The Ministry of Justice has called on one of advertising's most famous names to deliver information about the euthanasia and recreational cannabis referenda set to appear on the ballot at the September 19 election.
The appointment of Saatchi & Saatchi came after a procurement process in which five agencies from the Government's list of approved communications businesses pitched for the high-profile contract.
The ministry would not disclose how much money the Government had allocated to the campaign.
Caroline Greaney, the ministry's acting deputy secretary of policy, told the Herald the aim of the contract was to ensure voters have access to "factual, impartial information, on which to make their decisions in the referenda".
In her statement, Greaney repeated three times the refrain of "factual, impartial information". The same message was driven home by Saatchi managing director Paul Wilson, who described it as "privilege" to be entrusted with a project that has "the potential to shape our country for generations to come".
Saatchi said planning for the campaign was still in its early days, but the agency will be walking a creative tightrope to ensure its messaging remains objective.
Saatchi is no stranger to this kind of challenge, having worked on General Election campaigns in previous years, but the stakes here are high, given the strong emotions swirling around both issues.
Adding further complexity is the fact that political parties and pressure groups will al be watching the communications carefully, waiting for any hint of bias in the way information is presented.
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Any bias wouldn't even have to be overt to provoke a response. Massey University's head of public relations, Dr Chris Galloway, explains that there are often subtler forces at work when it comes to the dissemination of information.
"The challenge for Saatchi is that advertising is all about persuasion," Galloway says.
"In this case, their brief will be information rather than persuasion. And one of the things that scholars of communications are very aware of is that the way a question or an issue is framed can influence the way that people respond.
"They will need to be very careful in how they frame the information for the public."
In a 1981 study, cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman illustrated how the same factual information presented in different ways can ultimately affect the decisions people make.
Study participants were offered two treatment options for 600 people affected by a deadly disease. Treatment A was predicted to result in 400 deaths, whereas treatment B had a 33 per cent chance that no one would die but a 66 per cent chance that everyone would die.
The psychologists then added twist, framing these two options in a positive and negative light to look something like this:
• Positive: Treatment A would save 200 lives; Treatment B would deliver a 33 per cent chance of saving all 600 people or a 66 per cent possibility of saving no one.
• Negative: Treatment A would result in 400 deaths; Treatment B would result in a 33 per cent chance no people would die or 66 per cent probability that all 600 would die.
Treatment A was chosen by 72 per cent of participants when it was presented with positive framing, but only 22 per cent when delivered with negative framing. What's stark here is that the information presented was exactly the same in both instances.
Galloway says this process of framing plays out across public relations and media communications every day.
"I had a friend who was working on the building industry's leaky building issues and when I asked him how it was going he said: 'Chris, it's not the leaky building syndrome, it's the weather-tightness of buildings issues'. It's all about how you present it."
You don't have to look far to see the importance of language: the phrase "end of life choice" is often used in place of the more brutal "euthanasia", for example. While subtle, these distinctions have a way of burrowing into the subconscious and affecting the way we think. As Galloway explains, we often make decisions on an emotional level and then retrofit rationalisations to justify what we did.
There's also a level of political intrigue in the decision to include these two referendum in the upcoming election, given that they will appeal significantly to two groups on the opposite ends of the demographic breakdown: young people on the cannabis side and those closer to the end of their lives when it comes to euthanasia. These two groups, of course, correspond with the target markets of Labour's governing partners, the Greens and NZ First, respectively. Then again, it's anyone's guess who NZ First might side with come September.
One thing that's certain is that these issues will spark furious debate in the media as interest groups desperately vie to pull undecided voters onto their side. As much as Saatchi will do its best to offer a neutral nudge towards factual information, the communications happening around the core election campaign will be unapologetically partisan and loaded with one-sided facts.
In anticipation of the lobbying, cannabis researcher and historian Abe Gray told the Herald his hope is that the government campaign reminds voters that the cannabis referendum passing won't mean the law automatically comes into effect.
"The legislation will still go through more readings and there will be a call for the public to share their views," he says.
"Voting yes will just mean that you get to have a say in what the legislation ultimately looks like."
That might be true, but it won't stop media commentators and lobby groups like Family First from painting a dire portrait of New Zealand's future.
The question now is who will sway you? And will you even know you've been swayed?