Government advertising: wasteful drain on taxpayers’ dollars or delivering value to New Zealand?

Antony Young of The Media Lab asks marketers and communications specialists working in the public sector how they balance scrutinised budgets with creating effective and potentially lifesaving public service and behaviour change campaigns.

The New Zealand Government, being the country’s largest advertiser, allocates millions of dollars to media companies, agencies, and consultants. Prior to this year’s election there was plenty of rhetoric directed from the Opposition ranks. Questions were raised about the government’s use of advertising to promote its policies, leading to accusations of wasteful spending and claims that Wellington was disconnected from the rest of the country. With a change in government, advertising is going to come under a microscope.  

Health advertising budgets for instance equated to the cost of hospital beds and nurses. Emails and presentation decks were fair game to be OIA-ed (Official Information Act). Ministers were interrogated in Parliament or more conspicuously by Mike Hosking on NewstalkZB. Consequently, government agencies, including public service departments, crown-owned entities, and bodies, tend to adopt a risk-averse approach in their communications strategies.

So how do governments marketers deal with these challenges? Typically, Wellington’s public servants stay out of the press, but I had the opportunity to speak on the record with a number of communications and marketing professionals working in the public sector. 

Advertising that saves lives

If you’re marketing an energy drink or energy retailer, your goal essentially is to grow product sales or market share. For some government agencies advertising is about saving lives

Fire and Emergency NZ’s (FENZ) aims to protect lives and property explains marketing manager, Kelley Toy. “Our communications and marketing remit is to educate the public on the potential impact of fire to prevent house fires, wildfires from occurring.”  

In a recent initiative FENZ pitched burning an entire house down on live TV on Seven Sharp. Equipped with cameras inside the house, a team meticulously lit, tracked and broadcast how quickly it could burn ablaze. Toy added they were quite deliberate in their messaging, “if the fire is bigger than a football, you won’t be able to put it out, dial 111”. The very next day, a woman in Greytown credited that advice for saving her life.

The government’s Covid-19 communication programme, despite its substantial $97 million cost, is estimated to have saved tens of thousands of lives. Transport agency Waka Kotahi has set an ambitious goal of reducing the road toll by 40 percent by 2030, with advertising as a key strategy.

Few would oppose this work’s purpose, but a lot of other government advertising doesn’t meet the “saving lives” bar.  

Making the business case for advertising

The Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) has less altruistic advertising objectives but ones that make good business sense. It receives approximately two million injury claims each year, resulting in roughly $5 billion in payouts annually. ACC argues that by preventing injuries at scale, it can justify increased marketing support. Like any business, quantifying the return on investment for marketing is challenging. ACC’s Prevention Programme Leader, James Whitaker, emphasises the need for a measured and scientific approach to driving results. 

Whitaker credits two of ACC’s Senior Marketers in its Behaviour Change team, Rebecca Whiting and Nick Farland who worked extensively with its research company Kantar and ACC’s claim data over a two-year period to develop a business case to invest behind the national advertising programme, “Have a hmmm.” This research showed that Kiwis “she’ll be right” wasn’t as predominant as they thought.” The strongest motivator was the potential impact on others.  

ACC’s agency VMLY&R created two TV spots, a young guy jumping off a waterfall; and a mum balancing on a bookshelf to swat a fly. They directly spoke to two predominant segments in their research, with the tagline, “If you get hurt, who gets harmed?”  

Since its launch in 2021, ACC has seen peoples’ attitudes shift significantly. Prior to the campaign commencing, just 13 percent of adults claimed to “taking action to prevent an injury to myself.” Two years on, this this metric has nearly tripled to 35 percent. “As this kind of behaviour change movement takes years to kick in, we expect to be able to see an impact in claims data in future financial years. For now, we’re focusing on lead indicators,” says Whitaker.  

Unlocking consumer insights

Behavioural change campaigns must go beyond telling, education or just the facts. That’s where I’ve noticed extraordinary efforts to understand New Zealanders across Government agencies. With one of the highest rates of colorectal cancer in the world, bowel screening significantly reduces the risk through early detection. As part of the National Bowel Screening Programme (NBSP) free tests are sent out after New Zealanders turn 60. Māori and Pacific peoples record significantly lower participation rates.  

The insight work developed by the Puhimoana Ariki Collective (a partnership of three agencies, Bright Sunday, Wawata and The Media Lab) found these audiences told them creatively to be positive, use humour and talk to it head on.

The creative idea which included a soundtrack performed by the Howie Morrison Junior Trio, featured Hone taking the Bowel Screening self-test and mailing it off, to the encouragement of whanau with a tamaiti (young boy) saying, “you can poo it.” The campaign resulted in a significant increase in understanding of bowel screening among Māori, Pacific and those with disabilities.

Taking risks in a risk-averse sector

Behaviour change campaigns are hard to implement especially when the Ministers overseeing government agencies can be risk averse.  Every once in a public sector campaign is bold and does something different to cut through.

Te Whatu Ora developed a programme to destigmatise and encourage testing for Hepatitus C.  They essentially needed to reach people that may have contracted it through unsterilised needles from drug use or tattoo in their past.  They launched “Stick it to hep C,” using ads displaying talent giving the middle finger.  The controversial campaign led to 19 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and it was temporarily removed from TV.  It however, paid off cutting through and motivating some of the most at-risk individuals to get tested.  They saw a 1,000 percent increase in positive test results.

Earned media is as important as paid media

FENZ’s Kelley Toy extols the importance of earned media, particularly in making up for small paid budgets. “As a government organisation we’re more likely to pick up earned media,” she says and cites FENZ’s recently launched a cookbook titled, “You’re Cooked, Recipes to Avoid Disaster,” which contained meals recipes that didn’t require and oven or stove. This campaign caught a lot of attention. Newshub ran a three-minute segment featuring it, and its social media campaign was widely successful with over 650,000 views across TikTok. Incidents dropped 7.5 percent over the period of the campaign.  

However, media interest in government campaigns can be a double-edged sword, as reporters are quick to scrutinise. With a new government, scrutiny will go on marketing and communications budgets. Government advertising serves a purpose beyond mere information dissemination, whether it involves introducing new policies, passing legislation, or encouraging public participation. It’s not enough to just inform the public. You need them to want to engage and buy-in to what you’re serving up.  Maybe government advertising is like selling an energy drink or energy retail after all.

Antony Young is a partner at The Media Lab, Wellington’s largest independent media agency.

This article was originally published in the December/January 2023/2024 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

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About Antony Young

Antony Young is a partner at The Media Lab, Wellington’s largest independent media agency.

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