Features Australia

A PR guide to selling a budget

The problem with the government’s fiscal agenda isn’t that it’s too mean; it’s that it remains too confusing

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

‘One: tell them what you’re going to tell them; two: tell them; three: tell them what you just told them.’ It’s the first lesson of public speaking and debating and is a formula that will never let you down. It applies in advertising, although it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily: ‘One: tell them what you’re going to sell them and why they need it; two: sell it to them; three: tell them what you just sold them and why they need to buy it again.’

It’s a handy rule for all forms of communication, and the reason is simple. Our decision to purchase any given product is highly emotional, but based on rational preconceptions. At the so-called ‘point of purchase’ our brains should already be predisposed to handing over the loot. Any lingering doubts about the reasons why or the quality of the product should have long been assuaged during the pre-selling (or pre-telling) period; allowing nothing to interrupt the pure flow of endorphin-fuelled emotions.

Stage one is where the cleverness and creativity comes in; the art — and indeed the science — of persuasion. Some believe the best way is to keep on repeating a literal phrase ad nauseam (‘the burgers are better’, ‘lowest prices are just the beginning’, ‘stop the boats’) whereas others prefer a more lateral approach, using carefully chosen words to allow the astute listener to reach the conclusion you want them to reach: ‘if you drink and drive, you’re a bloody idiot’, ‘thank God for the Salvos’, ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’.

Say you’ve got a smelly brown anti-septic liquid that consumers associate with toilet floors in hospitals. Your job is to expand your market into the family home. To do so, before a single new product hits the shelf, you first need to find an emotional trigger. Sell the idea to Mums that most kids encounter nasty germs in the schoolyard. Then, and only then, offer them your repackaged, sweet-smelling product. ‘I’m not washing my hands in that stuff, it’s for hospital toilets!’ will be the initial response. But then your pre-sold argument will kick in: ‘Yikes! Kaitlin might bring germs home and infect the whole family!’ Ker-ching! Job done.

If consumers are even remotely inclined to buy your argument, you must allow them to believe they have reached whatever conclusions you wish them to reach of their own accord. It’s like telling a joke; the punchline is so much more potent and effective if the listener makes the connection in their own brain.

Attempting to persuade the buyer rationally during the emotionally charged unveiling of the product is futile. Afterwards, it’s almost hopeless.

Like many in the communications game, I sat aghast watching the budget unfold.

Not because of the budget. By the time you’ve waded through it all most of it makes sense, and much of it will go some way to cleaning up the putrid mess Labor left behind. There are some worthy structural calls, and a long-overdue focus on returning the welfare safety net to being just that. The budget isn’t the problem; it’s the way it was sold. Or rather, the way it wasn’t.

Despite promising to be a government of ‘no surprises’, the budget contained more unexpected baubles and trinkets than a party bag at a North Shore nine-year-old’s birthday. Good, bad, petty, silly, worthwhile, extraordinary, bizarre, baffling, unexpected. They just kept on coming.

Ironically, the public were primed for a tough budget. The ‘end of the age of entitlements’ was a great slogan — all the product had to do was live up to the message. As with the beautifully simplistic ‘stop the boats’, everyone who voted for the Coalition was prepared to hold their nose at whatever nasty smells came along so long as the boats actually stopped. The desire was there, and the negatives had been satisfactorily dealt with.

And so it was with the economy. All the Coalition had to do to satisfy the electorate was cut some wasteful Labor spending programs (Gonski, excessive bureaucracy, the ABC, overseas aid, climate stuff), tighten up the dole (which they have done) and aim for a surplus. Instead, a whole raft of unexpected ideas entered the fray. A ‘cure for cancer’ is a great idea, but it’s suspiciously snake oil-ish and should have been sold well beforehand to create an appetite for it. Same with the massive spending on roads. Introducing the concept of new taxes to pay for — er, what exactly? — so late in the day was reckless. Worst of all, the $80 billion hit to the states — the most critical part of the budget — came completely out of left field; whereas it should have been pre-sold as a classic example of Labor mismanagement and profligacy. Had the argument for the states cuts been aggressively sold beforehand, rather than after the event, there would almost certainly not have been such an unprecedented negative backlash. It made the entire budget look like a con-man’s pea and thimble trick, shuffling the problems to someone else and fuelling justifiable fears about how the states will now be forced to recoup the funds. (Funds which only ever existed in the Rudd-Gillard fantasy world, but we only really learn that now.)

By not pre-selling consistent arguments, the Coalition have dangerously opened a pathway for Labor to exploit the confusion; and offer a purely emotional response that to many sounded vaguely plausible amidst the fog of uncertainty.

Selling the budget now becomes a wait and see game; hoping the electorate buy the claim that Labor left the house on fire and the tough measures will douse the flames. Unfortunately, the problem now isn’t whether the numbers in the budget stack up or not, it’s whether that argument does. Explaining the rationale for many of the unexpected measures becomes almost impossible in casual conversation over a few beers, because in the critical pre-selling period there was no consistent, persuasive, emotionally compelling message.

Still, I suppose they could always just run a few taxpayer-funded ads to do the job.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Cardinal fang

    Put lipstick and eyeshadow on a pig and guess what? You still have a pig. As for for the dynamic duo abbot and hockey what are our core beliefs today? Let’s ask the tele or better still , we can ask Andrew . He will tell us and all the others, you know Janet, nick ( let tell you about my new book) miranda, the parrot they will sng the same song. So we must be correct.