Messages and Media

The ways in which politicians and political parties have appealed to voters during election campaigns have changed dramatically over the years - especially since the advent of radio and television.


Many of the oldest forms of electioneering are still relevant in the 21st century: the public meeting at the local school or town hall, door-to-door canvassing, advertisements in newspapers, and the use of eye-catching posters, hoardings and leaflets.

Given the printing technology of the time, early election posters and hoardings were inevitably simple. From the late nineteenth century, however, they gradually improved in sophistication to include stylistic flourishes, symbols and photographs of candidates.

But content was still more important than form, and it was common for posters to contain very detailed information on candidates' policies or character.












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Peddling Politicians

The Reform Party's successful campaign in 1925, which was run by Bert Davy, set a new benchmark in New Zealand electioneering. Davy used the latest techniques from the commercial advertising industry and designed an American-style presidential campaign.history-coates-reform-poster_0.jpg

Instead of explaining detailed policies, Reform's advertising focused on the character of Prime Minister Gordon Coates, and employed bold imagery and simple slogans such as 'Coates and Confidence' and 'Safety, Stability, Progress'.

Labour MP John A. Lee described how in 1925 electors: "had the Prime Minister's photo coming to us in the morning news, in the evening news, wrapped around sausages, wrapped around fish . The Reform Party advertised the Prime Minister much in the same way that an advertising agency would peddle pills, soap, corn-cure, or backache plaster."














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First Broadcast Election Messages

Live election-night results were first broadcast on radio in 1922, but the immediate impact of the new medium was limited: in the mid 1920s only about one in 60 New Zealand households had a radio. The popularity of radio exploded in the 1930s, however, and by 1940 four out of five New Zealand households had a set.history-lee_0.jpg

Nevertheless, broadcasting rules prohibited the airing of programmes concerning 'politics or any other controversial matters'. In 1935 the Broadcasting Board banned all election candidates from the airwaves.

The first Labour government, however, was keen to take advantage of radio's potential to reach ordinary New Zealanders - especially as most of the country's newspapers supported their conservative opponents.

During the 1938 election campaign politicians were allowed to broadcast election messages for the first time, albeit under strict controls.

The state-owned National Broadcasting Service aired six speeches by Labour MPs, four by National members and two by independents. Private stations were only allowed to broadcast brief announcements of election meetings for 15 minutes each day.

Radio's role in election campaigns expanded in the 1940s, and it soon surpassed public meetings and newspapers as the single most important election medium. But political parties still used radio in fairly unimaginative ways, simply recording public meetings or broadcasting one-person studio lectures. Listeners needed plenty of stamina too: in 1960, for example, 10 of the 35 party broadcasts were two hours long.

Did you know?

In 1936 New Zealand became the first country in the world to begin regular broadcasts of the proceedings of Parliament.

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On the Box

Television arrived on the New Zealand electoral scene in 1963 but had little impact during that dull campaign.

Two hours of pre-recorded speeches were broadcast on each of the four regional television stations (compared to 24 hours of radio time). But most politicians appeared stiff and uncomfortable in front of the camera, and the telecasts were described as 'animated waxworks'.

During the 1969 and 1972 campaigns the style of election advertisements began to change. The airtime allocated to parties increased, and the minimum time slots became smaller. The old style of 'talking heads' explaining detailed policy proposals gave way to short, snappy advertisements that were simpler and more emotional in their appeal.

These trends were even more noticeable in 1975 - the first election held after the introduction of colour television and a second channel.

The National Party's leader, Robert Muldoon, was one of the first politicians to appear comfortable on television. That year National also caused a stir with colourful cartoon adverts featuring Russian Cossacks dancing across the screen - intended to suggest that their Labour opponents supported Soviet-style nationalisation.

By the 1980s television was firmly established as the most important electioneering medium. For a new generation of politicians, effective communication on the small screen has become one of the most vital political skills.

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