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PoliticsFebruary 14, 2019

Notes towards a grand unified theory of the terrible National Party sausage ad

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Everyone is ripping into the National mansplaining-KiwiBuild-barbecue ad online. But what, wonders Danyl Mclauchlan, if that was exactly what they wanted to happen …

Sometimes the New Zealand National Party makes great political ads. Think about the now famous ‘pretty legal’ rowing ad from the 2014 election. Yes, that led to the party being sued by Eminem which was possibly not ideal, strategically, but that single image of a ship or canoe, or boat or whatever (I don’t know about rowing) powerfully cutting through the water, propelled by an elite team of blue-clad synchronized chisel jawed models while their red and green rivals floundered around in the shallows said everything the Nats wanted to say about themselves and the hypothetical Labour-Green-Internet Mana alternative.

Sometimes they make terrible ads. The worst – which I cannot find online – was way back in 2002, during Bill English’s first, doomed swing at the leadership. It was a law and order piece in which English moved through a darkened house while ominous music played, and the subliminal message was that if you voted for the National Party Bill would break into your home and kill you. The party received the worst result in its history.

Then in 2011 they produced a party political broadcast in which Key sat in a badly lit theatrette clumsily responding to softball questions of the ‘Why-are-you-so-great?’ variety. It was literally unwatchable, especially compared to Labour’s broadcast which played directly afterwards and was a lavishly produced and genuinely moving tribute to the historical achievements of the party. But when the viewership numbers came in they revealed that hardly anyone watched the Labour broadcast: National’s was so unbearably dull the entire nation simply switched off for the night. So their disaster was, in a weird ten-dimensional chess way, a huge triumph.

Now we have the sausage ad critiquing Labour’s troubled housing policy. Two men at a barbecue explain to a woman that the Kiwibuild program is a flop. “It’s all sizzle no sausage.”

For progressives the ad is an offensive failure because it’s an egregious instance of mansplaining. It’s men explaining maths and politics and economics to a wide-eyed woman! National supporters feel that the ad succeeds because the target audience for the ad is not outraged progressives who would rather die than vote National; instead they’re communicating to demographics who won’t be offended by mansplaining but who might be persuaded by the critique of KiwiBuild.

Illustration: Toby Morris

Here’s my grand conspiracy theory. Progressives are actually the primary target for this ad and it is designed to offend them. Offense and controversy makes things newsworthy and earns you coverage in the mainstream media, thus potentially reaching a far greater number of viewers than National would get through making a non-controversial, non-mansplaining ad. The way you communicate the KiwiBuild critique to the wider public – who are never going to watch a political ad in their feed, even if you boost it – is by breaching progressive rules of etiquette and provoking a controversy. This is Trump’s great innovation in political marketing: you don’t need to pay for advertising you just repeatedly outrage progressives, especially those who work in the media, and they’ll give you all the free coverage you could hope for.

And, predictably, there are now stories about the controversy up on TVNZ and NewsHub with embeds of National’s ad. The system works! Of course this is much tamer than anything Trump says or does: New Zealand is a very different political environment from the US. It’s probably an experiment, as much as anything else: National knows that the media cycle is fast, that everyone will have forgotten about this in two or three days. They can try out material and see what works. Soon everyone will have moved on and be sickened with outrage by something else. Although, the video is labelled “Rhetoric vs Reality #1”. Presumably there will be more: maybe the next shocking thing will be the next National Party ad, giving online progressives the chance to spend the whole year furiously amplifying National’s talking points.

Keep going!