The World: The men taking their election campaigns online

But can a presence on Facebook and MySpace really help Australia's political heavyweights win office? Kevin Johns reports.

How do you take something as traditional as election advertising into the new-media world, without the politician in question appearing to onlookers like someone's granddad dancing at a disco?

Undeterred by the unfamiliarity of the medium, the Australian Labor Party leader, Kevin Rudd, is embracing online in his campaign ahead of this month's Australian federal election. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, John Howard, whose Liberal Party is tipped for defeat, has been slower out of the blocks.

Rudd's YouTube content is more popular than Howard's, and he's way ahead on MySpace, too. The Labor figurehead, who is 18 years younger than his opponent, has also created a Facebook page and bagged 5,000 friends. The level of online interest has been underpinned by Rudd's "KEVIN07" election branding and website, a concept that came in for some early stick from the Liberals.

"The idea of a 'hub', a central place online where all other media can point to, is an effective one for brands, and, in this case, it's working well for Labor," Andy Mallinson, the managing director of the BBDO-aligned digital agency NetX, says. "The Liberals panned the whole idea when it first came about; they're looking behind the game for criticising it in the way they did. And their own efforts are falling short."

But the first significant steps into online communication for Australia's main election candidates on both sides share common ground with many brands': it's been more about repurposing the old than inventing anything new. And Mallinson isn't convinced either party is up to the task of communicating in a way people who populate social networking sites are used to.

"A big issue for both parties is how they cope with the lack of control they have in the social networking space," he explains. "It's a challenge all brands face - letting go and working out how to respond to criticism - and politicians have the same headache. Do they play along with critical comments, ignore them or hit back?"

To puzzle over such issues, Labor has assembled a creative outfit called "07", headed by the local advertising luminary Neil Lawrence, while the Sydney-based Ikon, founded by the former UK agency duo Simon White and Gary Hardwick, and its sister digital shop, New Dialogue, are looking after media and online.

For the Liberals, Brian Lochnane, the campaign director, is presiding over ad duties, which are handled by a team of consultants, including the Melbourne agency stalwart Ted Horton. The media and online brief is understood to be with Starcom.

And media spend on the election could hit record levels. The two main parties are each expected to pump between £6.6 million and £8.8 million into their six-week campaigns.

But Mat Baxter, the Naked Communications Australia managing partner, who worked as a lead media planner for the ALP in previous agency roles, claims when you scratch the surface, some of the online efforts fall well short.

"The whole strategic rationale for Rudd or Howard entering the social networking space is a nonsense," he says. "Political and in particular election advertising is the ultimate one-way type of campaign. Using digital to just distribute messages - as they both are - instead of having a genuine two-way conversation with people online is ridiculous. Politicians will one day have to ask social networking communities for consultation - that certainly isn't happening now."

Regardless of medium, Dejan Rasic, the executive creative director at Sydney's Colman Rasic Carrasco, is also underwhelmed with both parties' advertising efforts so far. "There's nothing yet that makes you sit up and say 'that's a really cool idea or strategy'," he says. "Some of the TV ads even seem a bit like they're selling used cars; it's mostly just been them (Rudd or Howard) stood in front of dodgy-looking backdrops and talking to the camera. I've hardly seen anything really creative in any of it."

The Glue Society co-founder Jonathan Kneebone says the role the ads are playing is intriguing, thanks to the two leaders' starting positions. "It's a really interesting two-horse race. From an advertising point of view, Rudd is in a position where if he says too much or attacks too strongly, it could be risky - because he's in a position where it's essentially his to lose."

- Kevin Johns is the deputy editor of B&T magazine in Sydney.

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