COMMENT: By Bryce Edwards
Is the National Party's latest online advert deliberately designed to provoke a backlash from liberal opponents? And is National trying to feed the fire of a growing culture war in New Zealand? It's seems so, and the party's desired result is being achieved.
The taxpayer-funded 30-second video was launched on social media on Wednesday. You can see the ad about KiwiBuild here on Twitter: They're all sizzle, no sausage. So far, it's had 48,800 views on this single tweet.
The piece of advertising propaganda was immediately attacked by opponents as being sexist, particularly because it incorporated some backward gender stereotypes, with a young woman being lectured to about the failures of KiwiBuild by a young man being condescending. Some labelled it "man-splaining".
Most prominently, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern correctly pointed out that the ads looked like they came from the 1970s, referring to their backward nature. But she was careful not to take too much of the bait, saying "I think if people see the ad they can make their own judgement on it".
Others have been readier to express condemnation and even outrage. For example, the Minister of Women's Affairs, Julie-Anne Genter attacked it as a portrayal of a gullible woman being mansplained to by two patronising males.
Plenty of other commentators have condemned the ad – today the Herald's Damien Venuto wrote about how the woman in the ad was "the literal embodiment of every dated blonde joke ever told" – see: The mistake National keeps making in its terrible ads. He warns the party that they are stepping "into a giant advertising turd by belittling a large portion of the voting public: namely women."
Venuto predicts that the ads will backfire, giving Labour an electoral advantage: "These ads reinforce the notion that National is the old, rich party, looking to maintain the power dynamics that have long existed in New Zealand society. If anything, it gives Labour further impetus to reinvigorate the smart unifying message delivered in its previous election campaign."
There has been widespread criticism. Linda Clark tweeted sarcastically, "Policy is complicated. I needed a man to help me understand it". Another posted: "I am actually in furious tears over how sexist that National ad is. Blatantly, explicitly, intentionally sexist. How are we meant to move away from a culture of violence towards women when our political rhetoric expressly permits this?" – see: National Party's KiwiBuild attack ad comes under fire as sexist and incorrect.
But was all this negative reaction actually exactly what the National Party was seeking? Commentator Danyl Mclauchlan admits that it might be a "grand conspiracy theory", but that this is "exactly what they wanted to happen". He wrote an article yesterday arguing "Progressives are actually the primary target for this ad and it is designed to offend them. Offense and controversy makes things newsworthy and earns you coverage in the mainstream media, thus potentially reaching a far greater number of viewers" – see: Notes towards a grand unified theory of the terrible National Party sausage ad.
Quite clearly the strategy has worked, with National's ad gaining huge amounts of media coverage. In this regard, Mclauchlan argues that it's a clever attack advertising strategy, which has some parallels with the operating style of the US President: "This is Trump's great innovation in political marketing: you don't need to pay for advertising you just repeatedly outrage progressives, especially those who work in the media, and they'll give you all the free coverage you could hope for."
Mclauchlan concludes: "Presumably there will be more: maybe the next shocking thing will be the next National Party ad, giving online progressives the chance to spend the whole year furiously amplifying National's talking points."
Could National's strategy actually therefore be primarily designed – not just to get more attention, as Mclaughlan argues – but also to push the party's liberal opponents into furthering their reputation as being obsessed by being "politically correct" or "woke"?
This is what I argued this morning on Newstalk ZB, saying "Most supporters of National will just see this ad and think 'oh National is criticising KiwiBuild', whereas National's opponents read much more into it, they've seen it and been provoked by it and fallen into the trap" – see: People outraged over 'sexist' National attack ad have 'fallen into trap'.
Essentially National's strategy is a highly cynical attempt at a type of "reverse dog whistle politics" – because their own base and the voters they are trying to win over don't pick up on any underlying offensiveness of the advertisement, but opponents do and they react accordingly. As I explain on Newstalk ZB, "Many others fell into the trap, gave it publicity and called it out and for a lot of New Zealanders they would have seen the ad and thought it just seems like a silly ad and thought the complaints about it... were a bit over the top."
Therefore, a "cringe-worthy and clumsy" ad manages to feed into, and thrive off, the growing culture wars in New Zealand. Because the context in which National has launched this ad is one of 1) heightened sensitivity towards social justice, sexism, and gender politics, and 2) a reaction against such "woke" politics, with a lot of frustration and abhorrence at social justice progressives and their outrage.
Hence, National Party deputy leader, Paula Bennett has been able to come out and defend the ads, strongly positioning her party as in opposition to "outrage culture". She has been reported as saying that "it's easy to find offence if you're looking for it", and people need to "lighten up".
On RNZ, Bennett "was asked if she thought young, blonde women need government policy explained to them by men" and she responded: "Oh, no more than fat brown ones or any other male that I might know or anyone else. It's got nothing to do with gender it's got nothing to do with hair colour it's got nothing to do with any of that sort of thing" – see: Paula Bennett defends 'no sausage' mansplaining ad on KiwiBuild.
This article also points out that National's male MPs were being put under pressure in Parliament and by the media, essentially being quizzed as to whether they are sexist and whether they "mansplained". National was probably quite happy about this narrative of their MPs being under attack.
And if they was any doubt that this "woke-provoking" strategy was being used, then it's worth noting that National's pollster David Farrar blogged to say: "National will be delighted that woke activists on Twitter are so stupid they managed to get all this free publicity for the advertisement" – see: Woke activists fall into trap.
Newstalk ZB's political editor Barry Soper has also viewed National's ad as being designed to provoke a strong reaction from opponents: "Today it's the talk of the town, mainly because these days everyone's so politically sensitive, careful about what they say for fear of causing offence and National knows it. Which is why the ad's had the impact it has" – see: National's Kiwibuild ad the talk of the town. On National's strategy, Soper says "It's brilliant and it's had the desired effect: getting everyone fired up and the public talking."
Also at Newstalk ZB, Heather du Plessis-Allan has come out strongly against the ad, saying "it's a clever ad. But it's disappointing" – see: Make no mistake, National's BBQ attack ad is sexist.
Not only does du Plessis-Allan draw attention to the backward gender stereotypes in the ad and the "mansplaining", but also to the apparent use of sausages in the ad as a putdown of the Labour Party and Jacinda Ardern: "The sausage is a phallic symbol FYI. If that sounds too conspiratorial to you, you're being naive. This is an effective political ad and effective political ads almost always contain some sort of subtle dog-whistle. And very little in such an ad is an accident. The sausage is deliberate."
Nonetheless, the impact seems to be working – with a backlash building against the advert complainants. The Herald reports the following readers' comments with examples of people cheering on the ads: "PC gone mad", "Bloody brilliant" and "People need to get over themselves" – see: 'People need to get over themselves': Swell of support for National's 'sexist' BBQ ad.
Finally, National's attack conjures up memories of other attack ads run by the party in the past, and the classic to watch is their 1975 Dancing Cossacks video.