NOEL TURNBULL. It’s not the marketing – it’s the marketer

Scott Morrison has failed a fundamental marketing test-communicating authenticity.

The problem with Scott Morrison is not that he is a marketing man but that’s he actually not a very good one.

The Scottie from marketing criticism directed at the PM from many journalists and critics is partially based on a misunderstanding of what marketing is – simply conflating it with advertising, PR and sloganeering; partly based on a bit of hypocrisy; and partly on an inability to make a critical assessment of the marketing he actually does. For the sake of simplicity, however, we can forego formal definitions of an area covering strategy, research, communications and other things and just focus on the meaning the PM’s critics give it.

In this context the PM’s ‘marketing’ expertise and background is illustrated by three case studies: his role in the New Zealand 100% Pure tourism campaign; the Where the hell are you? Australian tourism campaign; and, the miracle election win.

The first was an undoubted success although the Lord of the Rings films played an equally important part. The campaign did boost tourist numbers as did the influx of some survivalist billionaires looking for safe boltholes far from a troubling world. Sadly for Morrison the campaign did not appear quite so successful to NZ auditors who expressed concerns about how it was awarded, developed and by whom.

The Where the bloody hell campaign could be regarded as just another embarrassing Australian attempt to project itself overseas but has new resonance and, even a touch of schadenfreude, in the context of Morrison’s arrogantly dumb Hawaiian trip and cover up. Morrison got terminated from this marketing job apparently for some reasons – other than the terrible advertising campaign – which have never been disclosed although possibly related to questions similar to those raised by the NZ audit.

The miracle win was a triumph for modern online disinformation campaigns but realistically it was narrow and winning against an Opposition Leader distrusted by the electorate – and even by many of his own party members – did not require divine intervention.

All marketers, even great ones, have the odd failure but this track record is not that of a great one.

In one sense though, Morrison is an examplar of a particular sort of marketing or business consultant. He can produce platitudes and gobbledygook at the doffing of a cap. Faced with mounting criticism of his bushfire efforts he resorted to classic managerial bullshit language when he said his Government was changing its posture from reactive to proactive. At a moment when clear, succinct, empathetic communication was required he defaulted to classic managerialist jargon.

Marketing is, of course, just another business activity – neither inherently evil nor godly – but just a discipline which can be deployed in many contexts. Social marketing campaigns (allied with other interventions) have dramatically reduced smoking; raised awareness of skin cancer; and, much to the chagrin of the both the anti-alcohol and alcohol lobbies reduced national alcohol consumption.

Many of the journalists and commentators revelling in describing Morrison as a marketing man work for organisations investing large sums in marketing – much of it wasted if the increasing problems of mainstream media are any indication. Even an insightful ‘Morrison as marketing man’ critic and writer such as the brilliant David Marr owes part of the success of, for instance his magisterial Patrick White biography, to the backroom work of his publisher’s sales and marketing staff.

Universities have also embraced marketing although why on earth leading ones such as Sydney and Melbourne pay such attention to some aspects of the discipline – such as mounting advertising campaigns – is incomprehensible. Cambridge and Oxford don’t undertake ad campaigns other than informational listings of events and short courses and some of the Australian universities’ marketing spend is probably as wasted as that of the media companies.

Moreover, marketing in the sense of strategic persuasive and/or informative communication, has been with us for millennia in forms often dictated by the technology of the time.

Monumental Roman sculptures and arches are not just architectural marvels but means of projecting a view of those they honour.

Cave art can be explained in many ways, as David Lewis-Williams’ The Mind in the Cave demonstrates, but informative ones are among some of them. Tens of thousands of years of Australian Indigenous rock art demonstrate not only great spiritual depth but also the ‘marketing’ of information about food sources and beliefs.

The Reformation may not have occurred without printing technology and joint printing industry-religious marketing campaigns as described by Andrew Pettegree in his book Brand Luther.

Louis XIV brought to monarchy one of the most sophisticated, multi-faceted and far-reaching marketing and propaganda campaigns in history. It did bankrupt him and the country but nevertheless it is still remembered today.

But whether Scottie from marketing will be remembered for much as a marketer is another question. The answer is almost certainly no. Not because he hasn’t tried hard, not because he hasn’t presented as a down to earth daggy dad, but because he has failed a fundamental marketing test – communicating authenticity.

As the great Marxist, Groucho, said: “All you need to succeed in life is honesty and sincerity – and when you learn to fake them you’ve got it made.” Morrison has followed the Marxist formula through the election and up to fires. Now he has been exposed, not as a miracle working marketer, but just another Wizard of Oz like the one Dorothy Gale finds behind the curtain.

Noel Turnbull is retired but worked in communications and marketing-related fields for more than 40 years. He blogs at http://noelturnbull.com/blog/

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Noel Turnbull is a blogger who has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia.

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