental availability is a tried and trusted method for success, whether it be for a brand or political party.

But while much of the commentary in the media and advertising world has surrounded the eye-watering levels of spend, not enough attention has been placed on the creative vehicle being deployed to deliver these messages. Time and time again, studies have shown that creative quality plays a disproportionate role in driving business effects, political advertising included.

Federal election campaigning has so far been headlined by fear-inducing messaging and smear tactics, swiftly descending into a mud-slinging contest between the major parties. Messaging has also lacked cohesiveness, being delivered in a haphazard and increasingly fragmented way.

But why, given the wealth of knowledge at our disposal around building strong brands and effective communications, do political parties continue to resort to these scare tactics? Perplexed, we tested the effectiveness of the major parties’ advertising with the goal of answering 2 questions:

  1. Is a positive and constructive tone of voice more effective at persuading voters than evoking negativity and fear?
  2. From a creative standpoint, which political party’s advertising is the most effective at persuading voters?


We looked at a broad spectrum of federal election advertising across both online and offline channels. We created 6 separate groups (with each group containing 3 executions) covering the general approach(es) being taken by each of the parties.

  1. Liberal (Positive/Constructive)
  2. Liberal (Negative/Fear)
  3. Labor (Positive/Constructive)
  4. Labor (Negative/Fear)
  5. UAP (Negative/Fear)
  6. Greens (Positive/Constructive)

We recruited a nationally representative sample of people voting in the upcoming federal election, and measured creative effectiveness using Cubery’s proprietary methodology. Results were benchmarked versus our normative databases. The research identified 4 key learnings, which are applicable to both political advertisers and brands more generally.

1. Uplifting Trumps Fear

In no great surprise, advertising for the major political parties wasn’t particularly effective overall. Only one of the 6 groups we tested performed above the Cubery Rating average (The Greens, by 1 point).

Election Advertising Testing Results 2019

Overall, the advertising which took an uplifting and constructive approach by painting the party’s leader and policies in a favourable light, outperformed that which attacked the opposition or was generally designed to instil fear and hatred (Cubery Rating average of 53 vs. 42).

Importantly, the impact was consistent both in terms of short-term outcomes (voting intent) and long-term effects (favourability toward the party). This proves that an approach which emotionally connects with people and makes them feel good, will always triumph over leaving people feeling negative or with no feelings at all.

Labor’s hopeful and optimistic pitch promising “A Fair Go For Australia” was more successful than the Liberal party’s attempt to tap into our psychological resistance to change. Labor’s galvanising call to middle Australia worked more effectively because the campaign projected a warm and family-oriented feeling, and complimented this with a clear and compelling vision for the future of Australia.

“Family orientated, makes Bill Shorten look like a regular Australian that knows what it’s like for middle class families to experience stress in life”

On the other hand, the Liberal’s reminded Australians of the importance of maintaining positive momentum behind the economy during these uncertain times. Their approach was seen to be lacklustre, offering a familiar and predictable narrative, and being absent of anything new. Subsequently, many found the campaign dull and boring (18%, +7% vs. norm).

“They are really boring and don’t explain much”

2. Leverage Humour

In one bright spot for the Liberal party, its incessant attacks on Bill Shorten and the Labor party’s tax policies proved to be much more effective than Labor’s scare-mongering. There were 2 key reasons for this:

  1. The ruthless consistency of the Liberal party’s campaigning under the strapline “The Bill Australia Can’t Afford”, translated through to a high level of clarity in messaging (87%, +12% vs. Labor) and strong branding
  2. The animated depiction of Bill Shorten as Pinocchio to highlight his lies and broken promises, struck a chord with viewers (31% spontaneously referenced the humour as something they liked)
“The puppet was hilarious; it made me smile”

The creative approach deployed by the Liberal party not only made their fear-based approach far more likeable than any of the other comparable executions, but combined with greater clarity, the ads subsequently worked harder to motivate people to vote for the party (46%, +13% vs. Labor). When done right, humour is one of the most powerful emotions available to advertisers.

“Very unique and captivating, made me think of Labor in a different light. Used word play and cartoon well”

3. Care-mongering not Scare-mongering

The long-term consistency of The Greens’ policy translated into strong branding (69%, +20% vs. norm), even in the absence of a familiar figurehead or entrenched cues which the other major parties rely upon. The tone of voice was constructive and uplifting, with voters’ perceiving the messaging to be by far the most informative (70%, +15% vs. norm) and trustworthy out of all the parties. The strong yet not overbearing style conveyed honesty and a level of respect for the maturity of voters. Engaging voters in a more open and transparent way led to people finding The Greens’ campaign to be considerably more interesting than advertising for the other parties.

“Ads focussed on real issues, things that matter”

In a climate where there is deep cynicism and a lack of trust for politicians and the major political parties more generally, the genuine and authentic way in which The Greens convey their message is a breath of fresh air. This helps build a distinctive positioning for the party and allows it to cut through the clutter with minimal spend.

4. Make it clear what you stand for

Clive Palmer’s UAP took the mantle as the most ineffective campaign of all the major political parties, which doesn’t bode well given the mind-boggling amount of money being spent. There is no doubt that Clive’s low approval rating as a leader and divisive nature creates a negative halo over how voters’ process his narrative.

“They are full of typical Clive bullshit and bullying attitudes”

However, there were other more structural issues with the campaign. The creative execution and messaging were seen to be, by far, the least trustworthy, believable (30%, -30% vs. norm) and differentiated (40%, -19% vs. norm). Quite simply, the ads didn’t contain enough substance and clarity around the UAP’s policies and positioning, to overcome the negative filter people see Clive through.

“They were utterly non-specific in how they would deliver all of these jobs and ‘securing our children’s future’, making them a waste of time and money”

While the consistent style, tone and feel of the ads has helped create a distinct identity for the UAP and subsequently built synergistic campaign effects, they can’t compensate for a highly visible leader who is seen to lack credibility. As a result, the UAP’s campaign was the least effective at persuading people to vote for the party (27%, -25% vs. norm).

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