The government’s boat visa ads are targeting voters, not asylum seekers

you wont be settledOnce you’ve been writing about the media industry for a while, it’s easy to forget just how little the average member of the public knows about how advertising is planned and bought.

So those of us within the media buying bubble may be assuming this weekend that everyone in Australia has noticed the scandal going on under our noses. We may be wrong.

I refer to the advertising blitz around the Government’s changes to the asylum seeker policy.

boat asylum ad

Your average member of the public doesn’t know what a media agency does.

If they’re anything like I used to be before writing about media, they don’t give much thought to how a particular ad happens to end up in front of them at a particular time.

I know it never occurred to me that I was being targeted as a demographic and more likely to see ads tailored to me.

Of course, when you point out to people that you can tell a lot about the real target audience by where an ad appears, it makes sense.

And when you explain about the calculations that agencies make about the most efficient buy on behalf of their client, based on not only the cost of an ad but how many of the target audience will see it, that makes sense too.

Which is when the full page ads about the government’s new asylum seeker policy across the weekend’s national and metro papers really begins to look like a disgrace.

This is not an advertising campaign targeting asylum seekers. It is a campaign targeting voters.

Your average asylum seeker doesn’t buy Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph in Indonesia.

Any peripheral reach of the ad into diaspora communities within Australia would make this one of the most inefficient and badly targeted media buys of all time. The wastage – the high proportion of readers not being targeted – would be huge.  There would be far more cost-effective ways of doing it.

Not to mention that the copy is not written for families of people thinking of travelling, which would make it a poorly written piece of creative too.

Which raises two possibilities.

First, the government’s media agency UM – which enjoys a reputation of being very good at what it does – has had a sudden breakout of utter incompetence, and put together one of the most expensively mismanaged media plans of all time.

Or second, the target audience of this advertising campaign is not asylum seekers.

In which case millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on political advertising.

I think that’s exactly what is going on. A very close election is coming, and the government which in opposition attacked spending on advertising by the Howard government is doing the very same thing.

In recent months, the proportion of government ads which are barely disguised propaganda has begun to rise, across pretty much any media channel. Sitting in the cinema last weekend, three ads in a row were government-funded messages. This included two different executions of its “Plan for Australian Jobs” promotion.

I would argue, by the way, that there are plenty of goverment ads that can be justified at state and federal level – safety and health messages being obvious examples.

But where the line is crossed is when it stops being a public information message and starts being a sales pitch for a particular policy.

There’s nothing original to Labor, or even Australia, about this. In the UK there was something of a scandal about 15 years ago ago when analysis by the BBC’s Panorama program suggested that messages purporting to target the unemployed actually fitted a target audience of middle class voters who wanted to be reassured that something was being done.

At the time the opposition were outraged, but further investigations suggested when they got into power, they did exactly the same thing.

The nearest I’ve come to hear somebody admit what goes on in Australia was at an agency trade press briefing about four years ago where a creative complained that what he felt should be a digital campaign targeting youth binge drinking was booked for expensive TV advertising where kids would be likely to be watching because of “political pressure for Rudd to be seen to be doing stuff“.

More recently, Standard Media Index recorded a 50 per cent jump in government ad spending as the election approached. When data emerges for this weekend’s spending bonanza I think we’ll see a further big rise.

I’ve deliberately avoided sharing a view on the asylum seeker policy itself, big an issue as it is.

The point here is a different one. The political parties have their own funds to sell their policies to the public.

Using public money to do the job is a disgrace.

Tim Burrowes


  1. Me
    21 Jul 13
    9:20 pm

  2. What should also be considered is the level to which government is attempting to channel public funds into MSM, rendering them dependent – especially in an age of plummeting advertising balance sheets.

    Canberra, for instance, is a one-paper town. Collective local government spend in that paper is enormous.

    Begs the question, is that paper compromised in its reporting of local government by effectively being put on welfare?

  3. David
    21 Jul 13
    9:25 pm

  4. I think you prove a point – but perhaps not as intended. IMHO you underestimate how media-savvy middle Australia is today.

    Few Australians – particularly during an election campaign – wd misunderstand these as anything other than campaign ads.
    They understand tax money goes into campaigning disguised as information. They may not like it. But they get it.

    From what I’ve seen, I sometimes think everyday Australians understand the media industry more than those who work in it.
    This is the only possible conclusion when the industry keeps publishing Mad Men-era ad and PR messages — while the public offers sophisticated analysis and counter-campaigns in return.

    The public is not as inexperienced and susceptible as they were in pre-Internet.
    I think, in fact, they are masters of modern media and should be treated that way.

  5. Stephen Collins
    21 Jul 13
    9:55 pm

  6. Tim, as someone with some background on the issue – I used to work for the Department of Immigration many years ago, I did refugee case assessment for them, both granting and denying refugee status in my time, and as someone who was self-driven from the Department upon the introduction of the cruel policies we now have, I can GUARANTEE you this ad is in front of and targeted at exactly who the government wants seeing it.

    It’s not for asylum seekers.

    It’s there to buy votes in marginal electorates from ill-informed people who don’t want to or can’t be bothered to take the time to actually understand the legalities, practicalities and scale of people who seek refugee status in this country.

    This issue has become a political football, one that we’d be outraged about if it was Christians or Jews, or European-descended people coming here. It’s about nothing but continuing to stir fear and misinformation and validate those things in the minds of an ignorant electorate.

  7. aster
    22 Jul 13
    8:28 am

  8. Imagine if that money wasn’t accepted, it happened to greenpeace’s anti coke ad….

  9. Ross Clennett
    22 Jul 13
    10:15 am

  10. Listening to Triple M footy coverage yesterday afternoon one of these Government ads was played. How many asylum seekers listen to Triple M Footy? It’s laughable if it wasn’t my (taxpayers) money being used. Pretty obvious it was targeted at the ‘tradie’ demographic that Labor desperately needs votes from to have any chance at the upcoming election.

  11. Anonymous
    22 Jul 13
    10:17 am

  12. So much for the fire and brimstone Rudd and the ALP were going to fire down on government advertising when he was elected in ’07. This is yet another broken promise the media needs to highlight as party political advertising in the lead up to the election.
    It’s criminal.

  13. Sarah
    22 Jul 13
    10:36 am

  14. I work in border security in the US. While these ads may be targeted at voters, they will also be seen by people who have already come to Australia, and are telling people back home they should make the same trip. It will also be seen by people who facilitate people smuggling.
    Any time the govt in the US announces plans for amnesty, we get a massive influx of people running the border. News targeted at locals is heard worldwide.

  15. the real disgrace
    22 Jul 13
    11:46 am

  16. isn’t so much these ads, it’s the fact that the whole asylum seeker issue over the last decade has been turned into nothing more than a vote-buying lever for cynical politicians on both sides.

    The Howard Government let the genie out of the bottle with the children overboard disgrace by demonising refugees, and the coalition has successfully turned it into a wedge issue and the ALP has played right along. Neither side gives a shit about the ethics, they just play to win.

    These ads are merely symptomatic of the broader issue.

    Having said that, I would imagine a small percentage of Daily Tele readers would have family back home who may then hear of this campaign as a result. But we all know that’s not really why they’re running.

    But hey – you get the Government and leadership you deserve. If Australians don’t like this kind of thing, they should use their votes to stop rewarding political parties that do this kind of thing.

  17. PruQ
    22 Jul 13
    12:48 pm

  18. Great piece TIm – thank you

  19. Drew
    22 Jul 13
    1:04 pm

  20. The big question – will we see the popular media write stories about this media strategy, or will they be too scared of upsetting the goose that lays the golden egg? Thoughts…

  21. Andrew L. Urban
    22 Jul 13
    1:07 pm

  22. Electioneering ads by the Government in power come from the same tax payer bucket as the cost of electioneering with events such as Women for Julia and Kevin Rudd touring the country doing baby kissing and mall walking. That’s a really good reason not to announce an official election date because until then the Govt foots the bills, not the party. Integrity is in short supply in politics.

  23. Price
    22 Jul 13
    1:10 pm

  24. Great article, hits the nail on the head. I am sick to death of all the propaganda. It’s outrageous. And the ALP also has the Australian Electoral Commission out campaigning in ALP/Green demographics. Some democracy… where our decision to vote isn’t democratic, and we pay for one of the government’s re-election campaign.

  25. Robbo
    22 Jul 13
    1:10 pm

  26. Well said, Tim.

  27. spin
    22 Jul 13
    1:14 pm

  28. Another example of Rudd ripping into the public purse – which already has a massive IOU in it thanks to Labor and his in particular reckless spending – to gain votes. Pathetic mis-use of public money and Rudd’s win at any cost and damn the electorate philosophy.

  29. Rob Banks
    22 Jul 13
    1:17 pm

  30. I think that some have missed the point of these ads. It’s a known fact that those who are either people smugglers themselves or at least assisting people smugglers do actually reside in Australia. There is a reward for informing the government of these local people smugglers if it leads to a conviction. To think the ads are just for political purposes is extremely short sighted. People smuggling is a lucrative trade in human lives, it’s the risk of loss of life at sea that drives the ads. There may well be some political motivation but if anything it’s to tell voters that the government is serious about stopping the trade in misery.

  31. J Davis
    22 Jul 13
    1:18 pm

  32. Great piece Tim. IMHO Democracy is a hoax. We need more policies and less politics.

  33. Laird Bandrum
    22 Jul 13
    1:24 pm

  34. Totally agree with Tim on government impropriety and Steven Collins on the inhumanity of the policy.

  35. Renée
    22 Jul 13
    1:29 pm

  36. I’m so used politics being underhanded that I didn’t even blink an eye at what the ALP are doing with public funds.

    I heard the ad today on the radio and thought it was a blatant attempt to win over anti-immigration voters. But never once did I thnk that they shouldn’t be spending public money on this. Of course now I realise they shouldn’t.

  37. james fitzgerald
    22 Jul 13
    1:44 pm

  38. It’s little wonder Australians don’t like paying taxes, when this sheer waste of OUR hard earned dollars are so carelessly and recklessly spent on getting Rudd back in as P.M. This money could go to sheltering the homeless through winter and beyond.
    You have NO shame Kevin Kardashian!

    James Fitzgerald

  39. carole goldsmith
    22 Jul 13
    1:46 pm

  40. Our taxes being spent on this government campaign to win votes. Shouldn’t they be using Labour funds for these ads, now tax payer’s hard earned taxes?

  41. Luan
    22 Jul 13
    1:47 pm

  42. Maybe the Fed government should have attached their message to something humerous and irrelevent like “dumb ways to die” or the “Big Ad” campaigns and then we can have a chuckle and a laugh and maybe win some international ad awards and then maybe people can get the message. Relying on left, right, centre wing news media to explain policies and ideas just don’t work any more.. everyone has an opinion, journos, editors, publications, tv stations, etc and the public gets a sanitised version of the message in the end. I quite like this method. The message is black and white. Now it’s up to the reader/voting public to decide whether is this right or wrong. For so long we’ve wanted our policitians to tell us straight up what they are doing.. and now they are doing it and everyone is crying that they have an agenda.. guess what people.. this is politics.. everyone has an agenda.. #justcanwin #canthaveitbothways #justsayin

  43. offal spokesperson
    22 Jul 13
    1:57 pm

  44. Dont be so sure about the “Average member of the public”, thanks to Gruen, facebook, google and others, more and more of the “great unwashed” are beginning to understand the media and advertising placement etc.

    The problem is not that they dont know this is simply an ad for Labor, they just DONT CARE.

    They have been fooled in to believing the only real issue Australia faces is from a few thousand refugees, they dont care about government rorting, they dont care that their elected officials are largely irrelevant or that policy is only about re-election not about building a better Australia….. As long as we keep the boats out.

    Where is our philanthropic millionaire… damn it!!

  45. spin
    22 Jul 13
    2:01 pm

  46. If Rob Banks can’t see the Gov’t is advertising this as a vote getter – I have a news flash for him – Santa Claus isn’t real.
    If the Gov’ts intention was to encourage people to “dob in a trafficker” – then it is a very expensive and wasteful way to achieve that objective – and a broad publicity campaign – including one in the countries where the people are emanating from – would do a better job at far lower cost – but that wouldn’t be as good for Rudd and his vote grabbing objective would it?
    So, let’s not worry about hospital waiting lists, or carer support or infrastructure (apart from building some infrastructure in New Guinea) let’s just waste money on advertising shall we?

  47. MB
    22 Jul 13
    2:27 pm

  48. Unless I am not ‘getting’ the sarcasm in the comment by Rob Banks and he isn’t serious I have to think he is a member of K Rudd’s department. No one can seriously think these advertisements are aimed at either people smugglers or would be refugees! Has he not been seeing the film clips and reporting on recently exposed people smugglers – no they don’t live in Double Bay and read the SMH surprise surprise.
    Congratulations Tim on encapsulating what many of us thought when we opened the paper this morning or listened to the radio. Have already sent it on to others and hope everyone who can will be doing so.

  49. Now aware
    22 Jul 13
    2:59 pm

  50. Conversation between Kev and the Labor power brokers:

    Kev: well your in deep fella’s with your current leader no chance of winning.

    PB’s: Yes but Kev look what happened last time you were in. everybody on our side ( No the bloody voters.. they dont count) got upset and we had to flush you out.

    Kev: Yes but i m not talking about running the joint (well not until I get across this first line anyway). Maaate fair shake of the jam saveloy… the bogans love me. i will get back into power …oops sorry, i will lead labor back to govt).

    PB’s but what about our dreadful polling on all the key issues – Asylum seekers, Carbon Tax, Demise of industry?? What’s your substantial recommended approach to turning that around?

    Kev: ADVERTISING…you know trading in Illusion

    PB’s What???

    Kev: wellll the bogans dont get any recourse after the election…sooooo I guess its about managing perceptions until the election. after that who gives a sh.*&^T

  51. Leah Capuno
    22 Jul 13
    3:46 pm

  52. Great piece, well done Tim!

  53. JP
    22 Jul 13
    4:37 pm

  54. If the working class buys this rubbish from Labor then they deserve another 3 years of higher costs of living and job losses. It’s the people Rudd is trying to win who get hurt with his lies and deception. This border ad is just another fabricated lie that Rudd or Labor can’t make stick.

  55. spin
    22 Jul 13
    4:53 pm

  56. Yes – it’s clear to me now – hand on Bible, in court, he would say;

    “I Rob Banks…….do solemnly swear…. that I will also rob voters and anyone else I need to rob if it means paying for all of this advertising to get myself, oops I mean Kevin Rudd elected”!

  57. Wang
    22 Jul 13
    5:03 pm

  58. Blatant use of your money to assist KRUDD to stay in power, same for The Jobs campaign. Time for a change. They have lied and shown their ineptitude over the past five years. I shudder at the thought of the future tax payer paid cult campaigns if Rudd wins. Might be even be like

  59. Tony J
    22 Jul 13
    6:07 pm

  60. I don’t know why we are even debating this, Tim. It is so obviously election advertising. It happens every time and will continue until this water-torture non-election is over.

  61. Macman2
    22 Jul 13
    7:24 pm

  62. We are being deluged with Government propaganda. We need better hospital services – not spin.

    Unfortunately The Victorian Government also thought we needed to be told multiple times that the Fire levy is now through council rates.

    Stop the spin, improve our health facilities.

  63. Tom
    23 Jul 13
    9:51 am

  64. Hi Tim

    I completely agree. I couldn’t believe my eyes on Sunday.

  65. Jonathan
    23 Jul 13
    10:23 am

  66. Why not run these ads in Indonesia?

    Maybe more people will stop selling boat trips and less people will buy deathlotto
    tickets from people smugglers.

    Seeing a week old newspaper while in transit on Christmas Island might be too late to help.

    Just an idea…

  67. Wang
    23 Jul 13
    11:27 am

  68. Most boat people don’t read or speak English, not one Rupee has been spent on advertising in the countries the Boat people come from, so why do we have this $2.1m campaign in Australia? We will have an election in around four weeks, and all government advertising must cease when an election is called. Funny that, isn’t it? Wreck-it-Rudd is on the job, spending your money to save his own arse!

  69. Gary
    23 Jul 13
    12:55 pm

  70. Good point, well said
    Shame the Telegraph would never run a story like yours

  71. Tim M
    24 Jul 13
    1:39 pm

  72. Rob Banks… Just for a second lets say your right and this is what the Govt is doing (your not). What effect is this going to have? NONE. The people smugglers and their associates in Australia don’t give a hoot where the asylum seekers end up. All they care about is getting them on the boat and getting their money. These people pay large sums of cash UP FRONT to get on these boats. Once the smugglers have their money the boat could end up in Africa for all they care. These people hold no value over human life and if you think an ad campaign is going to deter them then you are even more misguided than you seem…

  73. Valerio Brunetti
    10 Aug 13
    2:07 am

  74. The Australian authorities should exercise protests towards those Countries which leave their people crossing the ocean to reach other nations in serch of fortune…
    Italy has done it with the tunisian government, and the boat immigration’s ended, at least from one of the African countries. More difficult is to stop the boat-people from Lybia, most of them from Somali, Sudan and the Sub-Saharian countries because these nations are in perennial civil wars, and their politic class is made of militaries and outlawers who fighting has become the most important activities of their countries…best wishes to you all…

  75. Pork Barrel Time
    20 Aug 13
    3:52 pm

  76. These ads are the political equivalent of political party buglers

    Many years ago The ABC ran a story of Thai pollies running around the countryside with a pick-up full of money to dole out for votes. Shame: it is no different here in Aus.

    If the public was so media savvy than ACA & TT would not exist.