Advertising, Politics

My Sunday Star-Times review of latest Green and National billboards




The Sunday Star-Times has asked me to reviews this year’s election ads. The short version of my first review is in this morning’s edition. 

Here’s the long version…

First to leap into the ad-fray have been the Greens and National.  

Now folks, don’t be fooled by the Nats’ effort.

Looking at the assembled montage, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Left’s got it right, and the Right’s left floundering in a sea of symbols and excess verbiage.

And you’d be right about the Left. But quite wrong about the Right. 

Green and simple 

I can argue that Green eco-hoax policies would bankrupt New Zealand (not to mention starve even more Africans, as American green policies turn all the Africans’ food into fuel).

But I can’t argue with the quality of their advertising.

With one image and half a dozen well-chosen words, each ad strikes an emotional chord. Then it just as boldly asks for the sale.

 1 girl, 6 words.

This is a good ad. It’s just not original. Have a look at this one my partner and I did 20 years ago.

 1 planet, 6 words.

 2 kids, 6 words.

 2 kids, 6 words.

6 words.

 6 words.

Six words. Bang. That’s impact.

As I once told Dr Brian Edwards on radio in defence of the Iwi/Kiwi billboard, a billboard is not an essay.

Your market is hurtling towards your medium at 100k. (Or 180k in some cases, Brian.) You’ve got about three seconds to woo them and win them.

And the Greens do that. They stand for something. Loudly and proudly. Their ads are big and bold and brave.

If in doubt,
leave it out

To approve good ads, a client does have to be brave. That’s because great ads are more about what you leave out than what you leave in.

To get a thumbs-up from your audience, you have to leave in something interesting for them to do. Something that lets them join the dots and go “Aha!”

The best ads tend to be funny. And humour works like a spark plug. You’ve got to set just the right gap.

You can immediately see that the Greens have left out a lot of things that the Nats have left in.

Like irrelevant graphics. Like a boring slogan. Like the website address.


If voters can’t find a party’s website (clue: googling ‘National Party’ takes you straight to the home page), they’re not likely to be able to find a polling booth either, are they? 

So why clutter up your billboard in the vain hope that drivers will memorise the address – or, even worse, whip out a pen and pad and jot it down?

41 planes, 16 words, 2 arrows, 1 website.

Why lead off your campaign with a billboard festooned with 41 planes, 16 words (13 of them in capitals), four colours (three of them blue), two arrows (or are they corporal stripes to remind us of their commitment to our defence), a small logo, an even smaller ‘party vote’ and tick, a dull old-fashioned slogan talking about a brighter future, and the afore-mentioned website address? 

And then there’s the headline. Or rather, lines. In two different colours – over two other colours.

Everything but the kitchen sink. Oh, and any trace of John Key.

A Key omission?

Why would they leave their leader out when, as well as being prettier than Helen (I’m talking real Helen, not billboard Helen), according to a recent survey only 38 out of 60 young voters know who Key is?

And why run another billboard with 15 words and 36 computer mice that look disconcertingly like sperm?

36 sperm/mice, 15 words, 2 arrows, 1 website.

I’ll tell you why.

Because the Nats are not trying to win the ad battle. In fact, they’re actively trying not to win it.

Bland beats bold

The National Party of 2008 would rather be bland than bold. Bold is too close to Brash. And John Key is no Don Brash.

In his quest to become prime minister, John is not encumbered by a bold set of principles with which to take the country forward.

Instead he’s a master politician. He wants to win. He knows how to win. He is winning. And he will win. 

And he could win over 50 percent of the vote.

But to do so, he needs to win over a broad range of people – by no means all of them sane.

Sleepwalking with loonies

He needs to woo women to the left of Jeanette Fitzsimons. Well-meaning loony lefties who wouldn’t know a GDP from an IUD – but who certainly know they’ve had enough of head girl Helen.

So the last thing he wants to be is another bossy boots who stands for something. Especially when that something is unlikely to be their cup of fair trade tea.

Far better instead to be inoffensive and keep all sensible policies invisible. It’s called sleepwalking to victory, and the Nats are rather good at it. 

In that context, given that they’re trying not to get attention, these billboards are very successful.

But I do wonder about a couple. This health one in particular.

79 plus-signs, 13 words, 2 arrows, 1 website.

Now granted, the 79 plus-signs are a masterpiece of deliberately distracting design. Arguably the flagship of the whole sleepwalker campaign.

But I just have a wee bit of a problem with the choice of colour and arrangement of the pluses.

You see, I don’t know about you, but to me these signs, when arranged so neatly in rows, do not look like pluses.

They look like crosses.

Grave mistake

A field of uniform white crosses arranged neatly in rows does not equal something positive in my experience. It equals only one thing.


Epidemic-type death. As found in hospitals.

The white cross is what you get when the Red Cross has failed, as it were. 

If you must have pluses that look like crosses that suggest nurses, shouldn’t they be red ones?

Or is red on National billboards too much of a reminder of the Brash old days?

Bureaugrammatic bungle

Don’t misunderstand me though, chaps. I’m all for cleaning out the bureaucrats.

In fact, this image reminds me that decades ago I suggested to a Ministry of Transport bureaucrat that they should place a white cross by the roadside everywhere someone was killed by a car.

He told me it would cause more accidents than it prevented. The public, of course, knew otherwise, and in due course did it anyway.

So let’s have fewer bureaucrats. But let’s not have ‘less’ of them. That’s bad grammar. (Don and Richard Long wouldn’t have let that one through.)

Which brings me neatly to the education billboard.

An ad for Labour

5 faces, 20 words, 2 arrows, 1 website.

To me, four smiley faces and one glum face says that education is 80% sorted.

Now when I was at school, 80% was an A.

Of course, under NCEA, E is A, and A is C, and NA is E, and M is B. But my point is this. With this message, National are saying that four out of five kids are leaving school as happy as Larry.  

Which in my book makes this an ad for Labour.

17 words, 2 padlocks, 2 arrows, 1 website.
The two padlocks are in danger of evoking the simplicity of the red and blue approach here.

However, the use of padlocks instead of the more obvious doors (open home and locked prison), together with the ten-word headline, does much to seize back obscurity from the jaws of clarity.

More arrows
They did miss an opportunity to fill the background with more arrows, as in the upward-pointing prison garb variety. 

But that headline is a true community effort. Well done. 

17 words, 2 arrows, 1 website.

Now this one is seriously out of step with the rest of the campaign. It borders dangerously on the bold – so much so that it’s at risk of being noticed and labelled clever.

Perhaps it should be quietly dropped.

10 thoughts on “My Sunday Star-Times review of latest Green and National billboards

  1. Welcome to blogging, John. Well said on the billboards. The first three Nat billboards reminded me of tampon ads. “Vote National! Swim and ride horses with more confidence!”

  2. I thought that the correct English was that 80% of children don’t pass NCEA rather than does not. I hope some more knowledgable person can put me right on this matter.

  3. Can we talk about the one in five doesn’t/don’t question some more?

    Does it make any difference that the billboard isn’t talking about just one person, but one person in every five?

    And you’d replace ‘school leavers’ with “people” rather than “person” wouldn’t you? As in, “one in five people don’t pass”

    My grammatical senses tell me it should be “don’t”, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

  4. Fabulous John! I got up early today and had lots to do before my first appointment. But instead,I clicked on to your Blog and couldn’t stop reading – and chuckling! I wasn’t impressed with your Taiwanese National Anthem, however. I’ve just come back from spending a couple of weeks with some lovely Chinese friends in China, who naturally see things from a different perspective – and are not so forceful with their views! But I’d love to send you a couple of signs that I snapped in Pearl Tower in Shanghai that will make you smile. Keep blogging – it’s a great read and you make some excellent points very amusingly – and score a few too!

  5. Lovely to hear from you Wendy.

    Regarding Taiwan and China, if I’m a bit forceful with my views, it’s probably because Iris’s grandfather was stoned to death by the communists.

    His crime?

    Being a mayor.

    Someone who did his own thinking. A danger to society. Like those students they massacred in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the evil Falun Gong meditators they’re killing now.

    His son, Iris’s father, escaped to Hong Kong and then to Taiwan. So Iris is half-Chinese.

    I’m sure your Chinese friends are lovely people.

    But if they think that their government is all sweetness and light and Taiwan is a renegade province, that’ll be because they’ve been brainwashed from birth.

    (Mao had the nerve to call it the Cultural Revolution. Revulsion, more like. He made Hitler look like Mother Theresa. Seventy million of his own people starved, shot, stoned or tortured to death.)

    You may not know this, but Taiwan has never been occupied by the Communist Chinese government.

    The Japanese ran the place for 50 years up until 1945, then Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists took over.

    The communists have no justifiable claim to the island. It’s been running quite well without them for 59 years.

    These Bullies of Beijing have thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at Iris’s family and friends as we speak.

    They refuse to let Taiwan into the World Health Organisation. This caused many deaths from SARS, which of course they unleashed on the world through their backward farming practices.

    And all the while they lie through their teeth that they have Taiwan’s interests at heart.

    Sadly though, the world is falling for the Chinese propaganda like nine pins.

    First among cowards, I’m ashamed to say, is New Zealand – the first country to recognise the communists in 1973, and the first to suck up to them for a free trade deal in 2008.

    (Both courtesy of their socialist comrades-in-arms, Labour.)

    Some say this global wooing campaign is the first stage of China’s post-Olympic invasion plan.

    Once they can say that the world supports them, it will be much easier to take back their ‘stolen property’.

    Sorry if that’s a bit too forceful. Nothing personal!

    You must come and see us in Wellington some time.

  6. Helen – sadly this demonstrates the poor educational standards in New Zealand – we stopped teaching grammar long ago and should not have. Anyway, to answer your question we should parse the statement:

    1 in 5 doesn’t pass

    Are we talking about the 1 who fails or the 5 who pass? We are talking about the 1. So, what we have is:

    1 (in 5) doesn’t pass

    Take out the words in brackets and we have:

    1 doesn’t pass.

    Clearly we wouldn’t say “1 don’t pass”.

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