Negative messages win the campaign – but not the election – in Australian Federal poll


Ebiquity Australia/New Zealand’s CEO Richard Basil-Jones shares lessons learned from the advertising run before this year’s Australian Federal election.

Sometimes, the role and importance of advertising goes beyond driving brand awareness or stimulating increased product purchase. Its role in promoting important social welfare causes is well documented. So, too, is the part that advertising plays in swaying voters at elections. Two prime examples from 2016 have been the EU referendum in the UK and the Australian Federal election.

Australian election campaigns typically last five weeks. But Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement on May 8 – that a Federal Election would happen on July 2 – kicked off the longest campaign since the 1960s. We began monitoring all political advertising on mainstream media to document which ad campaigns were breaking – when, where, and delivering what messages. We were also particularly interested in assessing the impact of positive versus negative campaigning.

There are only two parties in Australia with a realistic opportunity of winning an election outright: the Liberal Party (also known as the Coalition Party, thanks to an ongoing grouping with the National Party) and the Labor Party. So it’s only the Liberals and Labor – typically – that spend big.

By monitoring all key media – TV, radio, print, outdoor, and online – we provided daily updates based on all new ads appearing, as well as rolling metrics including:

  • Trends in daily ad spend and campaign activity
  • Share of voice between major parties
  • The proportion of messaging that was positive or negative

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From monitoring previous elections in 2010 and 2013, we knew that most ad spend – projected to be around 70 percent of the total – would occur in the last fortnight of the campaign, to reinforce or change voters’ political party preferences, allegiances, and decision-making as election day approached. The 2016 election was true to form, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1 - Daily 2016 Federal Election Advertising Tracking - Day 55

Figure 1 – Daily 2016 Federal Election Advertising Tracking – Day 55


The incumbent Liberal Party was re-elected by the narrowest of margins, and media commentators have now published campaign reviews, many of them rich with the benefit of hindsight. Four of the main issues raised were:

  1. Negative vs positive campaign messaging: what was more effective and did the two major parties get it right? The Liberal Party struggled to respond to the ‘negative’ campaign run by Labor.
  2. Truth in advertising: should political party ads be subjected to the same rules as regular advertisers? Obvious as it sounds, this is not the case currently, just as the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority doesn’t have jurisdiction over claims made in UK political advertising.
  3. The electronic blackout of TV and radio advertising: 48 hours before the election day, no ‘electronic’ advertising is permitted, and yet somehow online/digital advertising is allowed.
  4.  Speed of results: the country needs to move to some sort of electronic or digitized voting system so the public is not forced to wait a full week after the election to know which party has won.

The power of negative messaging

Opposition parties typically use more negative messaging than the incumbent – ‘they’ve done a bad job, and it’s time for us to put it right’ – and the weight of opposition ad spend is biased strongly toward negative campaigning. These ads typically attack, discredit, or criticize other political parties or politicians.
In the 2016 election, the opposition Labor Party spent 75 percent of its total budget on negative campaigns, kicking off from day one with the creative ‘Malcolm Turnbull – Seriously Out of Touch.’ This compares with the Liberal Party, which spent 45 percent of its budget on negative messaging, and this only came in with any real weight in the last two weeks of a two-month campaign; the first negative Liberal ad appeared halfway through the campaign. See Figure 2.


The Labor Party focused its messaging efforts in the last three weeks around a single key issue – the Liberal Party’s privatization of Medicare, Australia’s public health system. Three different campaign messages were run in the three weeks prior to polling, all on this one issue. Despite the Liberal Party continuing to protest that privatization wasn’t on the agenda, negative ‘Mediscare’ messages persisted and very nearly took the opposition into government.

Lessons learned?

The outcome of the Australian 2016 Federal election was the narrowest of victories for the Liberal Party. In some ways, the outcome was similar to the UK’s Brexit vote, with opinion polls suggesting a knife-edged outcome. Advertising was a critical component deployed across both campaigns to reach the voters at scale, and it’s interesting to draw the parallels on campaign tone from opposite sides of the earth. In both Australia and the UK, the movement that marginally lost the election – but arguably won the campaign, including in the eyes of the pollsters and bookmakers – spent more of its total budget on negative campaigning. And although questions have been raised about the truthfulness of both winning campaigns’ creative executions, a more positive worldview only just won the day.

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Political commentators and strategists now maintain that the Liberal Party should have run more negative advertisements and that they should have responded to the mud being slung at them more quickly with their own, negative messaging to combat the Labor Party onslaught. It is generally agreed that the creative message and the electorate’s mood for change have a significant bearing on the impact of these kinds of messages; a negative ad won’t persuade voters to unseat the incumbent unless it’s the right message, delivered to the right people, at the right time.

The experience of the Australian Labor Party – as well as Britain’s Remain campaign – is like that of a challenger brand criticizing the market leader: “That diet soda is full of dangerous chemicals that will slowly rot your teeth and guts. Drink ours instead.” Negative campaigns often draw attention to themselves, make news, and generate social chatter. Both the Labor Party and Remain came within a whisker of applying the psychology of motivation to electoral success, and both campaigns underlined how important it is to balance the positive with the negative.

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About Author

Managing Director, APAC

Richard is a business leader with more than 15 years of Managing Director experience and a strong background in Media Measurement and Information Management. He spent over 20 years with the Nielsen Company, in his last role at Nielsen, Richard was responsible for the growth of the company’s media businesses in 12 countries across the Asia Pacific region. Earlier in his career he was a pioneer in the introduction of the electronic TV Ratings service as well as developing services in international markets. Richard finished at Nielsen in 2011 and started at Ebiquity in 2012. Richard graduated from the University of New South Wales with a Bachelor of Commerce (Marketing) degree in 1982.

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