Inside the Electoral Commission’s mission to find the missing million

Discussions in the lead up to this year’s election have again touched on the so-called missing million, the large contingent of New Zealanders of voting age who for whatever reason do not cast a ballot. These prodigal children of the democratic system are often woven into the elaborate ‘What ifs’ of political analysts, who like to imagine them as a powerful hidden force capable of pulling the election one way or the other. The reality is not quite as intriguing.

Every election, the onus of finding these missing souls and returning them to the ballot boxes rests entirely on the Electoral Commission. It’s a job that has become increasingly difficult over the last decade, with voter turnout steadily decreasing despite a slight uptick in 2014.

Electoral Commission manager of communications and education Anastasia Turnbull attributes 2014’s lift in engagement to the decision to adopt a more emotional approach to its communications strategy.    

“Rather than just using transactional messaging and shouting those messages louder and louder, in 2014, we trialed a motivational messaging campaign, which was about saying that your vote is a valuable thing.”

The problem, however, was that the campaign went too broad by delivering exactly the same message to a mass of New Zealanders who have varying reasons for not drawing a check mark next to a politician’s face.

“What we learnt from that was that actually what we need are targeted campaigns for those audiences who are the hardest to reach.”

Off the back of this insight, the Electoral Commission set out to do things differently in 2017. Rather dumping a single creative message over all non-voters, the government team set out to find out why people weren’t interested in voting in the first place.

The Electoral Commission charted a spectrum of engagement, ranging from committed voters to those who weren’t interested at all, and then considered who those groups are, where they’re located, where they’re getting their information from and what they see as key barriers to participation.

Through this process, Turnbull says her team discovered that around half the population tends to be really good at voting and something as simple as a refresher message would be enough to get them to the polls. These, to use a retail comparison, are essentially your Apple or Samsung loyalists who will stand in the snow for five days get their hands on the latest model. They’ve already been converted and just need a slight nudge in the right direction.

What’s interesting, however, is that Turnbull also noticed that this group of democratic disciples was also the one that received most of the focus in previous years, which made no sense because they, in fact, required the least attention. The missing million were never going be found by repeating this again.

As Turnbull explains, they wanted to over-invest in the audiences that were the hardest to reach.  

Finding the right partners

The Commission understood that it wasn’t possible to reach everyone across the varying segments of engagement through a single media channel, so it worked closely with a collection of publishers that resonated with the groups most in need of education and motivation.

“It isn’t about a missing million,” Turnbull says. “It’s about a whole bunch of discrete audiences with discrete needs and very specific barriers. And our content partnerships have been about addressing those barriers.”   

Vice, Maori TV, the Maori Media Network, Niche Media, Flava, the Chinese Herald, TVNZ, The Edge, ZM, Mai FM and The Spinoff were all commissioned to develop and run creative campaigns designed to target certain groups.

Additionally, the Commission established partnerships with The Bloggers Club and Social Club to reach future and first-time voters, an initiative that included a web series created with Jamie Currie.

Content on these pages linked across to www.ivotenz.org.nz website, which is customised with content relevant to the content on the site the user clicked in from. The site users see will thereby be directly relevant to their interests or cultural backgrounds.     

Turnbull says the aim of doing this was to connect with prospective voters in the places they went to every day. It was about speaking to them through the voices they already trusted.

“People don’t want to hear from us,” says Turnbull. “They don’t want yet another government agency telling them what to do. We know that people respond best when they hear stories and receive messages from people that they know, who they see themselves reflected in or people who they listen to.”

Media agency Starcom was responsible for selecting the various partners, who were then commissioned to contribute to the project.

At the strategic centre of the creative aspect of the campaign was Saatchi & Saatchi’s head of planning David McIndoe, who was responsible for ensuring that the overarching message was cohesive and on brief.

McIndoe admits that collaboration, particularly with such a wide array of media companies, isn’t always easy but says it was necessary for this instance.   

“It’s a good exercise as an organisation in curating rather than creating,” McIndoe says. “It’s about considering how a concept and a strategy plays down into a more blurred and confusing world of partnership with the right people. Previously, we might’ve had a total licence and total control to make something but that wouldn’t get as much traction as getting people in your own community… It’s worth the pain and it’s also worth the experimentation.”    

The non-partisan challenge

An interesting challenge that comes with working with the Electoral Commission is that there are some really strict guidelines in terms of what can and can’t be said.

“We could spend hours talking about all the restrictions and where you can’t go when doing this task,” starts McIndoe.  

“We can’t put pressure toward one end of the political spectrum in any way, shape or form. We can’t even insinuate the idea of change. We can’t represent a tension between two areas in society because that represents that we’re on one side or the other. We can’t even use topics to promote a message because that topic might be more pronounced in one party or the other. We can’t even suggest it’s a two-party system. There are just so many places that you can’t go.”   

The paradox in all of this is that you have to motivate people to vote, without giving them a specific cause they might care about.

To ensure that none of the partners crossed the lines stipulated within the Electoral Commission’s mandate, the team drafted a very strict brief that was handed out to each of the partners involved and then Saatchi played an important role in ensuring that no one crossed the line.

“Our role is really to lay the foundation around voting as an act and address all the barriers that exist,” Turnbull says. “We don’t care who people vote for as long as they vote.”

Building up to the crescendo

Beyond its big role in curation, Saatchi didn’t just sit on the periphery for the entire campaign. While the content was being rolled out by the other partners, the agency’s creative team was working on a big final push, designed specifically to give young people a final push toward the electorate office.

Launched the week before voting officially kicked off, it is final digital and outdoor hurrah of the campaign. McIndoe describes it as the crescendo at the end of the multi-layered campaign.

There was enormous pressure on the agency to end the campaign on a high note, on account of Electoral Commission research showing that most non-voters decide not to vote in the final weeks leading up to the campaign. Saatchi’s brief simply put was to ‘disrupt inertia’ among voters.

The agency responded with a digital-first campaign, featuring a series of vignettes that show all the choices a person makes during the day.

The campaign has also been rolled out on radio and outdoor.

Sitting down with Saatchi chief creative officer Toby Talbot on the day of the shoot, he says there was a concerted effort not to patronise the audience and not to lean on political advertising tropes.

“The word vote is so loaded,” Talbot says. “You say the word to some people, and they go, ‘oh, my god’. It’s a massive turn-off. We needed to break through that and do it in such a way that also engages the audience. It was about creating something natural that didn’t feel like it came from your mum or your dad.”

Talbot says that the team quickly realised that young people spend a lot of time on their phones and make relatively binary decisions all day long.  

All the clips were shot from a point-of-view perspective, playing out as a day in the lives of a young man and woman.  

Wearing dirty underwear or going commando, picking the right or left nostril, painting all toe nails or painting three, going to bed or streaming season two all emerge as options that young New Zealanders “vote” on every day.

At its core, it’s a simple idea but it’s one that resonates strongly with shifting perceptions of the modern democratic process.    

A new kind of patriotism

Conventional election campaign advertising is usually predicated on civil duty, largely based on the standard ‘your country needs you’ style of messaging. This is essentially a ‘post-war’ hangover inherited from an earlier time when democratic involvement was seen as a way to keep the world safe. This current young generation hasn’t seen a world war and they have an increased cynicism about the actual impact of casting a vote. The modern sentiment to voting is perhaps best captured in statistics showing that voter turnout reduces when it rains.

“For a government organisation talking about voting, the natural tendency is to try to raise the perceived value of the vote, to make it seem like a bigger thing, dripping in civic duty,” McIndoe says.

“The truth is that we actually need to put all that to the side. It’s actually about an act. It’s actually just about turning up on the day and ticking a few boxes. It’s about caring enough about something to kind of get out of bed and tick a box.”

McIndoe says that even the very idea of a voter had a negative connotation among some younger Kiwis.  

“Voters were seen as white, middle-class people. So, imagine as a young Pacific Islander. The image of voting just seems so foreign. They didn’t seem welcome.”

The aim of this year’s campaign has been to shift that perception and create a more welcoming environment for people from all cultural backgrounds (this is perhaps best reflected in the work Vice has done).

With the polls having opened on 11 September, the success of the Electoral Commission’s effort to get young New Zealanders is already being tallied. The only question now is whether the organisation and its various partners have done enough to reach the target of getting 85 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds to the polls this year.        

: Electoral Commission
Chief Electoral Officer: Alicia Wright
Manager Communications & Education: Anastasia Turnbull

Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi
Chief Creative Officer: Toby Talbot
Creative Director: Jordan Sky
Creative Director: Corey Chalmers
Copywriter: Michael Swinburn
Art Director: Luke Dawson
Senior Art Director: Kristal Knight
Producer: Jane Mill
Business Director: Nick Bulmer
Head of Planning: David McIndoe
Senior Account Director: Donna Drinkwater
Senior Account Director: Abi Skelton

Media agency: Starcom

Production Company: Finch
Director: Mark Lever
Sound Design: Jon Cooper

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