Day -6: Why focus is essential for campaigning

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Have you been following the Australian election? There’s a lot happening each day, with announcements, stunts, gaffs and ads. All of this creates white noise — a political static — from which impressions are difficult to form.

Most people, who do not pay attention to politics, form impressions about political issues and elections. With media consumption fragmenting, no single newspaper or television station is responsible (or mostly responsible) for informing people about politics. Rather, views are formed through intuition, stereotypes and rules of thumb, informed by what amounts to glimpses of news and commentary from traditional and new media, and social interaction (e.g. talking to colleagues, friends and family).

Major corporate advertisers understand this problem acutely. This is why they have two principle tactics to try to get a signal through the white noise: focus of message/brand, and integrated communications. Both tactics support each other, and focus is by far the most important of the two.

The average person in the Western world is exposed to over 3000 advertising messages each day, and the number is rising. Most people reflexively or unconsciously filter out the bulk of these messages and ads. To get attention, successful advertisers focus their message to just a single, simple proposition.

Focus is a powerful tactic. Communicating one idea is more impactful than communicating many ideas. It’s the messaging equivalent of a water hose turns to jet, rather than spray: the stream is a lot more powerful.

These major corporate advertisers then support their focused message through integrated communications. Simply, this means that they push their message out across multiple mediums: television, radio, Internet ads, public relations and media, direct mail, out door ads, and so on. This means that the same core message is communicated through multiple potential touch points, increasingly the likelihood that the audience will get the message.

Now, consider the Australian election. It is difficult, even as someone who is engaged and interested in politics, to identify the core messages of the political parties, or other major campaigning organisations.

For example, Labor’s messages include the National Broadband Network, Gonski (Better Schools), same-sex marriage, jobs, health and dental, foreign policy and Syria, high speed rail, small business, the Northern Territory and more.

Similarly, the ACTU campaign has multiple issues, from penalty rates, Gonski, job security and unfair dismissal, the return of Work Choices, and the Fair Work Commission and workplace umpire.

At one level, there is enormous pressure on campaigns to have multiple messages and issues. The media is obsessed with new and different to fill its pages. There is a media bias (inherent in the nature of news reporting) to only report on new things, and to not report on “old” issues. This means that campaigns are incentivised to develop new announcements, new policies and to talk about new issues. The same could be said for social media, where Facebook algorithms prioritise new content over old.

For disengaged voters, this is a recipe for confusion.

Over the course of the election, it means that the campaign messages are fuzzy, indistinct and become lost in the white noise of contemporary life.

From a neuroscientific perspective, consistency and simplicity are essential for strong messaging:

Coherence in branding policy through time and space (ie across physical touch points such as advertising, point-of-sale materials, products, new product development, packaging, websites, etc) is compulsory from a neurological standpoint. In contrast, incoherence is a recipe for diminishing the brand’s chance of being chosen and for destroying its financial value.

Coherence is the crucial term here, that is, being concise, clear and intelligible.

Six days before Election Day, it seems to me that a major challenge for the campaign has been coherence and focus.

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