From leaky bucket to it’s not my job: The role political ads played in the 2022 Australian federal election

Anthony Albanese is settling into his new job, already clocking up some frequent flyer points, while Scott Morrison moves out of The Lodge and the Coalition undergoes a major facelift following their heavy election loss.

So what went so completely wrong for the Liberal Party?

Just when we’re starting to forget the god-awful tune of ‘there’s a hole in your budget’, it might just be the perfect time to delve right back into it. Could the key to unravelling the election loss be held in the advertisements we had to endure?

This time around, the campaign battleground lines were largely drawn and fought online. Interestingly, as one voter pointed out to me, usually at a time where we would see candidate signage on people’s lawns and fences, this time around they were a rare sight.

Instead promotional material went digital, and candidates who did choose to go the traditional route opted to target mailboxes and/or door knocking.

With more independents, teals and Greens candidates winning seats than ever before, there’s no denying the way parties and candidates connected with voters affected the outcome of the election.

So what did voters make of the political advertising?

“I’ve never been so passionate about voting until this year,” says Layla.

The 28-year-old childcare worker says raising the minimum wage and improving women’s presence in parliament were important to her, especially to help address gender-based issues “that have been invisiblised for so long”.

Branding was crucial to cementing her vote. “I didn’t want a ‘stronger future’. I want a ‘better future’,” she said.

Layla says she thinks the ads during this election cycle were “more attacking” than previous years, especially from the Liberals.

“Part of my voting Labor was that it appeared that ScoMo was quick to point the finger.”

She thought the commercials were “extremely negative” and reminded her “of how much fixing the government needs”.

For her, the ALP’s adverts offered hope. “The ads were in response to what the people have been vowing for years: change,” she said. “Because their ads focused on the gut issues … they won people over and reached more demographics.”

Xi, 48, says he wasn’t impressed by either of the major parties and their campaigns, but felt the future of his small business would be better off in the hands of the Coalition.

“My grandson was singing the bucket song. I hate it,” he laughed. “But I have no choice. This business is all I have.”

Rebecca, 39, says that, for her, the ads against the LNP were the most effective, recalling Labor’s ‘No More Morrison’ commercial which criticised the former prime minister’s handling of the Black Summer bushfires and vaccine rollout, and included him repeatedly saying ‘it’s not my fault’.

Rebecca says the advert brought back ‘heartbreaking’ memories from the bushfires, and the shots of the former leader holidaying in Hawaii and then attempting to shake the hands of firefighters evoked unfavourable emotions.

“It was disgusting,” she said. “It sent an effective message (to voters) to say Morrison abandoned Australia.”

Callum says he already knew who he was going to vote for when the election campaign began, and wasn’t swayed by any of the advertisements.

“They were pretty lacklustre, actually,” the 41-year-old from Sydney’s west told me. “I was always going to vote for (Clive) Palmer because I was tired of the way things have been, and I really felt he would shake things up.”

“But that said, I did find that some of his ads became irritating as the election got closer. All the major parties, too. They just kept repeating them over and over again, and it was so annoying.”

“The state of our politics is terrible,” he added. “It’s all about who can scream the loudest over each other, and not about actually caring about people and inspiring them to vote.”

Brielle, 20, disagrees. She says she preferenced independents and the Greens above the major parties because “I felt seen by those politicians. They really seem to care about the issues I care about, like climate change and university funding.”

“And they didn’t just care about those issues, they had solutions for them, actual policies to make sure we have a future world to live in. I was definitely impressed.”

Their social media advertising, Brielle says, as well as her local Greens candidate campaigning in her area, was what ultimately won her over.

Layla thinks the Coalition only has themselves to blame. “The Liberals were too busy circling the same ads they always do, focusing on white collar issues … this hugely affected the election on a broader level.”

“The thing that annoyed me the most about the ads was that they kept repeating,” Rebecca added.

“I’m kinda glad I was away on holidays for the last two weeks,” says Jackie, 30. “But I saw online how annoyed people got watching the adverts.”

The social media effect

Known to his followers as ‘Captain Fizman’, Anthony Farah is a content producer and cosplayer. He believes that social media, especially TikTok, played a crucial role in ousting the Morrison Government.

“The unique thing about TikTok is that it’s really accessible; anyone can create content on it,” he said.

“The amount of memes that were created about the Liberal Party … they even released a remix version of their hole in your bucket ad for people to dance to on TikTok.”

“I guess it spreads more awareness for your cause and gets people more involved,” he added, “because everyone saw what a failed attempt it was to connect with voters.”

TikTok also saw more candidates, especially from Labor, Greens and independents, create content specifically for the platform, and in a way to entice more young people to become politically involved.

The videos were increasingly about the issues that young people were interested about, like climate change, gender equality, and issues relating to the Indigenous and LGBTQIA+ communities.

“Advertising on TikTok and making content that is suited for that specific platform did encourage more people to vote,” Anthony said.

He recalls a video the Greens posted to the social media platform, where Morrison’s head was superimposed onto the male subject in Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ music video.

“The comments were basically like ‘Greens are Swifties’ (the name of Swift’s fan base), and the people who ran the social media account would comment back things that were related to Taylor Swift, like ‘give back the scarf’,” Anthony said. “I even commented myself and said ‘you already had my vote but this solidified it’ because they were able to take existing media and make it their own, and at the same time make it relatable.”

“With more people reaching the voting age and being on social media … they really complement each other,” Anthony said. “It shows that if you have the right message, and you use the right tools (to deliver it), you can definitely make an impact, and even influence someone who has never voted before.”

“There were a whole bunch of different social media content creators talking about it (the election), spreading awareness and using their voice, so it (social media) definitely had a part … we even saw it in the presidential election in the U.S. where a lot of Gen Z used TikTok as a way to express themselves and encouraging people to vote.”

Political advertising expert Dr Andrew Hughes agrees, saying social media and young people played a big part in the election result.

“I think this election proved once and for all that we need to stop stereotyping younger voters as being just people who want to update their Instagram every three seconds,” he said.

“That has to be stopped … because we have a highly educated, smart, engaged audience who look up to leaders like Greta Thunberg as people who will not just take the standard for granted anymore.”

“People are engaged and connected with issues that matter to them, regardless of whether they’re 18 or 80.”

Negative v positive advertising

“Leaky bucket will go down in Australian political history as one of the worst ads ever made,” says Dr Hughes, but says it would make for great learning material.

“It worked against them because it reinforced Labor’s narrative that the government was negative, that they had nothing to offer than more negativity, and that all they did in government was basically create wedge politics.”

Dr Hughes’ research looks at the biological measures of people reacting to negative and positive advertising. “What I found is negative ads don’t work anyway,” he said. “They don’t get the arousal people think, there’s no flight or fight response. There’s a response that’s actually more about ‘you’re making me angry because this ad’s here in the first place’.”

“It (advertising) has to be consistent with who you are as a brand, so if your brand’s about integrity and values, and you start doing negative ads, no one’s going to believe you anymore.”

According to Google ad analytics in the final two weeks of the election campaign, of the top 20 ads by spend, 19 were from the United Australia Party and one was from the Coalition. “So basically 20 ads were all negative,” Dr Hughes said. “So all Labor had to do was to be a contrast to that and they win. Their message was to be different, to be better, and then they used the Coalition’s own strategy against themselves.”

“They did it so well … they were just small target, not over-emphasising everything, and Anthony Albanese said it so many times himself ‘underpromise, over deliver’. It’s an old marketing saying.”

“People said to me, ‘hang on, didn’t he (Morrison) come from marketing?’ Yes, but he forgot the simple rules. Number one, he ignored the target market. The target market was speaking to him and he ignored them,” Dr Hughes said.

“He’d known for some time that what he was doing was not going to cross all that well, but he went for the political belief of trust in the market because the market will never lie,” he said. “The market will always vote with its wallet or its behaviour … you have to work with what you know is true, rather than what you hope to be, and that’s the first rule he failed at.”

There was disenchantment with Labor too, Dr Hughes says, and it was evident with Kristina Keneally’s loss after being parachuted into the seat of Fowler. “She ran in the wrong seat,” he said. “She should’ve run in Bennelong, they made a mistake … I mean, she comes from the North Shore, she identifies with people in that area.”

Ultimately, Keneally lost to independent MP Dai Le. “It’s just them misreading the market and ignoring what the market wanted,” Dr Hughes said.

Dr Hughes believes that, especially with this federal election cycle, there was a need for positive ads. “Maybe it was Covid. I mean, we’ve just had two years of negativity, of lockdowns and isolation, a lot of people’s lives have changed for different reasons because of what the pandemic did to them,” he said.

“It’s just been a heavy two years for some people … so the culture was there justifying that, if you did negative, you’d probably be punished for it.”

Leaky bucket was a prime example, Dr Hughes argues, “because you just look at it and think ‘wow’”.

“Clive Palmer’s ads did the same thing. He threw money at it but, if we don’t want to accept the messaging, we won’t. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend, or how many ads he runs or what kind of narrative he’s trying to build … people were just sick of it and they switched off.”

Whereas the teals were about “positive politics, run by women who were talking about a change, and that was reinforced by who they were as people, their occupations, and they also came from the electorates,” Dr Hughes said. “That was really powerful.”

“Their marketing was very much new-age in terms of a balance of traditional – doorknocking, meet and greets, street meets – with digital,” he said.

“For example, Monique Ryan; the ad she ran was a very simple one … (it) was one of the most viewed – even though the ad itself was very targeted.”

“The targeting of the messaging was at both genders, everyone aged over 18, but very narrowly defined by geographic region – so that’s how she did it. But her ad impression count was over 10 million! That’s huge numbers, massive, massive numbers – and her spend was really low.”

One of the more interesting advertising campaigns was Pauline Hanson’s online cartoon series.

“A lot of people watched it … and they all knew it’s Pauline Hanson,” Dr Hughes said. “Most of them don’t like her but they found the series funny and that means you’re watching it, which mean that it’s going into your memory and changing ever so slightly your perception of that person.”

“‘No More Morrison’ was one of the most effective, if not the most effective, ad during the campaign,” Dr Hughes said. “It just recalled all the reasons why we didn’t like Scott Morrison, and the thing about the Coalition was they couldn’t walk away from it because he was the prime minister.”

What makes a political ad effective?

Dr Hughes says colour was a big, and sometimes strategic, component for many of the political parties.

“Look at Labor’s campaign,” he said. “They’re identified as red. But red is a very aggressive colour: stop signs, ambulances and traffic lights – all those connections with the colour red are usually negative in our minds.”

“So what Labor did really well was they didn’t use their own colour a lot in their branding material. Their volunteers still wore red T-shirts, but if you look at the ads they ran with on TV and social media, it’s hard to spot red.”

“Same with the Liberals; they hardly used blue. They knew, subtly, both parties did, that they’re on the nose with people.”

Even Tanya Plibersek, a popular Labor frontbencher, switched part of her campaign to purple, a colour associated with the women’s movement.

“I think that’s recognition that colour works as a fast cue with people, and so (both parties) knew that, and they didn’t use their traditional hues in a lot of their campaign material. They downplayed it a lot,” Dr Hughes said.

“Whereas the teals, we call them teals because it works so well and this election, I think, in a marketing perspective, will reinforce how colour is becoming an important cue for voters,” he said.

“Clive Palmer is yellow, blue for Liberals, red for Labor – if you want to be a new brand in the political marketplace, you better find a colour and a good one.”

Dr Andrew Hughes says the major parties turned away from using their traditional colours in their ads as a tactic to try to connect with voters, like this pamphlet which, on closer inspection, was created by the Labor Party despite not using their traditional red colour.

Sound is also important to making an effective ad, but only music which is good.

“Palmer was trying to get people to remember that horrible song, and that’s why he used YouTube a lot,” Dr Hughes said. “One of his most watched ads … because of where it was placed on YouTube, was that ad where they were singing that song.”

“I’m sure if I played the first few seconds, people would say ‘ugh, stop it, I’ve had enough’ which shows recall. That means it’s gone to your memory, which means you have a negative association with it.”

Some other metrics to look at in terms of effectiveness include “how people talk about them (ads), so how negative is the language used”, and how people share them on their social media feeds. “That’s a good sign because it shows engagement, and it shows likeability and credibility of the message. For example ‘Kevin07’ was shared around a lot. There were actually people I spoke to this election who still have their Kevin07 t-shirts.”

“I guess the other metric to look at is the number of people who watch the content all the way through to the end, that’s really good information to get – but it can be pretty hard to get a hold of (the data),” Dr Hughes said.

Dog bandana, anyone?

“Another aspect of this campaign was how well candidates did their merchandise,” Dr Hughes says.

The Greens had a range of t-shirts, including Adam Bandt’s now famous ‘Google it, mate’ line. “That’s The Greens; very blunt and honest but also very useful,” says Dr Hughes. “They really clearly identify as people who are of a digital age and they don’t care how that sounds – that’s them – so people like that natural, authentic type of messaging.”

“Having merchandise items where people are proud to identify with the brand on the item – because either they’re in the party or they support the movement – is a good sign for a campaign that they’re doing their messaging correctly and effectively.”

“Whereas the merchandise range for the Liberal Party included cufflinks. I don’t get why they had the cufflinks for sale, but that really reinforces that they’re conservative by name and nature.”

On the other hand, Dr Hughes says Labor kept it simple, selling tote bags and t-shirts.

And then there was the quirky (read: unique) merch. “Zali Steggall was doing dog bandannas, which I heard nearly sold out!”

Where to next for the Liberal Party?

Scott Morrison has stepped down as leader of the Liberal Party, and the Nationals have also replaced Barnaby Joyce, as the Coalition undergoes some soul searching.

But is Peter Dutton the solution?

Well, only if he and the party learn from their election campaign mistakes, says Dr Hughes.

“If you put yourself out there as someone who is faith-based and you live by that faith,” he said, “people will identify and support you for it. But he (Morrison) came out as being so strongly Christian, saying how much it formed his perspective, and yet, for example, he couldn’t apologise when he needed to … when so much of the Christian faith is built on your ability to say sorry for actions that hurt others.”

“That in a way hurt his own personal brand credibility, and therefore hurt the party’s messaging. Which, in turn, amplifies the Opposition’s messaging, making it more effective.”

The Coalition’s lack of ideas around climate change, and their ‘women problem’, also cost them dearly at voting booths – and was the reason why so many candidates turned teal.

“They need to start changing their policies and be more representative of what people actually want to see,” Dr Hughes says. “They need to stop stereotyping and using wedge politics.”

In addition, he thinks the Coalition will need to prove over the next three years that they can work with Labor on some issues, rather than oppose them on every single policy, which risks “reinforcing again their narrative to negative politics and policies”.

After all, both major parties share similar policies, such as boat turnarounds. “On some issues they should come out, like Labor did on national security, and say ‘we side with the government on this’.”

“They have to be more liberal by name and nature than they do by identification,” says Dr Hughes. “When we say ‘liberal’, most people associate it with being free or moderate … I don’t think many people think of those words when they’re talking about the Liberal Party.”

“They need to get with the times,” he said. “They need to prove they’re living in 2022, not 1972 … that they’re moderate, they’re living up to the brand name ‘liberal’ because, if they don’t, they’ll keep on losing seats.”

“They’ll go from where they are now – 58 seats – to even less. They won’t maintain relevance, the party will split,” he warns. “The teals will morph into a bigger movement … I can actually see the real possibility of them becoming more formal, more of a party and less of a movement. A moderate progressive centre right party … and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

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