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The skill behind the billboards

Electoral results matter more than billboards, which in any case are only one minor part of a campaign. But billboards reveal more than just the message a political party wants to give. Behind the billboards lie the human resources of a Party: the collective ability to strategise and articulate a raison d’être; the capacity to pace an audience, and then lead it.

So, as we wait for the result of the European Parliament and local council elections, it’s useful to think about the skill behind the billboards. It’s not an autopsy or art criticism. It’s like an MRI: a scan of strategic and communicative abilities. It’s hardly everything you need to know. It leaves out the vital social media, for one thing, and government-funded partisan messaging, for another. But it is an essential glimpse of where a political party is heading.

I’m not downplaying financial resources. They matter a great deal. Labour flooded the roads with its banners and billboards, as well as government-funded messaging, and that flooding was part of its unofficial message: We’re all-powerful and it’s silly not to join the gravy train. And, doubtlessly, cash problems help explain why so many of the minor Party billboards looked as though their candidates had their mugshot taken in the same bunker in which Osama Bin Laden recorded his messages.

But money isn’t everything, either. If a small Party, with only two or three candidates, uses its few billboards pointlessly to show us their faces, instead of a message that resonates with their target audience, then we know the party’s problems aren’t just financial. The inability to come up with a coherent message is a symptom of a deeper malaise: inexperience, lack of leadership and the likelihood that the Party is a gaggle of independents more than an organisation with a mission.

Compared with all the other billboards, those by Labour and the PN were vastly superior. But a comparison between Labour and the PN, alone, shows up serious shortcomings in the Nationalist campaign.

In comparing the two campaigns it’s important to remember that the rationality of campaigns is not built on critical thinking. A billboard is not Socratic dialogue. It’s based on the power of association, like any advertising. It seeks to appeal to the structure of our everyday thinking, how we feel things in our gut and the way we jump to conclusions.

A competent campaign also has a logical structure. To persuade you must, first, pace your audience, walking in step with it; after you’ve shown that you are in tune, you then begin to lead opinion, taking your audience to where you wish to go.

On both these points – association and pacing-and-leading – Labour showed professional mastery. The PN, however, was weak in both. Perhaps part of Labour’s head-and-shoulders superiority has to do with its ability to buy in expertise. But what is indubitable is that the PN currently does not have the necessary expertise within its senior echelons.

Labour’s Malta F’Qalbna (Malta Is In Our Hearts) billboards were clever. Yes, they played the patriot card; but they didn’t spell out what it meant. They broadcast it in all the colours of the rainbow. People were invited to interpret the slogan to mean what they personally thought it meant, and to associate it with festive fonts and colours. The multi-colours were bound to feature anyone’s favourite colour.

Hats off: Labour took a right-wing slogan and wrote it out in the iconography of Austin Powers. A Malta First agenda was likened to a warm, fuzzy, pluralist, pleasurable rainbow.

Next, Labour appealed to various aspects of well-being – from quality time with the family to jobs – once more, simply pacing the audience. A critical thinker would say all this had nothing to do with the EP or local elections. But the point was to associate personal well-being with Labour.

Non-verbal messaging invites people to fill in what they want, and then think you’re promising it. The weakest Labour billboards were those that moved to direct verbal messaging. Having paced, they began to lead by saying that Labour offered aspiration and hope, not fear.

The wording was clumsy – so terrible, in fact, that you wonder if Labour would have the skill to articulate a message, as a governing party, in more economically challenging times. But the billboards soon moved to the destination of the whole campaign: inviting voters to line up behind Joseph Muscat.

Yes, it’s quite a jump from 2013, when the invitation was for each voter to become a “protagonist in history”. In 2019, it’s become an invitation to fall behind the Great Leader.

But the point here is that it was a clear, logical message driven unobtrusively by the entire set of billboards. Whatever you think of Labour, the skill displayed by its billboards says something important about its machine.

Of course, Labour also had a negative campaign. But it featured only in a minor way on its billboards. The real attacks, such as those on David Casa and Roberta Metsola, were carried out by its unofficial mouthpieces and on social media.

In contrast, the PN billboard campaign showed no overall structure. The Party did have a detailed set of proposals, including some on a European anti-cancer strategy that make political sense in context. But a billboard associating your name with cancer? Cancer?

And when people, not having seen the detail, will think you’re overselling yourself? While in the same week your rivals are talking about meeting aspirations?

Even the PN “positive” messages were framed in a negative way. Take another example. The pro-life message became a No in a “referendum on abortion”. It’s understandable that an Opposition operating in a period of economic growth will focus on those struggling and left behind. But you can’t just pace. You need to lead. And the PN’s billboard campaign led nowhere.

That, of course, was part of a more general leadership problem. During campaigns, leaders usually improve their personal approval ratings. Adrian Delia’s worsened. He was elected on the assumption that his rhetoric of anger would mobilise voters. Did he even jolt the needle once with the voter segments that matter for the PN?

I doubt it. He said nothing remarkable, nothing moving. Whatever the results of Saturday’s vote, the real question is: How much can the PN improve under Delia? He says this is just the end of the beginning. But the beginning of a movie is usually pretty revealing about whether you’re going to enjoy it.

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