Politics is all about policy, rational thinking and evidence-based decision making, right? That might be the case in the Beehive, but when politics extends into the public domain things aren’t always as reasonable as we’d like them to be. Many of the same principles that have led philosopher Daniel Kahneman to claim that “humans are fundamentally irrational” also apply when it comes to making decisions on who to vote for. We cannot suspend the way our brains are wired.
In singing its slogan for the 2017 election, the National Party is essentially targeting the emotional side of the public’s consciousness. The spot doesn’t reveal any policy details or sound bytes from National leader Bill English, opting instead for a series of somewhat cliche Kiwi vignettes to play out with the song as a backtrack.
It’s an upbeat approach that aims to present a positive and diverse image of life in New Zealand at a time when the political debate has turned particularly toxic on issues such as housing affordability, immigration and child poverty.
Of course, critics could argue that the government is overlooking these issues and painting a fabricated image of what New Zealand is like. But the party isn’t having a policy debate in its ad. It isn’t talking about what’s wrong with New Zealand, but rather sharing a sense of what it sees is going well in the country.
The Greens have similarly taken a positive approach in their campaign ad, also showcasing the good of New Zealand (coincidentally, the first line said by the Green Party leaders in its campaign is “Let’s do this together” – perhaps, its memorandum of understanding was made with the wrong party).
Meanwhile, Labour has gone for a more rational—or conventional—route, with leader Andrew Little outlining policies, sharing a few anecdotes and pledging to improve a range of issues with New Zealand.
As the opposition party, Labour has the onus to encourage voters to choose change but this doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to a dry, rational message.
In the lead up to the 1988 Chilean National Plebiscite, which asked citizens of the country to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for the continuation of Augusto Pinochet’s 16-year reign, the two political factions diverged in their approaches when it came to convincing the public.
The ‘Yes’ side focused on creating a culture of fear focused on the economic disarray of the country before the arrival of Pinochet, while the ‘No’ side presented an image of a brighter future with a jingle so catchy that even opposition members were said to hum it during their meetings. The earworm also burrowed its way into the public and the song was sung at rallies across the country, and it was no doubt also heard emanating from lines of voters who eventually decided that the Pinochet tenure should end (this is a gross oversimplification of a story better told by the 2012 film ‘No‘, starring Gael Garcia Bernal).
This has become a classic example of how emotion, rather than rational thinking, informs the decisions people make, regardless of how big they might be. In the last year, numerous books have been published on the importance of appealing to the emotional side when trying to change people’s minds. And as shown by recent political events in the US and the UK, those with policy and rationality on their side don’t always win. You also have to give people something to clutch onto if they’re going to believe in your cause.
And while the National Party may not have invested in an earworm as effective as ‘Chile, la alegría ya viene’, the first stage of the campaign already shows an understanding that elections are rarely won on the facts alone.
Note: StopPress has approached the National Party for information on which agency created the campaign, but we are yet to receive a response.