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Election 2016 – Marketing Gone Tragically Wrong

Kim Brebach - Friday, July 08, 2016

Election 2016 – Marketing Gone Tragically Wrong

Whatever happened to Leadership? To Vision? To Respect for Australians? We put the recent  Federal Election fiasco under the microscope and find ignorance of basic Marketing 101.

Was this the beginning of the end for Prime Minister Turnbull, I wondered, when he issued a threat to voters that chaos would result if they didn’t vote for the coalition. He urged Australians to prevent the chaos of ‘a hung parliament that would bring government and our economic transition to a grinding halt, costing our jobs, the jobs of our children, threatening their future.’

Every marketer knows that threatening people with dire consequences only prods them into action during out-of-control bushfires or a deadly Bird Flu outbreak. Aside from these emergencies, even rookie marketers know that threatening prospects with dire consequences, should they fail to make the right decision, turns off prospects faster than a light switch.

Ignore the Rules of Marketing at your Peril

marketing and politicsLike most people, Australians don’t take kindly to threats from politicians. Voters also have an uncanny ability to sense panic in people of high office, to see their bluster for what it is: a last ditch effort by a desperate politician staring into the abyss and trying to save face and himself.  That threat, repeated many times in the last few days, cost the coalition a lot of votes.  So why did the PM’s strategists let him make such a colossal blunder?

The answer is they ignored the basic rules of marketing. To be effective, political marketing campaigns have to excite people about a brighter future, and articulate why and how and when that future will be brighter. It follows that political leaders must be able to articulate complex subjects – such as the economy, negative gearing and superannuation – in terms that most Australians can grasp. Both leaders gave up on that challenge and settled for bumper sticker slogans: for Turnbull, it became Jobs and Growth, for Shorten it became Health and Education.


When Malcolm Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott last September, he said: ‘Now, we are living as Australians in the most exciting time.’ He talked about the big economic changes taking place here and abroad ‘that offer enormous challenges and enormous opportunities.’ He added that Australia needed a different kind of leadership to seize these opportunities, ‘a style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence, that explains these complex issues and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take and makes a case for it.’

He said his challenge was translating liberal values ‘into policies and ideas that would excite the Australian people and encourage them to believe and understand that we have a vision for their future.’ That’s why most Australians saw Turnbull as a transformational leader, a leader ‘who would energise the government and the people to achieve great change together,’ as Peter Harcher wrote back in May. That's why even some Labor voters felt Turnbull had a lot to offer them.

Transformation gone wrong

Transformational leaders are rare people who can cross traditional demarcation lines. Much more common are transactional leaders who offer people something in return for their votes. ‘ … you give me your vote, and I will give you something in exchange,’ as Harcher puts it, or: ‘Vote for me and I will give you a tax cut. Or a handout. Or a highway.’ Or, ‘Vote for me and I will cancel something you hate. An incompetent government. Or unchecked boat arrivals. Or a corporate tax cut.’

Malcolm Turnbull began his prime ministership with a uniting vision, yet it took less than nine months for him to change into a transactional leader who bargained with voters, promising jobs and growth, tax cuts, responsible economic management and stability in return for their votes. In our post Effective Leadership Skills, we listed 12 crucial rules that great leaders never lose sight of. Perhaps Malcolm Turnbull didn’t read it.

Grand Vision

marketing and politicsGreat leaders have a clear vision for their country, and the ability to engage people and get them  excited about that vision. Budget Repair is not a vision but a necessity. Better education is not a vision but a requirement for a competitive nation. Good healthcare is not a vision but a basic right in a modern democracy.

Turning an Australia into an innovation nation is a serious vision, given that the country has relied so heavily on revenues from exports of raw minerals and live cattle. Did Malcolm Turnbull articulate that vision? No. Instead, he inserted himself into some hi-tech environments for photo opps with clever Australians. Did he announce major new initiatives to accelerate Australia’s innovation in science and technology? No, he added $1 billion dollars to the research budget, which merely undid some cuts made by Abbott and prior leaders. More in our post Turnbull Missing in Action on Innovation.

Big Issues

The biggest issue that came up during Malcolm Turnbull’s nine month as Prime Minister was the news that much of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef had been bleached by an overheating ocean. ‘Election campaigns can descend into contests of the rhetorical or the theoretical,’ wrote the Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Occasionally, though, voters see, touch and even feel something. And the plight of the Great Barrier Reef is a good example.’

We all take great pride in the reef, one of the seven wonders of the world. Most of us have seen it,  admired it and proudly told our friends about it. Here was an opportunity for the Prime Minister to show real leadership. He could’ve done many things; at the very least, he could’ve gathered Australia’s top scientists and asked them to forge a serious, long term plan to save the reef.

Instead, he chose to do nothing and passed the buck to Greg Hunt, the environment minister who’s been accused of being the biggest threat to our environment. Hunt’s response was risible, as the Herald reports. What did Bill Shorten do? Promise to spend $500 million to protect the reef. That was it.

Getting into the Gutter

With both leaders lacking vision and having no idea how to market their policies, they ended up in the gutter shouting abuse at each other, calling each other liars, making outrageous claims about their opponents. Is it any wonder people turned away from the major parties in droves? Any marketer or salesman knows that constantly rubbishing the competition is a bad idea, because your prospects will take it as a sign that you can’t sell the benefits of your offer on its own merits.

Malcolm Turnbull continued his attacks on Labor even after the election, devoting large chunks of his speech on election night to his competitors. In his press conference on July 5, Malcolm Turnbull again attacked Labor for its ‘MediScare’ campaign and the lies it told.

At the same time, Bill Shorten told the media that the PM wasn’t up to the job and should resign. ABC News reported that the opposition leader said the PM had ‘failed to deliver the political stability he had promised, and facilitated the revival of One Nation through his reforms to Senate voting.’

Missed Opportunities

marketing and politicsBefore election day, both parties had carved out budgets that cranked government spending up to new heights, based on wishful assumptions about future growth. Yet there are many billions available to repair the budget, from the superannuation tax concessions and negative gearing, to tax reductions for business. And what about the vast sums of money pledged to buy submarines that haven’t yet been designed, and strike fighters that are lame ducks and 10 years late.  

Did Bill Shorten use Canada’s cancellation of its F-35 order to attack the government, or Britain reducing its order to a bare minimum? Did he push the coalition hard, as he should have, on the idiocy of reducing company taxes when ‘600 of the largest companies in Australia did not pay income tax in the 2013-14 financial year,’ according to the ABC? That’s in addition to the billions in tax the big international companies have managed to avoid.

Did Bill Shorten attack Malcolm Turnbull on his simplistic supply-side economics proposition that tax cuts would increase investment, when the evidence of the last 30 years shows the opposite? Here’s just one example: Corporate Tax Cuts Have Made Canada a Poorer Country. Instead, the opposition leader gave up trying to articulate his position or forcing Malcolm Turnbull to articulate his, and opted for a bumper sticker slogan about Medicare being under threat.

The End Game

‘ … Voters walked away more in disappointment than in anger,’ Mark Kenny writes in the Herald. ‘The government's hollow jobs and growth ‘promise’ was about as flat as Mathias Cormann's native Belgium.’ Liberal senator and former defence minister David Johnston agrees, calling the Jobs and Growth election campaign ‘trite, one dimensional and not relatable.’

He didn’t blame the PM, saying ‘Malcolm doesn't run the campaign, the campaign is run by … gurus who seem to know what the electorate wants and thinks. Well I gotta you tell we are light years away from relating to people.’ As we said before, the gurus ignored the basic rules of marketing.

Mark Kenny argues that the coalition’s ‘putative second-term agenda was a tiny fourth-term growth dividend which convinced no one. Even the promise of cleaning out the Senate became a miserable own-goal. And for all that non-inspiration, the Turnbull team has been rewarded by the electorate with a non-verdict - and a non-mandate.’

Laure Tingle at the Australian Financial Review showed uncanny prescience when she wrote on June  26: ‘The centrepiece of his [the PM’s] argument at the campaign launch is that the uncertain international times need a stable government. Yet the ironic reality is that the internal dynamics of his own party, and the safety of his own position, is less stable than that of Bill Shorten.’

Mark Kenny provides the succinct bottom line for the knife-edge Election of 2016: ‘Stability in a democracy is ultimately the people's to give and, in this case, the people have expressly withdrawn it.

Kim Brebach
Content Chief

I've always loved people and words. As long as I can remember, I've been a story-teller and the team here says I'm pretty good at it. That's probably why I head up the Content Team: I create the arc of the story and others add their magic. 

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