Cloning our robotic political leaders wasn’t hard, but it was a window into bad branding

As the election campaign limps to its end, The Royals’ innovation lab, Advance Party, investigated what the language of politics can teach us about the need for authenticity in brands. David Rood brings us up to speed.

It was slightly awkward to start with.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was appearing next to Liberal MP Michael Sukkar at a press conference in the threatened seat of Deakin.

Remember, Sukkar was a numbers man for, and supported, Peter Dutton in last year’s leadership spill. When asked about Sukkar’s judgement in voting for Dutton, the Prime Minister said:

“That is such a bubble question, I’m just going to leave that one in the bubble.”

Here’s one translation of that response:

“I’ll talk about what I want to and in the manner in which I want.”

This has been a truly strange election campaign. One marked by disinterest, a vacuum of substance and personality, and where vision and debate have been subjugated to repetition.

Perhaps that’s why a record number of Australians have voted early, having made the decision the actual campaign won’t sway them.

Take the much analysed ‘moment of the campaign’ where Bill Shorten was brought to tears, defending his mother’s life story after The Daily Telegraph blasted his mum on their front page.

(The cynic in me was imagining Shorten’s minders discreetly doing fist pumps when they saw their boss’ real emotional reaction.)

But it was the ordinariness of this election campaign that made the moment so extraordinary.

The blunted and the bland is both shield and sword for Morrison and Shorten.

Creating an election game of clones

So Advance Party, The Royals’ innovation lab, got together to try and find out what we could learn about the need for authenticity through the lens of the language of the campaign.

Using 120,000 words of speeches and press conferences from ‘RoboScomo’ and ‘CyberShorten’, we trained a computer to respond as the Prime Minister or opposition leader in a neural network experiment.

It’s an experiment so it’s not perfect. We jumped in mid-campaign. The more you train the system the better it gets. But even so, it’s scary how accurate it can be.

You can see how it works by asking your own question to a ‘virtual’ Morrison or Shorten here. Play the role of journo. Ask as many probing questions as you like. We found that asking the same questions a few times may result in a more uncanny resemblance to our leaders.

Advance Party’s thesis is that politicians have such little concern for real answers, and such single-minded obsession with talking points, that we could train computers to mimic the superficiality of their answers and replicate them with relative ease.

We think it’s more than a passing irony that neural networks are trained on repetition – an outcome by consensus from individual stimuli, in this case the transcription of Morrison and Shorten.

How does it work?

Neural networks give us an alternative way to approach complex problems.

Instead of telling the program how to solve the problem using a precise set of steps, we show it lots of data, and then tell it which of the samples match our criteria and which do not.

The software then pores over the dataset thousands of times, applying and adjusting mathematical formulas until it slowly begins to refine a specific equation which can be matched to a correct or incorrect result.

So how did we get here?

Whatever remains of campaign rules don’t seem to matter. Truth? Inconvenient. Logic? Likewise. Hyperbole? Rewarded. Expertise? Who needs it. Language? Mangled and misappropriated.

Former Hawke government minister Barry Jones argued that politicians have fallen behind the debate, rather than lead it.

Political debate is certainly a diminished thing. Questions are no longer answered (if they ever really were). Instead, they are batted away with verbal sleight of hand and the incessant hammering home of talking points. Take this example from Morrison in statement on whether he believes gay people will go to hell:

“No, I do not believe that. It was a desperate, cheap shot from Bill Shorten who is looking to distract attention from his housing tax that will undermine the value of people’s homes.”

Both leaders have gotten pretty good at slipping through the media’s questions. Shorten’s side-step is to decry the media’s obsession with ‘gotcha moments’. Morrison’s shimmy has been longer in the making: “the Canberra bubble”.

And then there’s this tweet from Morrison:

“It is my vision for this country as your Prime Minister to keep the Promise of Australia to all Australians.”

Shorten’s legitimate policy sell is hampered by his wooden delivery. And in this blanched battle of the safest, some commentators have wondered aloud whether Labor has said too much and instead should have put more chips on the ‘oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them’ theory.

What can brands learn?

In the advertising world, agencies become custodians of the brands we work with – shaping the story they tell of themselves. And as brand loyalty and trust is challenged, marketers are increasingly focused on how authenticity can give them the point of difference they desire.

This is what motivated us to use neural networks to test and dissect the inauthenticity of the political debate.

Traditionally, politicians were seen to be driven by a core set of beliefs – but this sentiment now seems lost. And now, brands are looking to emerge from being all about the product, to being about their core beliefs.

Brands and politicians talk a lot about authenticity. But it’s hard. And it’s particularly hard when they are trying to talk to everyone at the same time rather than talking to corners.

Brands aren’t just a logo, tagline or value proposition statements. They are personal. They reflect their people. They are asked to stand for something.

And so it’s worth asking what authenticity comes with. One answer is honesty, transparency, credibility, conviction and the ability to tell their story.

Now, apply those same attributes to Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten. See what you think.

David Rood is head of content at The Royals


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