No billboard, no budget, no backers: how Chloe Swarbrick is spreading her message

You know it’s mayoral election time when your street, mailbox and favourite cafes become flooded with images of smiling candidates. It’s usually not long until someone puts spray paint to billboard, which often solidifies the images even more in one’s memory. But, having your face plastered over different types of media isn’t cheap and this is a luxury Auckland mayoral candidate Chloe Swarbrick, who has next-to-no funding, doesn’t have. 

Swarbrick burst on the scene as a mayoral candidate in July, and given her age (22, as has been widely reported) she doesn’t have the accumulated wealth of the other candidates in order to be able to fund a fully fledged, multi-platform campaign.

In a recent piece by The Spinoff she was quoted as saying: “I have next to no funding, next to no resources behind my campaign …”

Yet, Swarbrick has come in fourth place in the most recent poll, after Phil Goff, Vic Crone and John Palino. So, how?

“Obviously, I’ve got no hoardings,” she says. “I was recently donated a number of posters by Phantom Billstickers but they were only able to donate a limited amount.”

Posters in the physical and online realm help in terms of legitimising, but considering her limited means, she’s mainly been using the latter, she says.

She says she’s spent less than $500 on social and that was mainly just to get a bit of traction when she first announced her candidacy, but for the most part her reach has been almost 100 percent organic. “For the most part I’ve been able to grow on social through authenticity … this is genuine content and this is about the future of our city and people’s ability to engage with someone who will hopefully be the next Mayor in Auckland, and I can engage in real-time back.”

What’s useful about social media, she says, is that without it she never would have been able to run this campaign.

“I definitely couldn’t have run this campaign even ten years ago, because what Facebook and Twitter in particular allow you to do is reach those people you never would have been able to reach. It’s also relieved the pressure people put on mainstream media, but it has resulted in me getting mainstream media as well.”

And is she gutted about not having a billboard?

“A lot of people have told me those makeshift posters are a form of visual pollution and literal pollution so a lot of people have applauded me on not using them. I would actually love to have them out there. It’s a double-edged sword and it obviously contributes.”

She says she is trying to reach everybody, not just the younger audience more likely to be on social media, so in that sense not having traditional media can be a limitation.

“It is difficult to do that without traditional media and without the exposure mainstream news media can give.”

And, Swarbrick says it takes about $12,000 to get any decent coverage “and I’d rather put that into social media and reaching people that way”.

Washington editor of Harpers magazine Andrew Cockburn explained in a recent podcast that although there’s a perception that money is used to buy elections, money spent on television ads in particular has proven ineffective. He said the ads really served campaign consultants, not campaigners.

“The effect, at most, is entirely ephemeral. You see an ad on Monday, saying so and so is going to make the universe great again. On Tuesday, you’re asked by a pollster, what do you think of so and so, and you think, ‘oh, he’s going to make the universe great again, and you say, I’m for him’,” Cockburn said. “And on Wednesday, you’ve entirely forgotten. The whole effect of that ad has gone away. So these enormous quantities of dollars that are poured into this are almost entirely wasted. I say ‘almost’ because there are a few narrow spots where perhaps they are worth spending money on. One is when you’ve got a complete unknown. And the other is at the very last minute, if the election is on the Tuesday, if you dump ads on people’s eyeballs on Monday, it may have an effect.”

Similarly, Freakonomics also ran a piece about how much campaign spending influences elections, getting economic experts to share their thoughts on the matter.

“It is true that winning candidates typically spend more on their campaigns than do their opponents, but it is also true that successful candidates possess attributes that are useful for both raising money and winning votes (e.g. charisma, popular policy positions, etc.). This ‘reverse causality’ means that campaign spending is potentially as much a symptom of electoral success as its cause,” said economics professor Jeff Milyo.

Swarbrick says being social media savvy can have its advantages. She says the council spent a huge amount on a social media campaign to increase a poor voting turn out. The campaign urges Aucklanders to show their love for Auckland by sharing photos on social media and tagging them with the hashtags ‘#LoveAuckland’ and ‘#VoteAKL’.

But, in the Twitterverse at least, Swarbrick says it’s become infiltrated with tweets in support of her campaign.

“Essentially every candidate who is using social media is using that hashtag and what’s happened, I think by pure chance, is simply because I’m tweeting daily it’s all about my campaign and people interacting with me as well.”

She says that’s because it relates to the frequency of usage. “The council will be using [an ad agency] to do all of those tweets, where you’ve got me who’s doing all of this myself.”

On Twitter, where she posts between 10 and 30 times per day, she receives a number of questions. “I respond to those almost right away … and in terms of Facebook I’m doing one post a day, I don’t see the point in spamming people. I see the point in creating content that’s worthwhile that people can engage with.”

Another way Swarbrick has tried to rally attention (and donations) is through her ‘Vote for Chloe’ t-shirts, a play on the ‘Vote for Pedro’ shirts seen in the film Napoleon Dynamite. The shirts are for sale for $50 on her website.

“Those shirts don’t actually make me all that much money and they cost around $30 to make and I sell on a pre-order basis only, then I go about ordering and sending them out. It allows people to have something tangible, which shows the campaign exists in the real world so they can wear their support on their sleeves.”

She also has her bank details uploaded on her website for those that want to donate to her campaign.

In terms of marketing herself through mainstream media, Swarbrick doesn’t feel she’s received the same respect as other candidates.

“And I can understand that in some respect, especially when I first announced my candidacy only two and a half months ago. But the general feeling is that due to my age there is no way I can be serious and that’s something I have been combating from the beginning.”

And Swarbrick isn’t wrong, with a TVNZ standfirst reading: “Reporter Chris Chang interviews 22-year-old Chloe Swarbrick who wants to be the mayor of Auckland–how realistic is she?”

She says she’s never been so aware of her age in her life. “And that’s solely a factor of whenever the mainstream media does want to interact with me that’s their hook. My biggest response is just to ask ‘Do you know Phil Goff’s age or do you know Vic Crone’s?’.”

The key relevancy, she says are the candidates’ policies and skill sets that they are bringing to engage Auckland. “So part of my campaign has been to educate people on what the mayor does and what the council does.”

However, she says The Spinoff has been doing incredibly well in covering the elections and wider issues affecting Auckland.

At the moment there is a false idea that politics is a realm for older people, she says. “[Or] it’s for people who have money or the realm for people who own their own home and we’ve seen that at the debates, which are dominated by citizens and rate payers and there is a certain demographic at those meetings. All white, elderly and own their own home.”

She says she knows as she asks debate attendees to raise their hands. “And consistently it’s 90 to 100 percent of those people [attending], whereas that’s a complete contrast to the messages I get on social media almost daily from people who have never voted before and people who don’t know how much the council can change their lives.”

To this point, she adds that the way the elections are facilitated also effects those who vote. “If we look at the basic fundamentals of how it works, it’s a three-week postal voting period. Young people and poor people who rent are our most transient populations and they don’t have tenure and they aren’t inclined to be voting through the post.”

With voting papers now sitting in the mailboxes and on kitchen tables of Auckland citizens, it remains to be seen whether Swarbrick’s campaign has achieved the reach she’s hoped. But, with the candidate already rising quickly in the polls she’s clearly doing something right in Auckland’s eyes.

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