July 15th 2000

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Human Genome mapping milestone?

Editorial: Managing Australia’s interests in S.E. Asia

Canberra Observed: Defence: opportunity beckons for Howard Government

Families: The hollowing of the middle class continues

New South Wales: Follow Swedish model: drug forum told

Trade: Canberra capitulates without firing a salvo

Doctors suspended over 32 week abortion

Straws in the wind

Education: New Queensland syllabus attacked

Economics: UN to look at the Tobin Tax

Media: GST ads unchained media bias

Development: Amartya Sen: the return of humane economics

Comment: The politics of suicide

Law: Death penalty debate resurfaces in USA

United States: Rising tide leaves poor floundeirng

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Media: GST ads unchained media bias

by John Styles

News Weekly, July 15, 2000
— John Styles is a Melbourne writer with a background in advertising and media

Whether you like the Joe Cocker version of “Unchain My Heart”, or maybe prefer the Ray Charles version of the 60s hit song, or even if you cannot stand the song at all, the GST television commercials serve to remind us of a fundamental truth. All it takes to kill a piece of good music, or make a bad piece seem worse, is a high frequency advertising campaign.

But it is not just the tune of the GST chain commercials that has started to irritate. For many, the message was off-key right from the beginning. As instruments for shaping positive attitudes to the GST, or changing negative ones, there is no doubt the chain commercials have been ineffective, even counter-productive. According to Glenn Milne, the Seven network’s chief poiltical correspondent, private ALP polling early in June reported a massive 95 per cent community awareness of the campaign. Unfortunately for the Government, 66 per cent of those respondents considered the commercials to be political advertising.

The nature of the “chains” advertising campaign raises some interesting questions.

For one, with politics being such a poll-driven business, the campaign surely was pre-tested in market research focus groups. Normally, a number of creative ideas would be put into test in order to establish the one which would be the most effective.

If, in research, the “chains” idea was the winner, it boggles the mind to imagine what the losing concepts were like.

When it comes to advertising, consumers are not stupid. We live in an ad-savvy age. You know that. And, you can be sure, the Government knows that too. So why would they run an ad campaign that is so overtly political?

One reason is that on television whatever they ran would probably seem “political”. Television (and radio) is not the place to try to communicate complicated messages. It is the place to build awareness (something the “chains” ads have achieved spectacularly), and predispose the consumer favourably towards your product (at which they have failed abysmally). Short of simply producing boring announcements about places where in-depth GST information was available, any commercial-length GST television messages were bound to be regarded as too general, non-specific and “political”.

The Government could argue that awareness is what it is all about. The actual “chains” graphic, they might claim, is a powerful branding device capable of stimulating recall when the image appears in print advertising and direct mail.

There is another possible reason. Perhaps the Government simply did not care if the campaign was perceived to be political. Possibly, in the face of so many media-inspired “scare-ups” about the GST, the Government felt justified in trying to bring balance to the debate.

Indeed, media credibility in relation to the whole GST information campaign suffered a massive set-back when one of its own blew the whistle on industry colleagues.

On 21 June, Fairfax journalist Ross Gittins wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age, “The media have had a field day at the expense of an unpopular Government introducing unpopular tax changes, but have left their customers poorly informed about the full nature of those changes.”

Mr Gittins referred to the frequently quoted $431 million cost of the advertising campaign, declaring it to be a “fudge”. That figure, he pointed out, was the total cost of the entire GST information campaign. It even included, he said, the $16 million cost of the original tax reform campaign the Government ran prior to the 1998 federal election. The actual “chains” advertising component accounted for $46 million, or little more than 10 per cent of that total. The $431 million, Gittins wrote, also included “$150 million in grants to more than 130 organisations — ranging from the Institute of Chartered Accountants to the ACTU — to help them prepare their members for the changes”.

Ross Gittins noted that “every claim by the Government is treated with huge scepticism, but claims by any individual with a beef — or any interest group with an axe to grind — are accepted uncriticially”.

One interest group with an axe to grind is the brewing industry. As you are no doubt aware, the brewers have taken on the Government in a head-to-head TV and press campaign over tax changes that will affect the price of draught beer.

On Sunday 28 May, an event unfolded that would later have a couple of outraged SMH journalists warning, in what amounted to a blatant beat-up, of a potential constitutional crisis. That event centred, would you believe, on the Melbourne television premiere of that immensely popular spy movie spoof, Austin Powers — International Man of Mystery.

The brewers were intending to launch their ad campaign in Melbourne on the Nine Network during that movie. But the Government’s media buying agency had also booked time in the program well ahead of the brewers. But because the Government’s schedule was in the form of a block booking that treats the entire Federal Government as a single client (thereby delivering excellent cost efficiency) the nature of the Government’s spots was not apparent until the program logs were prepared. At which point, a simple internal error at Channel 9 resulted in the brewers being denied air time during the Austin Powers movie.

According to Channel 9, the Government’s media buying agency had specifically said they did not want exclusivity for the schedule. But this fact was somehow overlooked. So when Channel 9 prepared its program logs and saw that GST commercials had been scheduled, it rejected the “competitive” brewers’ commercials in much the same way it might have turned down, say, a Pepsi ad if Coca Cola had exclusively sponsored the movie.

When Parliament resumed on Monday 5 June, eight days after Austin Powers had gone to air, the ALP’s Senate leader John Faulkner took up the issue with Special Minister of State Senator Chris Ellison in Question Time. Senator Ellison chairs the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications. Senator Faulkner asked the Minister if exclusive prime time scheduling had been sought in order to shut out the brewers.

Senator Ellison replied that all the Government had wanted was prime time scheduling. “What Channel 9 was going to do with its timeslot is its own affair,” he said.

Mike Seccombe took up the story in his “From the Gallery” column in the SMH the next day. “The events surrounding the advertising which ran during that movie are far more mysterious than Austin Powers,” he wrote. “Who to believe?” he asked. “The objective fact is that the brewery ads got bumped.”

Then Margo Kingston, the SMH’s Canberra bureau chief-of-staff, also pushed the story along. Speaking on ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live, Ms Kingston declared that the Government booked its GST ads at late notice (the time had been booked at least a month before), had taken out a sponsorship of the Austin Powers movie in Melbourne, and that the sponsorship included exclusivity (not according to the Government, its agency or Channel 9).

Margo Kingston claimed, “It appears that the Government has bought the right to suppress the free speech of others.” She also announced that the paper had consulted constitutional experts who said that “depending on the terms of the exclusivity deal, the Government could very well be in breach of the Constitution in doing this”.

The whole issue hinged on the issue of exclusivity. The Government denied it had sought exclusivity, its agency denied it had sought exclusivity and Channel 9 confirmed that fact, saying the station made a mistake in providing it.

Senator Faulkner continued to raise questions about it in the Senate, Mike Seccombe continued to write about it, devoting no fewer than three columns to the issue. Come the third, his argument had been reduced to the weak suggestion that the GST advertising was really all about targeting areas “where the Government is failing in the polls”.

What was it that Ross Gittins had said about journalists’ uncritical acceptance of the views of interest groups with an axe to grind?

Gittins had some advice for all of his media colleagues. “It doesn’t seem to occur to these journalists (or their editors) that, if they must add a slant to their reporting, it should be not anti-Government, but pro-consumer.”

The fact is, of course, that despite the “chains” advertising, political or not, what happens before July 1, in terms of GST attitude shaping, means little. What happens after July 1 will mean everything.

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