National’s initial Stop/Go TV ad is a pretty good one. Clean, to the point, not bogged down in detail but jampacked with symbolism:

Toby Manhire, writing on The Listener‘s excellent new website, has already done the analysis so I’ll quote him:

Red STOP Labour sign-guy looks a bit tense, uncomfortable, slouchily off-centre. His fist is closed, zip sloppily undone, and look at the state of those shoes.

He looks like he might just call in sick tomorrow because he feels like it, even though the country’s economy will suffer, while he just lies around, stuffing his face all day.

Green-blue GO National sign-guy looks comfortable but focused. Shoes are good. Sensible. He’s a little unshaven, but that’s because he’s a bit like the All Blacks, don’t you think? Like John Key is a bit like the All Blacks.

Check out the clouds, too. Fluffy, familiar things above Green-blue GO sign-guy; grey, foreboding, riskier bastards above that Red STOP man.

It can be no coincidence, what’s more, that the shadow GO Blue Green GO sign GO the All Blacks sign guy casts a shadow pointing where? The centre, people, the centre of the road.

But hang on a moment. The symbolism of a lazy Labourite and a clean-cut Tory is laid on a bit thick — and the scruffy old Labour guy looks just a tiny bit “ethnic”, if you know what I mean. Moreover the whole Stop/Go metaphor is a bit trite — trite enough that it was the basis for a satirical diary piece by David Slack in December last year:

And If you think about how traffic control actually works, the metaphor has coherence problems. Last night, Anna Hodge tweeted the following observation, which in hindsight seems so obvious:

Also, does National understand road works? Or fairness? You need sign-holding dudes with both GO *and* STOP to keep traffic flowing.

Um, quite. For some to go, others must stop (at least until we get reef-fish-inspired traffic management systems.)

Anna’s tweet generated a bunch of responses as the narrative of the ad began to unravel. Mine was that if you’re at the front of the queue, only the GO sign matters; others were about the size of your SUV, the increase in inequality between north- and south-bound traffic flows, and the fact that Stop and Go signs are the same sign, just viewed from different angles.

Aaron Hicks remarked that the STOP sign at road works means that there’s actually work going on, a point you’d have thought might be clear to a government undertaking such an aggressive roading policy. And did the green of the go sign hint at a National alliance with the Greens? But they’ve spent the last decade and a half telling us that the Greens’ green means stop so green is basically red, and now their own green (not even a Blue-green!) means go?

The more you think about it, the more tangled and incoherent the narrative gets. And yet for all its flaws the ad works. It relies on people not thinking too hard about it — upon audiences swallowing whole the top-level symbolic material Toby described, making what Stuart Hall called a hegemonic reading of the text. In Hall’s model the second audience position is a ‘negotiated’ reading — such as Toby’s analysis itself, which recognises the hegemonic aspects of the discourse but doesn’t necessarily accept them, and the third position is ‘contrary’; consciously reading against the text’s hegemonic meaning — what Anna did, as did those of us who responded to her observation.

A lesson from this is that reading a tightly-encoded text counter-hegemonically is hard work. Audiences are not sponges or “sheeple”; they will often take a negotiated position, but in general such a position doesn’t prevent the text from having some impact. This illustrates a point of strategy that my regular readers must be bored tears with by now: you can’t rebut a text like this head-on with wonkish facts and figures. Dry details about Labour’s record and plans on economic progress wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to the effectiveness of this particular ad, for two reasons: first because the hegemonic material doesn’t lodge in the head, it lodges in the guts (it’s truthiness, not truth); and second because such a rebuttal implicitly accepts the framing of the original text, and that framing is half the payload. But subverting the paradigm, man, that’s where the action is.

I’m not suggesting a comprehensive strategy to counter the National party campaign could be composed around a response to one 15-second ad, but if a counter-strategy was to be composed, that’s how you’d do it. Don’t berate people for accepting the hegemonic position, or for negotiating: find ways to make them see it in a different light.


14 thoughts on “Stop/Go

  1. Nice.

    So how would it work? Should you try and get one of them there counter-hegemonic readings front and centre by directly referencing Nationals symbols? Co-opt the symbolism by using a stop/go sign guy in a different context sort of thing?

  2. Ah yes, the implementation question.

    The short answer is: there’s no really good answer. Because by the time they see National’s campaign Labour must already have its own campaign mostly in swing, there’s only a limited range of counter-options — especially in a short cycle such as we have (it’s different in the US context where you have the primary season and then almost a year to get your act together.

    So they don’t want to spend limited resource jumping at shadows. More crucially, though, whatever they do in response to other campaigns must be congruent with what they’re already doing — ideological, message and brand incoherence is the great enemy.

    For this reason it’s also necessary to be very careful about adopting or co-opting your opponents’ symbols, themes, and narrative — it can work well, but it can backfire spectacularly. A good, recent example of this is the many parodies of the Obama ‘Hope’ poster, most of which the activists thought were very funny, but really just strengthened the (already-strong) Obama brand.

    So I’m not too hard on Labour for not responding to this sort of thing; they have their own strategy and brand and, for better or worse, it’s almost certainly more effective to stick with it than to freak out and diversify without proper consideration. The purpose of highlighting it was really to illustrate how it might be done in the general case.


  3. Note too that if you’re coming from behind (literally or figuratively!) the signs are reversed. OH GOSH. :P

    (Lew: a simple response would be, in fact, just the image from behind, though I agree with your unpacking of the dangers of any response. No one ever said National wasn’t good at PR.)

  4. So to keep up the ideological, message and brand coherence, replace the National guy’s go sign with a sign saying “Asset sales”? Would that work?

  5. Are National allowed to use Labour’s branding in this ad? I guess it’s possible because they’re not actually using the Labour logo they won’t get pinged for it, but this use of the same font Labour uses and the same shade of red seems to me to be a breach of the spirit of the law if not its letter.

    But, yea, effective ad. Probably very cheap to make too. I do find it interesting that the “John Key” brand continues to be sold just as enthusiastically as the “National” brand.

  6. @ Chris Waugh. Several versions of your idea have been done among the many parody ads on Facebook in particular. Instant media from some Labour supporters (Fairness at Work) etc. saves head office even having to think about a response.

    The best in my view has “Assett Sales” on the road in correct perspective as if painted on, and a stand up “No Exit” sign added to the right of the National guy. One registered promoter has used this in printed form so feedback will be possible to help test Lew’s theory.

    The parodies using the blue background and the PM are running out of steam just as the realworld Nat versions are due to over-familiarity, the basic ‘look’ having been around since ’08.

  7. What it says to me is:
    “white guys with degrees! Vote National, and you could wind up working as a stop-go man on road construction”.

    (Incidentally, it’s a sad indictment of NZ that such a job survives. In most other developed countries, they rent a portable traffic light rather than paying two people to stand there all day twirling signs)

  8. Indictment?

    I understand there’s an NZQA accredited course in Stop-Go Sign Manipulation with an appropriate frameable certificate awarded to successful graduates,

  9. Don’t you understand that the people currently employed as stop-go sign holders would be much better off on the dole? Can’t you see how terrible it is that they haven’t been replaced by electronic signs?

    This has little to do with anything, but my favourite political ad of all time is a Labour TV ad from the 1970s which showed a montage of ordinary NZers doing various good kiwi things. The ‘kiwi working man’ bit was one guy shovelling cement into a mixer while two other guys sat around smoking. Ahh, the 70s…

  10. Maybe we should stop using excavators and other heavy plant? Construction would employ way more people if they had to dig holes with picks and shovels…

  11. I didn’t stop and digest the whole of the above, so apologies if any of this is extraneous, but as an (unwitting!) instigator I think:

    1. It’s not a great ad. It’s a pretty poor one. It’s not immediately obvious what the point is; you have to read four separated words (National, Labour, Stop, Go) to get it, and the colour symbolism is not immediately obvious, as you say about the green.

    2. Which means it mostly lends itself to propping up the normative and old-school schema, National-Blue vs Labour-Red. A lot of well-thought-of (in a communication sense) ads do. The iwi/kiwi ones did. My viewpoint might be a minority, but certainly my underlying reaction — underlying my partisan reaction, that is — was, possibly strangely: Oh, look, Labour and National seem to be working together to make a road, how nice.

    3. Which means, when you unpack it, you can take your WTF in a number of different directions. Charitably, you’d think that National, straining for an iwi/kiwi, didn’t bother to think through the metaphoric implications. But there are certainly plenty of long but apt bows you can draw for them from the imagery they have presented us with, mostly about fairness.

    4. Rats, I’ve lost my four somewhere in the ether. Just looked above, and I guess I disagree with Lew that the ad works *well*, depending on what market the National Party are aiming at (see e.g. that they have added words to the online version of it), but I agree it works well *enough*. And that’s probably why we will have whatever gov’t we will have come the election.

    Over and out, xA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *