Opinion

If team Yes fails, the blame should fall on the campaign managers

With a sinking feeling in his stomach, freelance researcher Daniel Bluzer-Fry scrutinises the Yes campaign's marketing strategy.

I’m still not totally convinced. I imagine Yes will get across the line, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Australia ended up voting No once all is said and done.

Let’s start with the obvious. The nature of this survey – being both postal and optional – hasn’t done team Yes any favours. This design creates greater barriers for younger people – 70% of those aged 18-34 are in favour of SSM according to data – to successfully cast their vote in comparison older, more conservative cohorts within the Australian population. Pretty basic insight.

But hold on, the polls are reporting that Yes is going to win comfortably aren’t they? How did the polls go predicting Brexit and Donald Trump? Polling has many challenges. From sampling methodology through to people not always reporting honestly to pollsters. The latter is far more prevalent when they’re being asked about sensitive topics, and/or they have a fear of being judged undesirably by an interviewer.

I think it’s fair to say that in the seemingly unlikely case of No getting up, despite the survey design considerations outline above, it would not be unreasonable to put a substantial amount of blame on the Yes campaign managers.

So what have they done wrong?

Let’s begin by taking a look at a campaign known as ‘It’s the right thing to do’.

Now the first part of this TV slot seems pretty good. Different people make fairly universally appealing points like “It’s about a fair go”, “everybody should be treated equally”, “same rules for everybody”, “it’s about everybody having the same choices” and then there’s even a dash of the even more emotive “I’m doing it for her”, and “we’re doing it for our son”.

Then there’s a shift. “Everybody should be able to marry the person they love” says an older gentleman. “I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do” says the priest (who looks like he’s something between a fictitious character and a stock image). Sinking feeling in my stomach.

Now there’s no doubt that a big part of the Yes campaign is about getting supporters off the couch to actually complete their surveys and send them in, as Tiernan Brady, executive director of the Equality Campaign has suggested. But other parts of winning the battle, include employing strategies to switch No supporters to a Yes vote (or at a minimum encouraging them to abstain all together), along with winning the hearts and minds of those who a genuinely undecided.

So why that sinking feeling in my stomach? Take a moment to think about people who intend on voting No. Some of these people appear to be motivated by religious beliefs and interpretations of marriage, along with the perceived threat of changing the civil definition of the ‘M’ word.

Others seem to provide non-religious arguments which at best, I’ve found to seem a tad confused. Then think about the undecided folk on the couch who could go either way. The last two lines in this campaign have had me concerned for a few reasons.

Firstly, team Yes come across as telling people what to do and what is morally right. Do you like being told what to do and what is morally correct? Especially when you’re being interrupted in the middle of your TV show? Many people are disenchanted with politics and political correctness, and this may seriously jar with those considering a switch away from a No vote or that are undecided.

Furthermore, for those planning on voting No for religious reasons, the tail end of this ad probably washes across as a little fictitious, given several of their leaders are telling them the opposite to Mr fictitious/stock priest.

This could lead to these people discounting the valid points the ad raises upfront if they feel the whole piece lacks credibility, thus reducing their propensity to switch or abstain.

Finally, the ad seems to be trying to inspire Australians from all walks of life to help out LGBT members of our society. Helping other people takes effort – especially when it entails letting go of part of a value system that for many religious/traditional folks, is central to of how they experience the world today.

Human beings are loss averse and don’t like to let things go. Promoting a Yes vote as something people should feel compelled go to help out with (without having a clearly spelt out personal benefit), whilst team No stirs a moral panic about what society could lose by allowing SSM, has had me a tad concerned when thinking about the campaign’s impact beyond spurring Yes supporters to get to the mailbox.

Since this ad – and the decision to get right into people’s faces by personally texting them and telling them to vote – things do seem to have improved a bit from team Yes. Messaging seems stronger and those polls seem to be reflecting what pre-poll data predicted – Australia will be happy to endorse SSM. One can only hope that we’re getting a valid read, and that team Yes’ opening innings didn’t cause too much unnecessary damage.

As for those in camp No, they’ve been very clever (albeit nasty). From Tony Abbott painting a No vote as being a vote against political correctness, through to TV commercials conflating a Yes vote with parents ‘losing’ their rights to choose what their children get to do in relation to gender expression in schools, team No has been very good at engendering fear around what they claim may be lost in the future should SSM be allowed to happen. Without worrying about concrete facts and evidence, their strategists would probably be within their rights to ask for a Christmas bonus regardless of the outcome.

Communication is incredibly important when it comes to influencing how we think and behave in regards to political debate. Living in a post truth world, this has never been more evident. It’s no longer about arguing with facts – something which science paradoxically shows us can cause more harm than good – but rather about knowing how to frame messages and debate that helps attain desired results.

This is worth keeping in mind when it comes to examining all types of messaging strategies. Believing that simply presenting the facts will get the job done has backfired before, and will no doubt backfire on many more occasions looking forward. More often than not, the blame should fall squarely on those of us working behind the campaigns themselves.

Daniel Bluzer-Fry is a freelance researcher and strategist based between Melbourne and New York City.

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