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The new media have changed the nature of political campaigning

By Graham Young - posted Wednesday, 6 March 2002


The convergence of media is going to change the nature of our political system. It is going to enable politicians to relate to electors in fundamentally different ways to how they do now, and those politicians that don’t change won’t survive. A similar challenge faces all marketers of personal services.

Fifty years ago, the market place in which politicians operated was radically different, and it shaped the way they governed. They faced an homogenous mass market. Electors were very loyal to their brand (96.1 per cent voted for one of the majors in the 1949 election). Society was very hierarchical with those higher up the social tree exercising considerable power and influence over those further down. Australians were relatively passive the consumer movement hadn’t been invented.

With less than one car per household, they weren’t very mobile and defined themselves heavily by geography. With electorates smaller than they are now, the local politician could know a large percentage of his (they were almost all male) electors personally.

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There were few distractions. The media were less tabloid than today and most entertainment was homemade.

As a result the art of campaigning in the 50s was to personally get in the face of as many electors as possible and to influence the social networks. When a party leader addressed a public meeting it was well attended, because there was generally no other free entertainment in town, and certainly none that was free-to-air. Most advertising was either by way of information rich pamphlets stuffed in letterboxes, by stump speeches, or talking one-on-one.

As electors identified more strongly with parties than they do now, the messages were more positive, although there has always been a role for wedge politics.

A lot has changed in 50 years. The average Australian is very mobile and more inclined to define their community by interest than geography. Australians today are less loyal with 20 per cent voting for boutique brands like Green and Democrat. They are also less hierarchical and much less passive.

The changes in technology and the media, and the resulting or concurrent changes in the market have changed the way that politicians campaign. Television has been the biggest agent of change. In a world of fragmenting markets it was the one way of mass marketing. The second-biggest agent of change was economical direct mail that allowed politicians to get personal with electors via the mailbox.

The result of the collision of the new media and the fragmentation of the party brand is that the job of contemporary local politicians is to try to synthesise a personal relationship with each of their electors. New-style political campaigning is research and consultation driven; where politicians strive to prove they are "listening". The Internet and email are going to intensify this trend, with some twists.

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Politicians can most easily use the Internet to harvest the emails of supporters. That means that creating and nurturing communities of support is going to be more important than it is now. Referral selling will start to push wedge politics back as a winning tool.

Harvesting the emails of prospects is going to be more difficult. That is going to demand that politicians provide information of real value about themselves and their policies in ways that make them more vulnerable. They are also going to have to redefine the ways that they compete, because on the Internet, some of the most effective tools for finding prospects, like portals, actually demand that you collaborate with your competitor. And the net is also going to make it easier for some individuals to gain a profile in their own right without a party machine.

The new Parliament House is credited with destroying the camaraderie of parliamentary debate because of its architectural design. In 50 years time I am sure we will look back and see that the architecture of the ’net has been an even bigger determiner of a change in the way politics, and a lot of other marketing, is done.

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This is an edited version of a speech given to the Australian Marketing Institute's 2002 Queensland Marketing and Communication Conference on 9 May at the Gold Coast.



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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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