Ministers need to get much more creative with the message

 

HAVING ENJOYED a long honeymoon despite the worst possible economic circumstances, the Government ran into severe difficulties earlier this year as a result of the introduction of a property tax and new water charges.

There seems to be a reasonable level of agreement even within the Coalition parties that the communication of these new taxes was not handled very well, but relatively little comment on an obvious solution to at least part of the problem; a professional advertising campaign designed to explain the reasons for the introduction of the taxes, the method(s) of payment and the proposed use of the resulting extra revenue.

This raises an interesting issue: why ministers and government departments are prepared to pay handsomely for the comfort blanket of public-relations consultants when preparing for an interview with the media, when they are so reluctant to pay for professional advertising-agency expertise to explain complex issues to the public.

The Irish political and administrative establishment’s suspicion of advertising has a long history. The quintessential Irish establishment insider; freedom-fighter, chief executive and chairman of numerous state bodies, father and grandfather of Ministers of the State, CS (Todd) Andrews, had this to say in his autobiography: “My dealings with Advertising Agencies produced in me a distaste for the profession, if it could be dignified by that word, which has never been eradicated. I still regard it as a pernicious manifestation of the capitalist system. I believe it has been the creator of unrealistic expectations, popular discontent and unhappiness in society.”

That attitude continues to persist. Politicians regularly praise our creative community but I doubt very much if they include our advertising, brand and marketing communications people in that community.

But if David Cameron, or our new best friend the Queen of England were to make similar comments across the water they would invariably include advertising and marketing communications, recognising the vital role that sector plays in the British economy.

Over there, creative marketing communications not only enhances the value of British goods and services, it is actively used to save taxpayers money. A few years ago, the IPA in London published a book of case studies showing how effective public- sector advertising saved the British taxpayer millions of pounds.

Some of the creative content was controversial, but their creative teams are allowed more creative freedom, and in particular are often allowed to use vernacular and often quite salty language which makes their advertising messages more likely to be listened to.

There are two reasons why we don’t take full advantage of the capacity for professionally run advertising campaigns to save taxpayers money. The first is an innate suspicion of the whole business. The second is closely related; the conflict between the political and administrative elites’ acceptance of the “enlightenment model” of decision-making and the advertising communities awareness of the flaws in this model.

Because the Government and senior civil servants are the client, their view tends to prevail in the process, ignoring the power of advertising messages based on a more accurate model of how people actually make decisions.

Governments tend to believe that people cannot resist the power of an empirically based, logically coherent argument. This is the view of the classical economists who mistakenly persist with the model of homos economicus.

Advertising agencies are acutely aware that people rarely act in this way, and there is mounting evidence from a range of studies in cognitive science that this dominant “enlightenment model” is seriously flawed.

According to this model, when faced with a choice, we carefully weigh up all the pros and cons and then select an optimum course of action. But facts only form a partial role informing our judgments; emotions often play a more important role. A recent study concluded: “It is increasingly apparent that our collective decisions are based on a set of factors that lie beyond conscious awareness and are informed in important part by our emotions, in particular dominant collective values that are tied to emotions.”

The most effective communication campaigns take into account “dominant collective values”. Advertising agencies are acutely aware of these values and of the related concerns and desires, aspirations and anxieties of the public; they are dealing with them all the time in their work for their business clients. At a time when the Government will need to save as much taxpayers’ money as possible, and at the same time explain the necessity for a new range of taxes, it might be well advised to embrace the Mad Men.

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