Saturday, October 18, 2008

Greens' poster child leads the pack

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, Otober 14).

IF THE ELECTION outcome were decided by the impact of party election hoardings, the Greens would be a shoo-in.

Their billboards depict an appealing but vulnerable-looking child pictured against a backdrop of that increasingly precious commodity, water, with the simple yet powerful slogan “Vote for me”.

The wording is a clever twist on a line normally used by candidates themselves, but it also plays on voters’ anxieties about the future. It’s a highly effective piece of political sloganeering, made to look even better because of the dreary competition.

John Key’s National Party has gone for the extraordinarily unadventurous line “Choose a brighter future”, which would have seemed bland even in the party’s conservative 1960s heyday. Cynics might say it perfectly matches the party’s strategy, which (as far as one can tell) is to take no risks and offend no one. A more apt slogan, borrowing from a famous quote in the movie When Harry Met Sally, would have been: “I’ll promise what she’s promising”.

Labour, on the other hand, has simply given up. “Party vote Labour”, its billboards say – a tacit admission, it seems, that it has no achievements to boast of and no vision with which to inspire a jaded electorate. Instead it’s counting on a large and suspiciously flattering photo of the Dear Leader to mobilise support.

A more effective poster might have had a sterner-looking PM with the wording: “Vote for me, or you’ll all be kept in after school”.

Advertising slogans have been credited in the past with turning entire campaigns – think of Labour’s success in 1972 with “It’s Time” (borrowed, if I recall correctly, from Australia). Election campaigns were seen as an opportunity for cutting-edge advertising agencies to make their mark with bold and provocative ideas, such as Colenso’s inflammatory Dancing Cossacks ad for Robert Muldoon’s National Party in 1975.

No chance of that happening in 2008. Even ACT, the party most willing to frighten the horses, has opted for non-threatening billboards. What they need is something a bit more edgy, perhaps playing up Rodney Hide’s pitbull side – something along the lines of, “Vote for me, or I’ll rip yer bloody arms off”.

* * *

CELEBRITY endorsement of political parties is a distasteful American phenomenon that should be discouraged.

Sam Neill introduced it to New Zealand when he backed Labour in 2005. Musicians Don McGlashan and Chris Knox lined up behind Labour too, and now Outrageous Fortune actress Robyn Malcolm has a starring role in the Greens’ election campaign.

It’s significant that such people back parties of the left, which tend to be generous in doling out taxpayers’ money to the arts sector. Many actors would be out of work without state handouts, so there may be an element of self-interest as well as inflated self-regard at work here.

Why is the practice distasteful? Because people like Malcolm and Neill are no more qualified than plumbers or bank tellers to advise people how to vote. They, and the parties they support, improperly trade on their celebrity status in the hope that it will sway mindless voters.

Having a famous face confers no political wisdom or insight. Actors become household names for one reason only: their ability to pretend they are someone else – hardly a recipe for political credibility.

* * *

WHATEVER his faults as a prime minister, David Lange had a gift for the apposite phrase. And he was never more correct than when he coined the expression “demented reef fish” to describe the jittery, irrational behaviour of players in the investment markets.

The myth that big investors have nerves of steel and make decisions on the basis of cool, clinical analysis has taken a hammering in recent weeks, just as it did in 1987. It’s clear to virtually everyone but the participants that the markets are driven by a toxic combination of greed, fear and panic.

They exhibit a behaviour pattern eerily similar to manic-depressive illness, alternating between irrational exuberance when markets are going up and black despair at the first sign of the inevitable downturn.

I’ve watched the share price of a company in which I have a modest investment bounce around crazily from one day to the next, not because of any specific development but in response to “market sentiment” – a euphemism for Lange’s demented reef fish.

We’ve seen these creatures in Jacques Cousteau documentaries – massive schools swimming furiously in the same direction one moment, then being spooked by some imagined menace and mindlessly darting off in another.

It all helps to explain why economics is such an imprecise science. Ultimately, it’s about human behaviour in all its caprice and unpredictability.

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