How to win elections

Like everyone, I’ve watched in dismay as recent political campaigns have become mired in negativity, poor strategy and ill-advised communications.

Reactive policies, tacky scare tactics and pompous sloganeering is no way to lead. Flagrant self-interest by politicians and the political class puts citizens last. It’s not just bad taste. It poisons public discourse and our future.

I’ve advised many corporations and brands on how to communicate more successfully, including Apple, Orica, Porsche, Nike, Qantas, SBS and others.

Here are 44 things I’ve learned along the way that apply to the business of politics.


1. Universal truth. Communications is an art, not a science.

People first make decisions emotionally which they then rationalise logically. Putting logic before emotions in any communications puts the cart before the horse.

Voters across every demographic want what they’ve always wanted - love, acceptance, beauty, health, nutrition, community, social status, relief from suffering, transcendence.

In politics this translates as jobs, income and national prosperity. Appeal to the public’s self-interest, not yours.


2. Everything is communications. Advertising, public relations, corporate affairs, marketing, branding, design, etc. It’s all communications.

Every way your candidate and party interact with people is an opportunity to communicate successfully. Or not.

Many candidates and parties trigger their own communications problems by saying one thing in one media, claiming the opposite in another and then doing something else entirely. Every problem is a communications problem.


3. Party personality. Every piece of communications should contribute to the complex symbol which is the party personality.

Ninety-five percent of all communications is created ad hoc. Most parties lack any consistent personality from one year to another. This breeds scepticism and distrust.

It’s the personality that voters buy. Whoever dedicates their communications to building the most sharply defined personality for their candidate and party gets the most votes.


4. Most important decision. I’ve learned the effect of your communications depends more on this decision than any other: How should you position your candidate and party?

The results of your campaign depend less on how I create your communications than on how your candidate and party are positioned. It follows that positioning should be decided before communications are created. Research can help. Look before you leap.


5. Better promise. The second most important decision is this: What should you promise voters?

A promise is not a claim or a theme or a slogan. It’s a benefit, clear and simple. It pays to promise a benefit which is unique and competitive. And the candidate and party must deliver the benefit you promise.

Most communications promise nothing. It’s doomed to fail.


Stefano Boscutti - Embody the big idea in a simple slogan that calls voters to action. Three or four syllables is plenty - Run it everywhere - Stefano Boscutti

‘Embody the big idea in a simple slogan that calls voters to action. Three or four syllables is plenty. Run it everywhere.’ Stefano Boscutti


6. Big ideas. Unless your communications are built on a BIG IDEA, it will pass like a ship in the night.

It takes a BIG IDEA to jolt people out of their indifference. To make them notice your communications, remember it and take action.

BIG IDEAS are usually simple ideas. BIG SIMPLE IDEAS are not easy to come by. They require genius and midnight oil. A truly big one can change a country’s fortunes - like Labor’s IT’S TIME campaign.


7. How to recognise a big idea. According to Stefano Boscutti, it will help if you ask yourself these three questions:

- Did it make me gasp when I first saw it?

- Does it fit the strategy to perfection?

- Is it unique?


8. How Aristotle recognises a big idea. According to the father of Western philosophy, you ask yourself these three questions:

- Is it lucid?

- Is it pleasing?

- Is it strange?


Stefano Boscutti - Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill - Buddha

‘Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.’ Buddha


9. Words make all the difference. There’s a magnitude of difference between good and bad communications.

John Caples has seen one advertisement sell 19 1/2 times as much as another. Same size, same image, same copy. Different headline. A handful of words can make all the difference between failure and success.

Think of words as music. Consider beat, tempo, timbre, rhythm, phrasing, harmony, melody, etc.


10. Medium is the message. Context is king. How your message appears says more than you think.

When a party runs a rushed 30-second commercial on television, it appears panicked and distressed. At best it negates the message. At worst it triggers cognitive dissonance and seeds distrust.

Rather than a scattergun approach, run longer and more confident commercials that help voters picture a better future. Help them see a better version of themselves.


11. Positively good. How do you stand out in a world of policy parity?

Don’t slam the competition, don’t get down in the muck. Convince people that your brand is positively good. Dial down the hyperbole, dial up the honesty.

Don’t insult people’s intelligence. Put your best foot forward.


12. High-quality. It pays to give candidates and parties an image of high-quality.

Stefano Boscutti has been conspicuously successful in doing this for Apple, Ford, Levi’s, Nike, Porsche, Qantas, SBS and others.

If your communications look ugly, people will conclude that your candidate and party is shoddy, and they’ll be less likely to vote for you.


13. Don’t be a bore. Nobody was ever bored into paying attention. Yet most political communications are impersonal, detached, cold and dull.

It pays to involve people. Humanity is key. Don’t show a hospital being constructed. Show patients being cared for.

Talk to them like a human being (not an algorithm) Charm them. Make them smile. Make them hungry. Get them to participate.


14. Be first. Be a leader. Start political and policy trends instead of following them. Communications which follow a fashionable issue or are imitative is seldom successful. It pays to innovate, to blaze new trails.

You may not be right every time. But you’ll be leading the way. You’ll be seen as a leader. Onwards.


15. Psychological segmentation. Any good communications agency knows how to position candidates and parties for demographic voter segments - for women, for old men, for farmers in Far North Queensland, etc.

But I’ve learned it often pays to position for psychological segments of the market.

I’m fond of positioning high-quality brands to fit nonconformists who scoff at status symbols and reject flimflam appeals to snobbery.


16. Burr of singularity. The average person is now exposed to thousands of communications a day.

Most of them slide off their memory like water off a duck’s back.

Give your communications a flourish of singularity, a burr that will stick in people’s mind. One such burr is the MNEMONIC DEVICE, or relevant symbol - like the triple drumstick logo I devised for Triple J.


17. Don’t bury news. It’s easier to interest voters in a policy when it’s new than at any other point in its life.

Many candidates and parties have a fatal instinct for burying news. This is why most communications for new policies fail to exploit the opportunity that genuine news provides.

It pays to launch your new policy with a loud BOOM!


Stefano Boscutti - Who needs a logo? Distilling communications to a single, powerful issue catapulted Margaret Thatcher and the conservatives to power with a parliamentary majority of 43 seats

Who needs a logo? Distilling communications to a single, powerful issue catapulted Margaret Thatcher and the conservatives to power with a parliamentary majority of 43 seats.


18. Go the whole hog. Most election communications campaigns are too complicated.

They reflect a long list of objectives from well-intentioned committees. They embrace the divergent views of too many party officials. By attempting too many things, they achieve nothing.

It pays to boil down your strategy to one simple promise - and go the whole hog in delivering that promise.


What works best in commercials


19. Avoid irrelevant celebrities. Testimonial commercials are almost always successful if you make them credible.

Either celebrities or real people can be effective. But avoid irrelevant celebrities whose fame has no natural connection with your candidate and party.


20. Problem-solution. You set up a problem that people recognise.

Then you show how your candidate and party can solve that problem. And you prove the solution.

This technique has always been above average in gaining attention, and it still is. But don’t use it unless you can do so without cheating. The voter isn’t a moron.


21. Visual demonstrations. If they’re honest, visual demonstrations are generally effective.

It pays to visualise your promise. It saves time. It drives the promise home. It’s memorable.


Stefano Boscutti - The New York Times dubbed It's Morning Again in America one of the most effective campaign spots ever

The New York Times dubbed “It’s Morning Again in America” one of the most effective campaign spots ever.


22. Slice of life. These playlets are corny, but they’ve been known to get actors re-elected as President of the United States.

Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again in America” re-election campaign showed people going to work, farmer plowing fields, kid delivering newspapers, couples getting married, families working on their homes, raising the American flag in dawn’s early light. A cadenced, warm voice over.

‘It’s morning again in America. Today, more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of the 1980s, nearly 2,000 families will buy new homes. This afternoon, 6,500 young men and women will be married. And, with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can afford to look forward with confidence to the future.’

At the end, a campaign button of President Reagan against a gold-tasselled American flag.

‘Under the leadership of President Reagan, the country is prouder and stronger and better.’

Reagan was moved to tears when he saw the commercial, saying, ‘I wish I were that good.’ He went on to victory, his sunny personality reinforced by the inspirational commercial.


23. Show don’t tell. Make your pictures tell the story. What you show is more important than what you say.

Many election commercials drown the viewer in a torrent of words and statistics. You can create great commercials without words.


24. On-camera voice. Commercials using on-camera voice do significantly better than commercials using voice-over.

Although not always. Hal Riney’s measured voice over for Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again in America” re-election campaign tugged at people’s heartstrings. Melodious, direct, sincere, resonant, mellow, laid back, comforting, bourbon-soft.


25. Musical backgrounds. Most commercials use musical backgrounds. But musical backgrounds reduce recall of your commercial. Very few creatives accept this.


26. Stand-ups. The stand-up pitch can be effective if it’s delivered with straightforward honesty.


27. Animation. Less than five percent of television commercials use cartoons or animation. They are less persuasive than live commercials.

The viewer cannot identify herself with the character in the cartoon. And cartoons do not invite belief (unless you’re talking to children).


Stefano Boscutti - The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place - George Bernard Shaw

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’ George Bernard Shaw


28. Salvage commercials. Many commercials which test poorly can be salvaged.

Faults revealed by the test can be corrected. I’ve doubled the effectiveness of a commercial simply by re-editing it.


29. Grabbers. I’ve found that commercials with an exciting opening hold their audience at a higher level than commercials which begin quietly.


What works best in headlines


30. Branded headlines. On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.

So if you don’t include the candidate and party in your headline, you’ve wasted 80 percent of your money. That’s why most of my headlines include the brand name and the promise.


31. Benefit in headlines. Headlines that promise a benefit are more effective than those that don’t.


32. News in headlines. Time after time, I’ve found that it pays to inject genuine news into headlines.

People are always on the lookout for new perspectives, or new possibilities.


33. Simple headlines. Your headline should telegraph what you want to say in clear, simple language. Readers don’t stop to decipher the meaning of obscure headlines.


34. How many words in a headline? David Ogilvy found that headlines of ten words or longer sold more goods than short headlines.

In terms of recall, headlines between eight and ten words are most effective.


35. Localise headlines. In local communications, it pays to include the name of the city in your headline.


36. Select your prospects. When you advertise a policy which is aimed at a special group, it pays to flag that group in your headline - ART LOVERS, WANT A NEW ART GALLERY?


What works best in copy


37. Yes, people read long copy. People read what interests them as long as it’s well written.

While readership can fall off rapidly up to fifty words, it drops very little between fifty and five hundred words. (This page contains 2,669 words, and you’re still reading it.)

Stefano Boscutti has used long copy with notable success – for Nike, Orica, ANZ, Qantas and others.


38. Story appeal in words. Stefano Boscutti has achieved notable results with copy structured as a story.

People are naturally drawn to a universal narrative sequence that puts them at the heart of a story that leads to transformative success.

Candidates and parties that make themselves the hero of the story miss the point entirely and waste everyone’s time. No one likes (or believes) a braggart.


What works best in design


39. Story appeal in photographs. Create photographs that suggest a story.

Enough of a hint that people want to read the copy to find out what’s going on. All it takes is a little juxtaposition, an unexpected visual twist. Something no one’s ever seen before.

The more story appeal you inject into your photographs, the more people look at your communications. It’s easier said than done.


40. Before & After. Before & After advertisements are somewhat above average in attention value.

Any form of visualised contrast seems to work well. Such contrast reduces drama to its most elemental.


41. Photographs vs. artwork. I’ve invariably found that original photographs work better than drawings.

Original photographs attract more readers, generate more appetite appeal, are more believable and better remembered. Stock photography? Not so much.


42. Use captions. On average, twice as many people read the captions under the photographs as read the body copy.

It follows that you should never use a photograph without putting a well-written caption under it.


43. Editorial layouts. I’ve had more success with editorial layouts than with trendy layouts.

Simple, non-fussy editorial layouts get higher readership than conventional advertisements.


Stefano Boscutti - Donald Trump trademarked the phrase Make America Great Again as his campaign slogan and rallying cry  

Donald Trump trademarked the phrase “Make America Great Again” as his campaign slogan and rallying cry. But he wasn’t the first to use it. Ronald Reagan used it in the 1980s. And Bill Clinton in the 1990s.


44. Simple brand assets. Create consistent, constantly-used, easy-to-remember brand assets which over time will create distinctive memory structures.

These sensory and semantic cues will refresh and reinforce memory structures and keep your candidate and party top of mind. Avoid unnecessary changes.


Stefano Boscutti - Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men - Solon

‘Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.’ Solon

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