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



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