Game On: Dancing with the Zeitgeist

7:24 pm on 20 August 2017

Opinion - After the ructions of the past few weeks, campaign launches and election debates will signal the beginning of a new phase of a now revitalised election campaign.

Campaign narratives will compete in Darwinian style for supremacy or survival on billboards, social media, and other electronic platforms.

The narrative that most closely mirrors the mood of the country, or zeitgeist, will see that party attract the undecided voters that will help decide this election.

Jacinda Ardern and Bill English

Jacinda Ardern and Bill English Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

In 2017 we will also see parties respond and refashion messaging in their social media campaigns on a scale previously not seen, denoting a responsiveness in campaigning that billboards can no longer match.

Winning narratives are a lot more sophisticated than just the campaign slogans each party uses as shorthand for their diagnosis of the spirit of the times, although a good slogan can also achieve significant cut through, to help influence voters' preferences. Or not.

Last year, Hillary Clinton's pitch that Americans were 'Stronger Together' was rejected by 70,000 or so voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Their choice doesn't seem to be working out so well, however seductive child-leader Donald Trump's promise was to 'Make America Great Again'.

 A man wears a 'Make America Great Again' hat during the "Unite the Right" rally.

A man wears a 'Make America Great Again' hat during the "Unite the Right" rally. Photo: AFP

Likewise, the influential slogan during the 'Brexit' referendum - 'Let's take back control' - seems to be only achieving the reverse.

In New Zealand, we have seen variable quality in the two main party's slogans during our recent campaign history.

During Bill English's first attempt at winning in 2002, National went with 'Get the future you deserve'. A tick over 79 percent of voters decided the future they deserved did not include either English or National, and Labour won a great stonking majority as National cratered.

Three years later, the Helen Clark-led Labour Party was moving 'Forward, Together' but struggling against the 'one law for all' posture of Don Brash, as well as $11.5 billion worth of tax relief underwriting National's call to 'Change the Government'.

Towards the end of the campaign, Labour finally hit upon a winning alternative: 'Don't Put it All at Risk,' which did the trick because of uncertainty about social cohesion under Brash and certainty about the exclusive brethren staying out of our secular state's domestic politics.

In 2008, with the positive vibe of John Key at the helm, 'It's time for a Change' tickled the zeitgeist's desire to peacefully circulate our elites, this time from red to blue, despite Labour's warning that 'This one is (also) about Trust.' The public did trust Key, who seemed relaxed about it.

Three years later, after situational crises in Christchurch, Pike River, and operating in the post-GFC flux, 'Choose a Brighter Future' asked voters to stick with National over its carping Labour opponent who, instead, wanted support for 'For the Many, Not the Few,' in part by taxing the few's capital gains.

'Show me the money' was likely the only innovation in that campaign, and Key pulled it off, though no-one was any the wiser for its expression.

John Key led the National Party on a slogan of 'Building a Brighter Future' in the last election.

John Key led the National Party on a slogan of 'Building a Brighter Future' in the last election. Photo: AFP

In 2014, National's slogan 'Building a brighter future' was a call for continuity, to keep building on past success. Labour's 'Vote Positive' was as oblique as its campaign. With its then-leader David Cunliffe apologizing for an accident of birth - his gender - the brighter future prevailed as the campaign's final moment of truth despite being given a dirty rinse.

Turning to this year's offerings, it's a symptom of a suddenly unstable dynamic that two of the parties' campaign slogans have already been replaced.

The Greens' 'Great Together' has morphed into 'Love New Zealand.' That sounds a bit alt-aroha to my world-weary ears, like '100% Pure, Clean and Green', but Green billboard and electronic images that are back to the future, with a focus on the future - maybe like in 2008 - would at least first do no harm.

No caption

Photo: RNZ / Toby Morris

Labour's 'Fresh Approach' has become a victim of one, subsumed by new slogan 'Let's Do This'.

National defends the current direction with yet another call for continuity, because it's 'Delivering for New Zealand'.

National Party candidates on stage marking the start of the party's  annual conference in Wellington.

Photo: RNZ / Demelza Leslie

Winston Peters and New Zealand First seek to straddle change and continuity with a call for people to 'Stand with Us (them)' as they wait for the zeitgeist to reveal itself on election night.

National's tension - heightened to an unanticipated degree - is between asking voters to let it finish the job, however defined, while avoiding reminding them through word or deed of their over-familiarity and longevity.

That's tough after nine years, especially as Jacinda Ardern's slogan is of its time. Her challenge is to attract as many voters as she can to a narrative that explains what 'this,' in 'Let's do this,' means.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern with the party's new billboard.

Photo: RNZ / Jessie Chiang

Labour's slogan is also a generational one, in language and tone, which resonates with Ardern fronting. The battle lines, between continuity and change, are now seriously engaged, after a long time.

Voters will determine over the next several weeks which leaders, policies, and appeals resonate most with the reality of their lives and their hopes for the future.

Whether they choose more of the same or tilt towards something new, campaign messaging will not likely decide it, but - for good or ill - their success or failure will make it easier for us to tell on 23 September which political signpost we've reached.