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Yes or No?

16 Oct 2017  |  Richard Basil-Jones 
Yes or No?

Will advertising spend affect the result of Australia’s Same-Sex Marriage vote? Ebiquity's Richard Basil-Jones looks at the evidence.

Australia faces a tense few weeks as the Same-Sex Marriage (SSM) Survey reaches its final weeks for voting, and campaigners continue to battle for the support of the 37% left to vote.

As campaigning passes its halfway mark, the percentage of Australians who have returned their surveys has already exceeded that of the USA’s last presidential election, and matched the 2016 Irish referendum on same sex marriage which saw 60% of the population, over 1.9 million, cast their vote.

But with just under a month until the final deadline for surveys to be returned, it’s still all to play for in the fight for that all-important cross in the box.

There has been a clear difference in the way that each campaign has used advertising since the announcement of a Postal Survey on SSM on 12th August. It wasn’t until 29th August that we saw the first big advertising burst by ‘The Coalition for Marriage’ to promote the NO vote, and not until the following week, just one week before the survey’s distribution on 12th September, that YES followed in its footsteps.

Since this first push, the YES campaign has shown three different TV commercials, as well as investing in advertising spend across outdoor, social media, online, radio and press. The YES vote has also received celebrity endorsements from the likes of Sir Elton John and Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe.

By contrast, the NO campaign has focused on the single channel of TV, outspending the YES campaign 2:1 across the 5 major cities of Australia: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. But should we expect a dramatic increase in spend by both opposing parties as voting reaches its final month?

It’s easy to understand why people may now expect a burst of advertising activity as we come to the closing weeks, as is traditional in a Federal Political Election, but there are a few fundamental differences between a standard election and the SSM survey which will likely affect this.

Unlike a Federal Political Election, which typically runs over a 5-week period with one day for voting at the end of that time, the SSM Survey has a voting window of 8 weeks, of which postal voting is possible throughout.

The fact that the voluntary survey has a larger window to vote means that it’s important for the organisations’ advertising to always be ‘ON’. Each campaign needs to achieve ‘message recency’ in order to be top of mind when the voter is completing their survey, and therefore spend is likely to be more evenly distributed across the 8 weeks than an election campaign.

Having said this, with just over 60% of the surveyed public posting their decision already according to the ABS, (around 10 million votes), we might even start to see the spend tapering off. In simplistic terms, if 60% of the vote has been cast, you could surmise that 60% of the advertising spend has already occurred.

We know advertising works; the million dollar question is always ‘how much’ has it worked. The ‘YES’ campaigners have been pushing two messages - YES is the way to vote and make sure you actually vote (it’s no good having supporters who don’t cast their vote!).

Creating doubt and confusion of the advertising message may also serve a campaign’s purpose by getting people to abstain from voting - that may mean one less vote for the other team. So the objectives are many – reinforce current voting preferences, persuade the undecided and create confusion so they abstain from voting.

In this SSM advertising battle, the polls have suggested a ‘win’ to the YES vote. However, telling pollsters what you really think has proven to be somewhat unreliable on issues of sensitivity and emotion (Brexit, Trump Election, etc.) - getting a clear read on the undecided voters has been difficult.

Regular political polls give you a sense for campaigning effectiveness leading up to an election day - we don’t have that same measurement gauge on SSM. Both the YES and NO camps will be nervous right up until the results are published on November 15. (Note, the postal vote itself cannot legalise same-sex marriage).

So what will really determine the effectiveness of each campaign won’t solely be advertising spend; it will also depend heavily on strategy. Since August, the NO camp has been championing the consistent, single messaging of “you can say no” - only using minor variations on the same theme in their TV adverts.

YES, by contrast have adopted the opposite approach, using each of its ads, “Marriage Equality, Let’s Get it Done”, “Treating Everyone Fairly – Vote Yes” and “For Every Bachelor and Bachelorette – Vote Yes” to push out a range of simple, powerful messages.

As it stands, it’s difficult to identify a clear leader when it comes to the most effective messaging strategy, but it does seem as though both are starting to inject more emotion into their campaigns as the final voting day creeps closer. This is particularly notable in NO’s newest TV advert “Love is Love - Unless You Disagree”, which focusses on the hatred which has been directed at those saying no.

Ultimately, the same sex-marriage vote is a very different beast to the political elections that have come before. No matter how advertising spend is distributed, we are not voting on a set of policies or guidelines, but on one, single question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”.

This means that the question of the most effective campaigner will be answered by one simple guideline: who can make the most persuasive arguments about their single message of “yes” or “no”.


Richard Basil-Jones is managing director, Asia Pacific, Ebiquity

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