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Changing attitudes to the carbon tax

The mining industry, led by the Minerals Council of Australia, has written to members asking for funds to under take a new advertising campaign to attack the carbon tax.

In his letter to members, Minerals Council chief executive Mitch Hooke says that in current day Australia, major policy battles are fought and won in the media and that miners must spend accordingly.

So is Mitch Hooke right when he says the “new paradigm is one of public contest through the popular media more so than rational, effective, considered consultation and debate”?

This is part of the issue, but it is not something that has just happened in the last four years. It has happened as a result of the constant news cycle. 

John Howard was master at using media forums to shift people’s thinking about a particular issue. It is not something that purely can be laid at the feet of the Labor Party, it is something that is a result of 24 hour news cycles, and a constant requirement for news and media to have a story of some kind.

However, I agree with [Hooke] on his point about the conversation shifting to the commercial media, although I do find it disappointing. Whether it is actually an effective way to manage public policy is completely different question.

The majority of where there is going to be a shift in people’s thinking is through what we could call commercial broadcast media.

The other issue to consider is that it is the commercial media where the debate is going to play out. What I mean is that it is often the commercial media (and the ABC) that set the agenda, and ultimately drive the discussion. In a way, with Hooke even talking about using the commercial media to create a point, he has created a story for the media to talk about as well.

It is quite a clever strategy; by drawing attention to the issue by saying “we are going to spend money in the commercial media to draw attention to this particular issue”, they are also going to drive editorial agendas.

The commercial news media, these industry groups, and the government are all contributing to this cycle. Everything supports everything else. If one decided not to pursue the issue, then it would lose its effect.

And as such, when it comes to spending taxpayers money, it puts the government a huge disadvantage. It is simply not a level playing field. The key problem is that governments (mostly) have to follow process, and there is an expectation of transparency and an appropriate use of taxpayer’s contributions.

It puts them at a huge disadvantage and even when they do spend funds they are going to be slapped down by the commercial sector saying “why are you spending taxpayer’s funds?”

I think one of the questions consumers should be asking the industry groups is whether “an advertising campaign is good use of my superannuation or investment contributions”?

A lot the mining companies and the investment companies are spending money that we have contributed to them in some way. As I have said in other forums, voters are very quick to ask where their taxes are being spent, and to be critical of how they are spent, but rarely ask the same questions of their investment or superannuation contributions.

People simply don’t (and can’t) scrutinise commercial businesses in the same way that they might scrutinise the operations of government. I don’t have a problem with government scrutiny, but as individuals shareholders simply don’t have the same level of control over where and what commercial businesses do with our money. With government, to some degree you can say that we can change the board of directors in government every three years, but you can’t do that with a mining company, a media company or an investment company.

But government itself has created part of the problem by playing out these games and processes in the news media. So they’re a victim of their own particular strategy.

Government and business overestimate the effectiveness of advertising. Rather than actually changing people’s attitudes, and changing behaviour, what advertising does is to work mostly as a means of reinforcing people’s particular loyalties, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.

What you’ll find is that people who already have a particular attitude about the carbon tax or have a particular attitude about the mining industry will perceive any advertising as a means to reinforce their particular view. So, most people who already support the carbon tax or something similar, are unlikely to be moved by an expensive advertising campaign. The campaign will work best to reinforce people’s attitudes that are already willing to be nudged toward that particular perspective.

Most advertising is used to cement or create loyalty towards a particular idea or brand.

The other issue is that an advertising campaign has to have some degree of cut through to get to the target market. The reality is that if people are constantly being told to think about a particular issue this way through advertising, it is not going to be that effective in the long run.

The ACTU campaign around Work Choices was quite novel, but it also tapped into something that people already felt, or certainly the majority of people they were targeting already believed. It simply reinforced it for some people.

If over time, people build up a negative attitude towards a carbon tax, then that advertising is going to reinforce their thinking. Eventually, if all of our sources are telling us the same thing (and most people will use sources that are already aligned with their particular thinking), then we start to believe it as “truth”. We use editorial, advertising, and other messages through the media, commercial and otherwise to help ourselves work out what to think.

Very few of us have a deep intellectual understanding of the complexity of something like the ETS or a carbon tax, and how it will actually effect us, so we look to our particular trusted sources, including unsolicited advertising through broadcast media, to help us work this out.

But the most effective outcome of this particular strategy is not necessarily shifting individual perceptions, but convincing the government that the campaign is shifting individual perceptions.


This is a version of an article originally published at The Conversation.


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