Comparing Successful and Unsuccessful Spin Essay

Liesbet Van Zoonen states that “politicians are presented as the characters in a script sometimes written by themselves, but more often by their advisors, the in-famous spin doctors.” (2005:29) Eric Louw concurs with this idea of “performance politicians… for the purpose of manipulation”  (2008:143) He adds that the media has become the “central site” for hegemonies to be “built and sustained” – privileging the role of professional communicators to set effective political agendas and discourses.  The management of these hegemonic discourses need to be constructed to appear opaque to the public. Therefore, spin-teams need to ensure the set discourses appear to relate to the needs of the public as oppose to the “temporal creation of any hegemonic group.”  (Louw 2008:114) As politics becomes more professionalised the role of the political self has also become an integral vehicle to gain mass approval. “The figure of the politician [individually] has long been at the centre of political culture,” (Corner & Pels 2003:80) hence the capability of spin-doctors to “play the media game” (Louw 2008:102) in order to ensure successful “image –making and discourse management” (Louw 2008:108) becomes vital to ensure a political brands “saleability.” (Errington and Miragliotta 2008) Furthermore, as the public increasingly appear to “vote for persons and their ideas rather than for political parties,” (Corner & Pels 2003:80) ‘performance politicians’ are required to rely on their spin-doctors to battle over the central resource of publicity. (Louw 2008:89) Consequently, “successful” means of spin doctoring is vital in politicking, as the marketing of politicians appears to mirror the creation of entertainment celebrities. (Corner & Pels 2003:7)

This essay will examine two separate Australian political identities, that being ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the current opposition leader, Tony Abbott. Particularly, the essay aims to identify and analyse the strategies undertaken by both spin-teams to conceptualise a political campaign and their adherence to the ‘manufacture of political celebrity’ in the intentional construction of a ‘political profile’.  Both campaigns will be compared as examples of “successful” and “unsuccessful” spin respectively, identifying factors contributing to both success and failure of the case studies. The essay will identify “successful” spin through Rudd’s spin-team’s effective construction of a ‘political profile’ that engages the public through a relatable mediated persona, stands by clear policies (that appear to be for the benefit of the public as oppose to his own hegemonic group) and through the mobilizing of a victim discourse when confronted by opposition. In contrast, the essay identifies “unsuccessful” spin through Abbott’s elitist persona, the unnatural construction and visibility of the motives behind his policies, and the dominant mobilizing of a villain discourse that is evident in his campaigning.  However, it is acknowledged that both spin-teams were “successful” in creating a ‘political celebrity.’ Therefore this essay specifically defines “successful” spin as concurrent to positive rather than negative publicity.

Furthermore, the essay aims to identify the contribution of journalists and visual media (television) to the success and failure of both spin-teams throughout the essay.

Jessica Evans defines celebrity as “a resource created and deployed by a range of interlocking media…to which audiences respond in all manner of ways.” (Evans 2005:2) The mediated production of a ‘political profile’ resembles this as Louw concurs and explains that the construction of ones “chosen identity” relies on the consumption of a required “multitude of identities” (2008: 151) in order to involve the “interest of millions of people.” (2008: 8) This aligning of discourses allows for “people’s connections to figures they know only through their representations in the media.” (Turner 2000:2)

The 2007 national elections saw the arrival of newcomer Kevin Rudd. Rudd’s spin team, led by Tim Gartrell, took advantage of Rudd’s “blank canvas” deciding to “fill the canvas in before they do” (Hartcher 2009:175) and effectively constructing a “chosen identity.” (Louw 2008:150)  This was essentially achieved through the implementation of two television ads. Louw argues that the television is the perfect platform for spin as it captures audience attention through not only relaying a visual message, but also through its capability to rile up emotion. Further stating, that the implementation of emotion is a superior form of spin doctoring, due to its ability to remain with the audience. (Louw 2012) Corner and Pels concur, highlighting the relevance of public emotion when presenting a “mediated persona.” (2003:67) Therefore, deploying Rudd’s ‘chosen identity’ through the visual medium of television effectively allowed audiences to become connected with a media represented figure.

Former Queensland premier, Wayne Goss, stated that Rudd “worked hard at becoming normal” (Jackman 2008:18) it was this image of ‘relatable-normal’ that the first ad attempted to achieve. Utilising a farm backdrop, the first ad had Rudd explain what he hopes to achieve as prime minister. Gartrell explains his aim of creating a “purely positive” (Hartcher 2009:175) ad, allowing Rudd to consume the identity of a regular ‘bloke’ who grew up in rural Queensland. The second ad had Rudd stating simply that he is known as an “economic conservative” with the intentions of creating a “safe alternative.” (Hartcher 2009: 176)

Much like Rudd, Abbott’s spin-team strived to achieve the same ‘relatable’ factor in the construction of his image. Abbott, and his now widely known budgie smugglers, addressed the discourse of sporty Australians (involving himself in sport competitions such as the NSW Ironman triathlon).  Also, with attention to “popular values,” (Corner and Pels 2003:75) Abbott utilises his “private sphere as a resource” in order to ‘personalise’ his political profile. (Corner and Pels 2003:75) “Going personal” is considered a strong option for politicians “but there are hazards.” (Corner & Pels 2003:76) In an attempt to construct the image of a  ‘loving father’ in Women’s Weekly magazine, Abbott instead received negative publicity after sharing to the interviewer that “he wants his daughters to adhere to the ‘rules’ on sex before marriage.” (Mitchell 2011:104) Intentionally or not, Abbott acquired the title “Mad Monk” (Mitchell 2011:126) as a consequence of his attempts to add conservative issues such as abortion, divorce and sex before marriage to the political agenda.

Furthermore, Abbott’s recurring conservative views is what Corner and Pels define as “uncool politics.” (2003:96) The definition of “cool politics” being not only “popular, but popular in a particular way.” (2003:96) This forcing of his own personal opinions as political agenda made his hegemonic group (the liberal party) appear to be a “conservative party.” (Mitchell 2011:136)  Consequently, alienating a large group of the mass public. As Louw states “hegemonic dominance involves, among other things, circulating appropriate discourses… that are seen as legitimate.” (2008:113) Through involving his own personality, Abbott portrayed a conservative, religious discourse that Australians (being a secular country) found hard to relate to. The ‘Mad Monk,’ though as iconic a term as ‘Kevin07,’ represents negative publicity therefore for the purposes of this essay exemplifies “unsuccessful” spin.

Another aspect in the construction of a political profile is the marketing of political policies. Louw highlights the importance of a “naturalized set of hegemonic discourses or practices” in order to create “hidden power relationships.” (2008:114) This accentuates the importance of hegemonic discourses being “opaque-givens” to legitimize hegemonic discourses (policies and agendas).  (Louw 2008:114)

Blogger Mia Freedman, whose blog caters to 140 000 subscribers, wrote an article regarding Abbot’s conservative views and their effects on women. She stated “if [Abbott] is elected as our PM in the future I would be very scared for women everywhere.” (2010) It wasn’t long after the public’s establishment of Abbott’s ‘sexist’ image (Mitchell 2011:83) that he announced a paid parental-leave scheme as part of his political agenda. However, in 2002 Abbott declined a similar scheme and was quoted saying “over this government’s dead body.” (Mitchell 2011:148) As a result Abbott failed to market his policy, as it appeared unnaturally implemented for the sake of his own hegemonic group (and the improvement of his own reputation) as oppose to the public. Therefore demonstrating an ineffective means of implementing his political agenda.

In contrast to Abbott, in the implementation of Rudd’s policies Gartrell stated “he wanted to find a marketing theme to fit Rudd.” (Hartcher 2012:172) Louw will argue that a focus vision is important in holding hegemonic teams together. (2008:108) Hence, the decision to base Rudd’s policies on the recurring theme of “progress towards the future” (Hartcher 2012:174) effectively demonstrated “good leadership” over his hegemonic group. (Louw 2008:108) Furthermore, Rudd’s implementation of political agendas such as climate-change and broadband Internet suitably served this notion of “progress” for the sake of the public as oppose to his own hegemonic group.

As leader of the opposition Abbott made clear that “attack was his default position.” (Mitchell 2011:137) The Frankfurt school would argue that this implementation of “discursive turmoil” amongst opposing hegemonic groups merely represents “superficial ‘huffery and puffery’.” (Louw 2008:115) Abbott’s ‘No-man’ attitude brought little to the table with the exception of ‘political theatre.’ However, Louw will argue that these ‘bullying’ tactics can be identified as an effective means of spin as it is necessary for opposing groups to intervene in the “production and circulation of communication.” (Louw 2008:116) Therefore, it can be justified that through his ‘villainous’ and negative participation Abbott ensures the opportunity to sway mass opinion through the media. (Louw 2008:101) This demonstrates effective spin in giving Abbott publicity, however the role of a political ‘villain’ establishes a negative ‘political profile.’

Unlike Abbott, Rudd and his spin-team decided to maintain the original concept they had for Rudd’s ‘political profile’ (easy-going bloke from rural Queensland). In order to maintain this image, Rudd effectively utilised inaction against his opposition. This ensured the mobilizing of a victim discourse. This decision of inaction against his opposition’s attacks (Abbott was leader of the opposition during Rudd’s time as Prime Minister) highlighted Abbott’s “brutish, loud and aggressive” political attacks. (Mitchell 2011:83) The decision not to fight back was effective, Louw concurs that “destroying ‘the villain’ will [not] necessarily fix ‘the problem.’” (2008:141) The constant “placing of blame” by the villain figure effectively “differentiates between good and bad power relationships.” (Louw 2008:141) Therefore, by allowing the opposition to play ‘the villain’ highlighted Rudd as a “person of qualities” (Corner and Pels 2003:75)

The integral role of journalist in the building of hegemonic power is evident as they are the “gate-keepers” of information. However, the “process of selection” requires the retrieval of information in the first place. Journalists are the ultimate “agenda-setters,” a role which holds great significance in steering public opinion. (Louw 2008:160) In the case of Abbott, his spin-team appeared to have made the decision that his political tactic was to “get right in your face [and] grab headlines.” (Mitchell 2011:144) There have been several occasions where “unscripted debates” (Mitchell 2011:126) and comments made by Abbott have outraged the public. For example, during an attempt at demeaning Rudd’s climate-change policies Abbott was quoted saying: “What housewives of Australia need to know when you do your ironing…” (Mitchell 2011:142) This comment led to outrage amongst women but there was no denying that Abbott was regularly part of the media agenda.  This tactic proved to be effective in gaining publicity however, as previously mentioned, this ‘villainous’ ‘political profile’ instigates negative publicity.

In contrast to these tactics, Rudd’s spin team decided to utilise new media platforms such as Twitter to address the public. Louw states that journalist can be a nuisance to politicians as they are capable of “emphasising and de-emphasising” particular issues, consequently stirring the public’s emotions. (Louw 2012) Therefore, this decision to cut-out the middleman allowed for him to reach the public in a more personal and controlled level. Furthermore, Rudd’s use of Twitter was highlighted on the popular television program Rove Live (2007), where Rove from then on instigated a weekly “Twitter-Time” segment.  This consisted of humorous anecdotes about the then-Prime Minister. Rudd’s support of these segments outlined his fun-loving ‘political profile.’

To conclude, though the essay defines “successful” spin as concurrent to the extent of positive publicity achieved by a manufactured ‘political profile.’ The essay recognises that Tony Abbott and his spin team, despite not garnering a predominantly positive reputation, was “successful” in mobilising spin to garner strong public support. It can then be argued that no publicity is bad publicity as the definition of positive and negative is subjective. However, the essay stands by its argument that Kevin Rudd is an example of the “successful” mobilising of spin to construct a ‘political profile.’ This was justified through successfully utilised spin-tactics that positively engaged the public, presented opaque discourses and displayed good ‘moral-fibre’ against his opposition.

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Van Zoonen, L. (2005) Entertaining the Citizen: When Politics and Popular Culture Converge, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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