Possums Pollytics

Politics, elections and piffle plinking

Be Clever – It’s the New Black!

Posted by Possum Comitatus on October 8, 2007

One of the more amusing things in politics would have to be when the psychological warriors and political meme managers are allowed to play with the desktop publishing software for government ad campaigns.

We might all remember back to when the ALP extracted from their focus groups (probably like teeth) the killer line “Howard is a clever politician”. What made this line so effective was that it was always framed in such a way that it simply gave voters a blank canvas from which to paint a picture, where all of the paints available were specifically anti-Howard in hue.

Howards cleverness for some might have been about dishonesty, for others it might have been about wedge politics, and for others still it might have been just the general vibe of the bloke. But regardless of which particular shade of negativity tickled your fancy, the canvas was presented as a ready to paint portrait of your favourite anti-Howard political grievance.

This line of attack is probably one of the more devastating lines used over the last 20 years against a politician, and Howard has struggled to neutralise its power because of the combination of there being as many reasons underlying the clever politician line as there are punters that believe it on the one hand, and the fact that most of these reasons are based upon 11 years of observation by the punters on the other hand.

So rather than addressing the foundation of the attack, the Libs are attempting to utilise taxpayer funded climate change advertisements to reframe what ‘clever’ means, to redefine it’s context and to neutralise the power of the word “clever” by associating it with an issue that has a lot of traction with the public.

Word association is a powerful propaganda weapon. Think Beazley and ticker, Keating and elitist, Latham and learner, and now Howard and clever.If the Libs could disassociate the word clever from Howard and reassociate it with climate change policies, not only would they neutralise the ALP attack, but would reduce the power of any residual word association with Howard.

So we end up with this from the spinmeisters:


Notice how the word “climate” stands out, but in a contrasting way by being in white. It’s a standard use of colour technique to isolate a word from its surrounding words. The yellow word balloon on the green and blue background is another standard advertising technique used to grab your attention to the message in the balloon.

So what we end up with, the actual constructed message underneath the superficial facade is “Be Clever – I can do that.”, all the while associating the constructed message with the word “Climate”, and hence the push button issue of climate change.

It’s a pretty ballsy attempt at subliminal manipulation – but the time for this was months ago. That horse has already bolted now.

And that’s the most amusing aspect of all this. The government probably didn’t release the climate clever campaign earlier (when it could have had an impact on the word association of clever) because to do so would have increased the awareness of the environment as an issue. Remember back to the Crosby-Textor Oztrack 33 research which detailed what happened the last time the Coalition tried to highlight the environment as an issue at the Federal Council meeting of the Liberal Party. The result of the Coalition promoting issues that the ALP had dominant positioning on was to increase the ALP vote. People saw those issues, thought “Hmmmm, ALP”, and up went their vote (which is the simple version of the process)

But such is the current desperation of the government, that they are now willing to risk a part of their own vote by promoting issues that the ALP have dominant positioning on, simply to attempt to improve Howards personal standing with the punters by dismantling the power of the Clever Politician attack. The personal standing of Howard is important because it plays into a vast array of issues that Crosby Textor identified as vote drivers, from Deserve to Win, to Preferred PM, to Leadership to Honest and Trustworthy to Win Expectations… the list is long.

I think they’ve waited too long, and the result will be the Coalition losing on both fronts; the environment issue will strengthen and/or harden the ALP vote and issue positioning while the neutralisation attempt of “Clever Politician” will fail because that word association has been given enough time to settle into the public mindset as a colloquial reality.

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26 Responses to “Be Clever – It’s the New Black!”

  1. disenfranchised Gippslander said

    Very intersting analysis of the impact of the “front page”, Possum.
    However, if anybody gets round to actually reading the guff, or watching the ads, their utter banality provokes ridicule.. the green group’s ads on Grand final day were an example.
    I think they’ll have the same sort of effect as Connex’s prescription for improving public transport “”don’t fart in public”. Very sound advice, but not giving the impression that the Govt. understands the problem.

  2. From the Libs, Shouldn’t that read “Be Climate Devious?”
    This is 2 possum posts in a row that i have been able to understand! What’s the standard deviation on that mother?

  3. Neil Cammack said

    Another interesting game being played is the way Rudd is attempting to neutralise the government’s entire ad campaign with one single accusation: that Howard is only delaying the calling of the election in order to prolong the plague of taxpayer-funded political ads.

    (To which one could add a solid impersonation of Dickens’ immortal Wilkins Micawber.)

    Howard’s response to this assault has been very lame and unconvincing, even to the politically disengaged, and I think the accusation is hitting home with the punters.

    It’s further evidence that he’s badly rattled and has lost his grip. He seems to have bet the farm on a probably counter-productive ad blitz backed up by a last-minute scare campaign. All very well, but he’s already gifted Labor with its very own scare campaign, the spectre of WorkChoices II.

  4. Well Possum,

    You’ve scared the bejeezus out of me. I liked to think of myself as a little more cynical and sophisticated than the average punter. But if this is really how things work nowadays – the government spending taxpayers money on a campaign to neutralize the negative aspects of the word “Clever” – then I am truly a babe in the woods, and thanks for opening my eyes. Doubleplusungood.

    The only consolation is it doesn’t seem to be working.

  5. Snarky Platypus said

    Nice analysis, Possum.

    Is it just me though, or does the phrase “Be Climate Clever” not make any sense? How can you be clever about weather patterns? Maybe this monotreme is overanalysing it…

  6. stevet said


    You mentioned that if they were going to run a campaign about this it should have been months ago, not now as it is too late. Well, guess what? They were going to run it months ago, but the opposition got wind of it and bombarded them in question time. These are from Question Time, 29 May 2007. Pay very close attention to how Rudd phrases the questions, particularly the second one:

    Mr RUDD (2.44 p.m.)—My question is to the Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister now confirm that the theme of his non-existent climate change advertising campaign is currently ‘climate clever’? Will the Prime Minister confirm that the theme to this campaign may now be changed? What would that cost, the ditching of this theme and replacing it with another?

    Mr RUDD (2.58 p.m.)—My question is again to the Prime Minister and I refer to his previous answer when he said that no material has yet been approved for distribution for his so far non-existent taxpayer funded advertising campaign. I refer also to comments made in Senate estimates last week by the head of the Government Communications Unit, Mr Robert McMahon, that ‘until a campaign starts in the media it is not a communications campaign’. Is it the Prime Minister’s position to the parliament that his taxpayer funded climate change advertising campaign has not yet commenced despite the fact that taxpayers’ funds have already been spent on the design of a brochure and a letter to go to millions of households, opinion poll testing of that material, the filming of television advertisements, the opinion poll testing of those advertisements and the booking of air time to show those advertisements? Isn’t the Prime Minister’s clever language on his PR campaign just too clever by half?

  7. John V K said

    Good day Poss,

    I think you are right, with this one but the other point is the environment issue is a deadly one for the government in that there are a fair old swag of us global climate realists, who were huggers, and find that Howard is in fact betraying his own beliefs.

    In fact with his policies (new) he wedges us further away. There are a few old hard heads who have heard enviornmental doom and gloom all our lives. (not here for a debate on AGW). So in fact this is more likely to be a negative for him.

    The other thing I see with this is murk, or cloudiness as an issue. Labor and the Greens own this, so for a line in the sand defining policy the Lib Nat message is wishy washy or false. Influence value nil because if the environment is what rocks the most of your boat, you are going labor or green anyway.

    As for the Tassie pulp mill, they cocked it. They should have just said done done and done and add it’s that corrupt state governments fault. Now they own the whole issue. ALP gets a tiny bit of blowback from the farouters.

    The press have the right of it this day, for a change, economic credentials will be the only big card thyey can play and this is high risk poker because the timeline has an interest rate hike at play possibly and then watch the poll go back to the peak. (Even without a new hike what is it 7 interst rate rises from the trust promise).

    The other thing they are going green and gold, linking the National sport colours. Not good with the Wallabies loss, note ol Howard was back in black and white for the am constitutional. (One commentator even inferred he was the mocker that caused the loss).

    Enjoy your blog.

  8. 50_sigmas said

    In the Australian context, “clever” almost always has negative connotations.

    Hence, Labor’s slogan of years ago about “The Clever Country” went nowhere; but attaching “clever” to Howard struck political gold.

    If the Liberals’ marketing advisors think they can neutralise it with “Climate Clever”, it just shows they don’t know what they’re doing. All they achieve is a resonance with Clever John Howard.

  9. Beach Ball said

    Very deep, Poss, but very true. I always thought the ALP had the potential to snooker themselves on the “clever” attack, considering it is they that wanted to create the “clever country.”

  10. Possum Comitatus said

    The term “Climate Clever” isnt really meant to make sense.That’s another funny part about this whole thing.Most political strategists at least try and hide the true intention of their subliminal and sub-surface issue management, but not this campaign! No siree – who needs to hide it behind annoying stuff like well constructed sentences and cliches!

    And the more I look at the campaign, especially the brochure, it screams out to me what Gippslander was saying… it’s just banal.But maybe the reason its banal is because it’s not actually meant to be read.Its just the front cover that’s meant to be seen, and the words “Climate Clever” that are meant to be heard on the television and radio in the appropriate framing.The campaign is all hat and no horse, because you’re only meant to pay attention to the hat.

    stevet at 6,
    I laughed hard when I heard that parliament question time.It’s when I first thought that this climate clever line was just a meme management thing.By Rudd outing it in Parliament and using it against Howard was a very clever piece of work because it not only helped to kill the campaign, but added further bolstering of the whole “Howard is a clever politician line”, and also forced the Libs to probably delay it’s release for a while.Although they may have been delaying its release because of the strong ALP positioning on the issue.

  11. Guido said

    Of course some of you may have seen the GetUp commercial about this campaign

  12. Possum Comitatus said

    John VK,

    You’ve perfectly nailed another problem with this campaign, Howard has wedged himself on both sides of the debate comprehensively.The fallout in your political demographic is Howard being weak and selling out, the fallout in other demographics is ‘too little too late’, while highlighting issues that ALP have strong political positioning on in other demographics still.As a campaign it was incompetence writ large.

    Also, JVK says he’s not here for the AGW debate – that’s a good thing.Any comments about AGW not related to the political mechanics off it will get removed.This thread is about the dark political arts, not about whether we’ll be scuba diving in Pitt street in 40 years.

    Colin at 4, if this worries you, you should see the stuff that goes on in the US.There’s been Republican pamphlets distributed that have deliberate spelling mistakes in them.When the media starts making fun of it, the hokesy Republican candidate hits back saying the media are out of touch, more concerned with a printing mistake than the lives of ordinary people etc.The target audience agrees because they didnt notice the spelling mistake in the first place and the media have wasted time talking about the meta issues while giving the Republican bloke a free run with the actual message.

    Thankfully it hasnt gotten that bad here yet, but there’s still an awful lot of sub-surface chicanery that goes on.

  13. Rex said

    Thanks for the analysis, Possum. Apparently Howard has cancelled adjusting all clocks for daylight saving: he doesn’t want to bring forward the election.

  14. Adam said

    hi poss!

    i’ve been lurking for some time now, enjoying the statistical deviation and the respondant frantic efforts of the neo-con bilge pumps. keep up the good work, you legend.

    I have a few ideas for you to think about in this context. as someone whose professional responsibility as an academic involves turning young graphic design minds on to the various powers and constructions of media, the current phony election campaign already strikes me as a stellar example for next year’s lectures ;^)

    i think the entire problem for howard is easy to summate. but not quite as you mention here…

    well, the common myth goes like this: he has forgotten every lesson learned in neo-con politics over the last 30 years. to steal and paraphrase the title of a recent exceptional george lakoff book that discusses the framing of political debate from a neuro-linguistics inspired perspective, he has told people time and time again to “think of an elephant”. and now you can’t just help it, men and women of australia. thus the workchoices ads serve to reinforce the pay-peanuts mentality of the legislation. (as keating predicted in 96, workplace reform is howard’s code for cutting the wages of those under $30K). pay attention to the peanuts, as they will cause an anaphylactic shock of karmic proportions to the prime ministerial ticker later in this screed… ;^)

    well, it could be that scenario…

    …or maybe it isn’t that simple…

    my personal theory is that there is such a subtle revenge going on from the underpaid graphical underbelly of the creative classes as poor old radiohead howard could never have predicted.

    you see, my graduates, who assuredly do the actual manual work setting up the ads, have the lowest average starting salary of all tertiary qualified professionals. and they certainly don’t accord these lower paid juniors who do the grunt work of design with any special status. in fact, its common for them to be asked to simply render advertising creative directors’ ideas. they get to be a surly bunch.

    after all, the gump doing the work on designing these campaigns is in the design industry, no doubt, being paid mac-monkey peanuts. he isn’t on an alan jones style, press the horseflesh wicket. johnny and his mates never see this gump – they see his porsche-driving overlord.

    so, imagine you’re that poor gump. now, if the art director came in one day, and gave you the strap line and concept sketch for the new johnny liberal campaign and said, “make it all spiffy”, would you do that? yes, it’s your job to render up some other person’s idea or you could be AWA-ified (away-ified… ha!). now, given your low wage status, the pressure in your workplace, the hate you have for the slightly better paid art director gump who thinks he’s now king of the hill in his solo office and therefore the only one allowed to have creative ideas, would you try to subvert his masterpiece, and the howard agenda as well, through quality design? what a irresistible temptation. and you were trained to design visual rhetoric too…

    one could also spin this scenario around into the internal departmental media divisions, cranking out paraphernalia for ministers and stultified by federal ministry culture… hundreds of mac-monkeys all thinking this thought…

    there it is, poss. yes, i know they do it. they are young, low paid and don’t have much to really lose in an er-hem full employment economy. when i was in professional practice, it was common practice for university educated designers to load messages with signifiers that were intended to slip past the art director, client keeper and thus subtly sabotage the work for the astute observer. we’d drink cheers at the pub to each one we saw in public print, both ours and others. no end of satisfaction watching this subliminal graffiti slip past on a tramside: they PAID for my vandalism, and they put it everywhere FOR ME for FREE!

    think about that scenario, the semantics of this ad, and also that lovely workchoices print ad with the temporary post-it note signifying the temporary and disposable nature of most new jobs on hard-arsed blue chip brick, and think about that lovely white space and simple strapline on the infamous terrorism poster, which is so suitable for altering easily with cheap photocopying. mix well, stir with a little bitters, and you get my point.

    so, here’s the thickening in the throat and the slow choking suffocation. if you pay peanuts, howard, the monkeys will bite your arse. whenever they can. every single time. and if the tree gets shook on them, they can find another low yield tree thanks to your model. you aren’t paranoid, john, i’m sure they really are out to get you…

    PS: a quick shout out to the liberal campaign people scanning this – here’s another internal paranoid nightmare for you to fret about. can you trust your suppliers? all the way down their chain to the lowest paid implementors? both departmental and private?

  15. Evan said

    Loved the Get-Up ad Guido. The image of that lab dude sculling a test-tube of Strontium 90 or whatever as part of it’s send-up of Government’s “radio-happy” pro-nuclear energy spin was a cack. Now unless you want your urine to glow in the dark, don’t try this at home, boys and girls.

    Clever. In the traditional sense of the word.

  16. Charles said

    “I can do that” of the getup campaign, it is way too late.

  17. Verity said

    An interesting analysis of the Climate Clever ads – I had just thought that they were boring – too clever by half. Women don’t need to be told to hang their washing out doors. Viewers just tune out.

    The Workchoices ads have been on every media type and not one has worked – perhaps for the reasons Adam says.

    The post it notes with their message resulted in a message which was meaningless although fun to play with – Nowhere – you understand.

    The latest TV ads are insulting to blokes who look like real dills as they sit in the pub or hang around the BBQ. No mention of the effect on women except one middle aged son is to be kicked out of home by his mother. Huh?

    The latest I heard on radio is of the mother who berates her son over an AWA. She is made to sound like a stupid, middle aged loopy woman while her son is a patronising egotistical youth. The ad got my attention only to offend me.

    The stupidity of the women in the Climate Clever ad and the fact that all of the ads have a subtle message that women aren’t too bright or don’t matter is possibly a big reason that the ads aren’t working. The (unintended?) message is that women are not held in high regard by the government – a reinforcement of what they already know.

    A stupid ad campaign borne out of arrogance. No wonder it isn’t working. The timing is one issue but the idea that we are being taken for fools is insulting and unlikely to change intentions.

  18. blindoptimist said

    This ad inspired an automatic sense of mistrust in me – I tuned out pretty well straight away, believing the message was a con.

    Am I too cynical? Or has the “clever” tag become synonomous with fraudulent?

  19. the munz said

    No one has ever liked a clever dick.

  20. Rattus nonveritas said


    Post 20 is clearly spam

    [Ta…. Possum]

  21. freediver said

    Carbon taxes are better for the environment and better for the economy than carbon trading. Yet every single party is afraid to use the ‘T’ word. This includes the Greens and Democrats. Time to grow some balls.


  22. […] for an advertising campaign that was in the genuine public interest. But instead of being able to dodge questions for as long as possible, the cost of the advertising could be made transparent to the public, the media and the opposing […]

  23. steve said

    Here is an interesting pdf document on trends in Australian Society.


  24. Possum Comitatus said

    Adam at 14,

    Now THAT’S disturbing! :mrgreen:

    The subliminal guerrilla marketing of subversive memes within government propaganda, undertaken by the victims of the very policy that is the major government advertising message!

    It would be a spectacularly beautiful irony!

    Just the mere thought of it makes it one of the funniest things I’ve heard for long time. 🙂

    Thanks for the great comment!

    Steve at 23,

    That Australian election study is really interesting in its long term trends.The historical polling movements in the context of the content of that study, and in the context of the socioeconomic composition of the seats of each party are really thought provoking.After the election I plan on comparing the seats that change hands with some of longer term trends of that study.

  25. Rob said

    Nice analysis possum. But … most aussies aren’t into the subtleties. They’re probably looking at the images. Old man Howard vs nice young man Rudd, but not too different. Speaks chinese too! So while it’s a clever campaign, it’s probably just more noise to the punter. I think Howard will lose. He is currently in denial about the polls, and if I judge him right, he will be in denial until election night. I will not be missing his concession speech! Despite all the high-tech modern polling techniques, the old adage is still true; you can fool some of the people all of the time etc. Makes you respect those old-timers a bit more.

  26. Amused said

    This is quite staggering. It makes sense – the word clever is now associated with John Howard sneakiness. The purpose of this campaign is to move its assocation to something else.

    Apart from the breathtaking cynicism of using public money and exploiting a serious issue in this way, it’s very… well… clever…

    Truly something to think about.

    I wonder what other subtle manipulation goes on that I’m not aware of.

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