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Freedom, Freedom, Freedom - Freedom Forever.

I was once at a barbeque with an old friend of mine. This was in late 2021, months before the 2022 Australian election was called. At the time, the United Australia Party (UAP) was pumping millions of dollars into billboard ads all over the country.

I had naively assumed that these ads being placed quite literally everywhere had to be a massive money drain for the party. It was costing them so much, and I recall them getting so very little out of it in the previous election. I remember remarking to Taryn (the co-founder of CAASie) that this must be such a waste of money. What could it possibly achieve?

You see, my friend (at the barbeque) isn’t the kind of person who actively researches his local candidates or the policies of the parties they represent. So, when the next few words spilt out of his mouth, it took me by surprise:

“They’re the only ones talking about freedom”.

I break that sentence down a little further on but regardless of whether the UAP wins any seats in this election, they’ve highlighted a crucial element of political marketing - apathy.

In this post, I dig a little bit into voter apathy and how we, as marketers, can somehow wiggle our way around it.

Apathy in Politics

It wouldn’t be a lie to say that an election is a glorified popularity contest. But that’s precisely what makes it so challenging to win - it is an extraordinarily complicated beast. It’s not just about the rational things, either. A survey by IPSOS found that fewer than half of the participants could actually name something useful that a politician had achieved, while the most desired quality in a politician was ‘ethical behaviour’, which in itself sounds a little vague.

All of this points to the idea that people often go to the polls because they have to (in Australia, at least), and vote without knowing - or caring - exactly what they’re voting for, or why. This makes convincing the general public to vote for one specific candidate over another particularly challenging.

For all intents and purposes, this is a marketing problem. How do you sell a product to an apathetic customer?

Winning the apathetic customer (or y’know, voter)

Kapta defines apathetic customers as the ones who “are not excited about your brand and do not care about who’s providing them the service”. This is an all-too-familiar problem in politics. In fact, in the aptly-titled episode South Park episode, “Douche and Turd”, the problem of futility in voting, and the concept of all candidates being equally undesirable are touched upon (and laced with satirical humour, of course).

This customer apathy - which is technically voter apathy that I’m treating as a marketing problem - is a sizeable obstacle in getting any one candidate considered let alone elected. 

So, how can we fix this apathy problem? Well, we can’t. Not in the short term.

This might seem like a bleak outlook, and it is. But just because voters often don’t care for politics, does not mean they don’t experience issues that policy (politics) can address. And regardless of whether or not they realise it, people are often quite passionate about issues that affect them or those around them.

This gives us an interesting opportunity to work with what we have. Let’s look into sidestepping apathy.

Consumer psychology to the rescue

So, back to my friend’s barbeque.

“They’re the only ones talking about freedom”.

This man knew nothing about the UAP. He did not watch TV or listen to the radio. He was an Adblock aficionado. Everything he knew about the party quite literally came from the catchphrase he’d read on the billboards on his drive presumably to and from work.

credit @Hotham_water via Twitter

And it was then that I realised the actual purpose of those billboards. The UAP had identified a core issue that disenfranchised (and apathetic) voters could relate to. By connecting the issue to their party, they used pretty simple marketing to bend two psychological phenomena to their will: the familiarity bias and category membership.

I won’t get into the details of these biases, but basically, it works like this. By repeatedly and explicitly mentioning ‘freedom’ in their ads, the UAP has aligned themselves with freedom as a concept. That’s category membership in a nutshell. The bold yellow ads are plastered everywhere, giving people repeated exposure to them every single day, ad nauseam (geddit?). Leveraging that familiarity bias over time.

In other words - they’ve successfully driven voters into a mentality of “I don’t know who they are, but they talk about my issues, so I trust them”. But how can we do that without an outrageous marketing budget?

The Convinced, the Agnostic, and the Hopeless

The strategy of the UAP was straightforward - but it was an expensive one. They needed to convince an entire country that they were relevant. For most campaign managers, though - particularly independent and smaller party ones - you don’t need to convince an entire country. In fact, you just need enough of the one electorate.

To a marketer, this is a familiar problem. You have buyers (the convinced), potential buyers (the agnostics), and non-buyers (the hopeless). As a marketer, you’d be wise to keep your existing buyers and chip away at the potential buyers for growth.

So, let’s reframe this problem: remind the convinced that you still fight for their cause, and inform the agnostics that you care about their issues, too. In other words, make yourself familiar to both the convinced and the agnostic.

Saying the right thing in the right place

If you’re a campaign manager for a political candidate - you’ll likely have information on social (or economic) issues that have the convinced, well, convinced. For these folks, you need to ensure they stay convinced. I’m not going to go into that so much in this article. On the flip side, the agnostics aren’t convinced and this is likely for a number of reasons. I’d argue that, from a marketing perspective, there are 2 primary categories here. Either:

  1. There are relevant issues you address that they’re unaware of, or; 
  2. you don’t address any of the issues that affect them. 

Looking at that first category - this is an education and awareness problem. To solve it, you need to convey to them that you understand the issues that are specific to them, and they can trust you to address them. And put simply, the second category is just not worth pursuing. That’s outside your remit for the moment.

The question you need to ask yourself is “what do I say, and where do I say it?” In other words, this is a matter of working out the right thing to say for that audience.

If you have an idea of the issues you (or your candidate) solve, and to whom those issues are relevant, that’s the bulk of your work done. You’ll know some rough details about your audience that can help you characterise their day-to-day behaviour (Hootsuite has an excellent persona builder tool that can help with just that). For marketing though, I’d be interested in a couple of core behavioural traits. You can get quite granular, but it helps to look at some broad strokes:

  1. What media do they consume? TV, Netflix, Spotify, Twitter, etc.
  2. Where do they go for work, and how? Drive, public transport, etc.
  3. What are their shopping habits? Where, when, how often, etc.

Once you can chart out not just the average day of your audience, but their average week, you can look into the various media formats that can reach them and then plan your placement to capture their interest and attention wherever they happen to be.

Now, let’s put this into practice. This part is complex and there’s no way I can articulate all the nuances of it. But my goal is to give you enough inspo’ to get started.

Putting it in practice

I’m going to use the UAP as an example of how one can put the above learnings into practice, but really, these principles should apply to any political campaign. The UAP ran ads practically everywhere in the country because they could afford to do so. But if their pockets weren’t so deep, they’d have approached it much more carefully (I hope).

Narrow the target audience based on the issues you address

The more narrow your target audience, the easier it ultimately becomes to reach them. For the UAP example, most of the cost-saving would likely be done on the placement front, but I’m thinking they ought to narrow down their target audience to be a little less broad as well. 

I’m going to assume they identified their demographic as heavily-impacted middle-class individuals who either lost their jobs, businesses, or livelihoods to the pandemic or otherwise were negatively impacted by measures taken to slow the spread of COVID. 

Align the brand to the core issue at hand

You could confidently say a significant proportion of these folks would attribute their hardship to the government restrictions (lockdowns) and subsequent welfare decisions that followed. With a vaccine mandate in tow, you could quite reasonably expect that these individuals felt the pressure of authoritarianism - or, put differently - their freedom was at risk. 

A Google Search campaign run by the UAP in 2022 - via Google Transparency Report.

These were - in theory - people who would deeply resonate with anti-authoritarian messaging (i.e. ‘freedom forever’) because they felt that ultimately their freedoms were being infringed upon. This is the issue the UAP aligned their brand with.

Place the ads where you have the highest density of that specific audience

If their pockets weren’t infinitely deep - they couldn’t blast radio, TV, and billboards with expensive ads. So, they’d have to be more tactical and see how they can get in front of the lowest hanging fruit in their target audience.

The problem with apathetic customers, though, is that they’re likely not looking for whatever it is you’re selling, and this makes placement (on a budget) particularly challenging. Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet to reaching these folks, but the psychological phenomena of familiarity bias can still help the UAP here. So long as their audience has seen them enough times, they’re at least slightly more likely to associate the messaging (and the addressed issues) with the UAP brand.

This is going to be a multi-directional split across real-world placements, and digital-world placements. In a lot of cases, this involves the placement of ads where people simply have no choice but to either scroll (or walk) past them. 

Commuters often have no choice but to fuel up - for political or government ads, this is quite handy.

Whilst I personally hate watching pre-video Youtube ads, they’re incredibly effective for this kind of problem. Similarly, formats like fuel station ads at the bowser where people have no choice but to watch them are quite useful in reaching audiences that would otherwise be difficult to reach. The same goes for old-school tactics like letter drops or printed flyers, where the placement can be surgically targeted at postcode level to individuals most likely to lean towards the UAP come election time.

Caveats & Thoughts

At the end of all that, it helps to realise that every campaign manager has an enormous on their hands. How can they make sure the electorate - the general public - trusts their candidate?

As much as I’d love for it to be true - to say that this is purely an advertising challenge would be simply wrong. Whilst the points above are relatively reliable principles when thinking of people as individuals, we’re factoring out the crucial element of scale. When we look at the thousands of people who make up an electorate (let alone a country), there are countless variables at play including population dynamics, and the social psychology of large population groups.

The marketing picture I’ve painted seems relatively straightforward, but the truth is that people talk to and interact with each other. And exactly how that emergent behaviour impacts your desired outcomes can be unpredictable. So, what I’m trying to say is - enjoy my article but certainly eat it with a grain of salt for flavour!

Jeff Jaraved
A true definition of a train-track mind. Jeff can focus on one task at any given point in time. Ask him a question, and you're sure to confuse him. Nonetheless, he's fun to talk to.
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