They're coming to get you

Look at me!

Richard Prebble stands outside the walls of Mt Eden prison to promise “zero tolerance” of crims. Winston Peters next day says Prebble should have been inside.

Pansy Wong bungies off the Sky Tower in Auckland to dramatise her campaign for Auckland Central and the Chinese vote.

Helen Clark poses with hammer in hand as a billboard is erected in Richarson Road. Bill English goes boxing. Jim Anderton “sings” Pokarekareana.

A United Future roars up to the party launch in a rally car to show off his former prowess at the sport.

Stunts. Expect more over the next few weeks. It’s a trick we learnt as kids to get our parents to take notice. The politicians are just trying to get attention — and that’s not easy in this gimme era when entertainment rules.

In gentler-paced times, when football and netball games had no need of hyper MCs and cheerpersons in tiny skirts, politics used to be entertainment. Drafty halls would fill. Hecklers would joust with platform orators.

There still are flashbacks. The Aro Valley community centre meet-the-candidates show in Wellington Central is a great night out. Ageing smart-asses with sagging waistlines lob verbal googlies and politicos try to hit them back.

But most voters’ idea of entertainment is that it comes cellophane-wrapped on the telly.

So election contenders’ first need is to get noticed. And in the blink of an eye when the attention is there, they must implant a fragment of message.

Political marketers know how to get attention because in other lives they have sold power-drinks or cars. The techniques are similar. The difference is that politics is not a discretionary purchase. We are all buyers, willy-nilly — and the risk of being sold a pup is high.

There was a time when the marketers were the politicians themselves. King Dick Seddon and Sir Keith Holyoake could consummately read an electorate and reflect back its yearnings.

But from as early as 1925 when the mercurial A E Davy ran Gordon Coates’ successful Reform campaign and then in 1928 turned his coat to work similar wonders for Coates’ ramshackle United opponent, professional marketers have been in the act.

Now they are over every election like a rash.

Even an astutely observant politician such as Helen Clark pays close attention to what “focus groups” of various types of voters tell researchers about attitudes to issues and a party’s position.

In the United States candidates often use focus groups and the like to work out what policies to campaign on. It hasn’t reached that point here but parties use them to work out how to phrase their policies and which elements to emphasise or de-emphasise.

Then what? In the old days the politicians were their own messengers, in halls, on street corners, on the doorstep. You still get a fair amount of that but you also get:

* stylists of hair, face, clothes, deportment and presentational skills, who transform leaders (for example, Helen Clark) or don’t (Bill English);

* writers of a wide variety of publications, ranging from books by leaders (Prebble in 1996 and 1999, Peter Dunne this year) to mock magazines (a National initiative this year) to more traditional pamphlets and leaflets;

* brand experts, for example, Zespri brand-queen Bronwyn Pullar’s zippy campaign management of Wong;

* event organisers — Labour’s launch was super-slick, National’s like amateurs night;

* design experts, who tart up logos, billboards (Labour’s direct, National’s a mishmash, ACT’s blunt) and other visual campaign material;

* creative directors, who think up ads, videos and television presentations — and slogans (Labour’s soggy, National’s ambiguous, the Alliance’s clever);

* websites, good, bad, indifferent, slow, slick, sabotaged and bogus;

* direct marketers, who mine electoral rolls and other lists for your name and, if possible, something about you, to target a pamphlet or letter to your tastes; Labour’s president, Mike Williams, pioneered this in 1981;

* oh, and footsloggers erecting, wrecking and repairing billboards, delivering pamphlets, manning phone banks calling supporters and waverers, enrolling sluggards and collecting special votes from the halt, the lame and the old.

If you can discern the politicians — the real politicians and their real messages — through that fog, good luck to you. Next time you think an election belongs to the people, think again.

The politicians you will mostly see are the leaders. They not only carry the message; they are the message. For a large party and even some small parties a lot goes into grooming and shaping the leaders into presidential figures.

And then a lot goes into getting them in the right frame, so the right picture appears on the 6pm television news. Beware if you are in the wrong factory, vineyard, school or health clinic at the wrong time or take your kids to a shopping mall without forethought or even just walk down Queen Street minding your own business. You are a potential cooptee in some stagey “casual” photo-opportunity.

Sick of this manipulative treatment, the news media now try to force these highly risk-averse leaders off their saccharine scripts and on to issues voters get hot about. Leaders’ minders get ratty at reporters; reporters get on high horses. It’s fun in the scrum.

It is entertainment — of a sort and for a few. And it will cost the country at least a big seven-figure sum and maybe an eight-figure one. That’s the price of professionalised democracy.