Reimagining Influence: Lessons from the Referendum

October 26, 2023

I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which I write this piece today, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to their Elders both past and present. 


I started writing this piece out of disappointment following the outcome of the Referendum. I wanted to unpack how we got here, and our role as marketers and the media in changing society’s attitudes (for good or bad).  While it is clear from some of the commentary that Australia’s systematic and systemic racial divide has played a role in the outcome, I wanted to make sense of how communications could have done better to create a different outcome on Referendum day for our First Nations people. 

Marketing 101

Although the headlines suggest otherwise, I believe the reasons why voters rejected the referendum are much more complex than where they live or how much money they make.

I’ve asked myself a lot over the last few days…

“How did the No campaign turn voters against a simple advisory body for First Nations people to have input into the policies impacting them?” 

“How did we go from the polls showing around 60-70 percent support for the recognition, to only 39 percent voting yes?” 

Kos Samaras, Former Labor strategist and pollster has widely said, “The No campaign did not win this referendum. It was the Yes campaign that lost it.”

And while I agree, the Yes campaign failed to do the bare minimum of marketing 101, the No camp used all the tricks in the book and highlighted the power we hold as communication professionals. 

Here are a few of my observations of where Yes failed and No (sadly) understood the assignment. 

A Problem to Solve

What is our purpose if it is not to solve problems? For customers, for brands and culture. Daniel Elk, Spotify founder famously says, “The value of a company is the sum of the problems it solves.” 

The Voice and The Uluru Statement of the Heart was established in the first instance, to solve a real and urgent problem. The current approaches to ‘Closing the Gap’ are clearly failing. Only four of the 17 measures are on target and reports show incarceration, suicide, children in out-of-home care, and early development all went backwards this year. 

A huge problem to solve. But if Australia needed more of a reason for change, the fact that the Government was spending billions of their taxpayer dollars on these measures to achieve almost nothing should do it. 

This is what the Yes23 campaign should have invested time and effort in communicating. 

But, the official line from Yes23 was:

“Listening, recognition, and better results.” 

Barely a problem in sight. Instead a message about ‘goodwill’, which failed to highlight why we were actually there in the first place.

Understanding Culture

“There is no force on human behaviour bigger than culture. Culture is the governing operating system of humankind, disproportionately influencing the decisions we make every single day. 

And if our job is to influence people to do things, we first need to understand culture.” - Dr Marcus Collins. 

It is often said that political campaigners are the best marketers because they know this to be true. Take the most recently famed examples: Trump & Brexit. Trump understood that the Americans were concerned about job stability. Brexit was the same. And now on home soil, the No campaign was no different. They understood the values and attitudes of the “soft voters” and relentlessly went after them. 

It's not rocket science. The soft voters tended to be in areas with higher proportions of working class or migrant voters, who are most concerned with cost-of-living issues. The response from the No camp? Dubious claims threatening people’s houses and taxes, all while provoking fear of division and danger. 

They strategically considered which audiences they needed to get under the skin of. Based on initial data, the No campaign spent 35 percent of its Facebook budget in South Australia and 33 percent in Tasmania across August and September alone. None of this budget was spent in NSW and VIC, based on the assumption that these states were harder to sway.

Three separate Facebook pages were set up to speak to the individual issues of each group they needed to convince: one being a conservative page, one sharing the progressive No message, and the other acted as a ‘neutral’ news source, yet only pointed out the flaws of Yes23. 

In stark contrast, Yes23 failed to read the room. The footprint of the campaign was overwhelmingly inner urban, and amongst communities that were already firm Yes voters. Rallies were in the CBD. Yes23 didn’t identify the key groups they needed to get the attention of and instead were pitching to themselves. The highly publicised backing of big business, including Qantas, amongst other celebrities, only further spun the narrative of the elite, inner city woke agenda.

Rational V Emotional

All the data on marketing effectiveness shows that emotion trumps rational arguments. 

While the assertions from the ‘No’ camp were built on disinformation, their messages were simple and highly emotive. A leaked recording of the No’s National Campaign Chief, Chris Inglis, in training campaigners and volunteers, heard him say, “When reason and emotion collide, emotion always wins; always wins. Play to people’s fears and suspicions, not facts or reason.”

Now to the tagline of the Yes23 Campaign:

"A First Nations Voice Protected by The Constitution"

It's abstract, it's rational. It definitely does not elicit an emotional response. 

Perhaps in realising this, the ‘You’re the Voice’ ad was released. The campaign not only leveraged an Aussie legend for a certain Australian demographic, it also spoke to other monumental moments in our history to pull on the heartstrings of the nation. But research shows it went over the heads of some of the key voting groups, with CulturePulse research showing only 26 percent of Central & South American voters knew who John Farnam was and 52 percent of Asian voters weren’t familiar with the song at all. 

All Signs Point to Attention

We know not all communication is created equal. Ideas that solve problems, understand culture and context, while those that are highly emotional are more likely to resonate. 

Brand messages are not just competing against each other; they are vying for attention from friends, heroes, entertainment and everything in between. When research shows 75 percent  of brands could disappear overnight and most people wouldn’t care, they are really fighting an uphill battle for attention. Being remembered is often the aim, but a message that spreads through culture, being shared and talked about is the absolute holy grail. 

If we look at how each campaign spread, there are very stark differences. Research shows that the Yes23 campaign and specifically pieces like the John Farnham ad were featured more often than the No messaging, but in traditional media. These comms were often just talking to the abyss, failing to resonate. However, the No campaign spread like wildfire. Data collected by Guardian Australia shows Fair Australia’s content had almost 21m plays compared to 1m plays on the official Yes23 accounts. 

The official No campaign account also dominated several of the most commonly used Voice to Parliament hashtags. For the most widely used hashtag, #voicetoparliament, seven of the top ten videos by total plays were from Fair Australia. Even on the #Yes23 campaign, nine of the ten videos are from Fair Australia. 

I hate to say it, but the No campaign went viral. 

A Glimpse at the Future

It’s obviously not as simple to say the No campaign simply understood the marketing assignment and used it to their advantage. Their communications were rampant with disinformation, not only coming from the top, but according to reports there were armies of inauthentic bots spreading falsities. 

When we use the power of communication to spread lies and change the course of history, where does that leave not only our industry but us as a society? It feels like a potentially new, Trump-style era is upon us, with the Referendum a test case to show it works in Australia too. 

“A democracy functions because you have a society that responds and engages with that incoming information, but I am deeply concerned that we’re past that now and we’re dealing with thousands if not hundreds of thousands of personalised bits of content that are no longer factual.” - Alice Dawkins, Reset.Tech .

It’s not only the ethics of the message, but the platforms we promote them on and give money to. When platforms like TikTok favour content around friction and conflict, who is at fault when content like that goes viral?

And while you might dismiss misinformation as a lack of critical thinking, it's inherently built into the way we use those platforms. “Our findings show that misinformation isn’t spread through a deficit of users. It’s really a function of the structure of the social media sites themselves,” - Wendy Wood, an expert on habits and USC emerita Provost Professor of psychology and business.

We might not be in political advertising but as an industry we need to change this storyline. If marketing functions to influence people, how do we make sure we all draw the line between influence and manipulation? How do we hold platforms accountable for the way they share information? How do we push our leaders to build safer information environments for us and generations to come? How do we guarantee our powers are used for good and not evil? 

The Digital Platforms Inquiry made recommendations for government action on media literacy in 2017, but the federal government is yet to implement any significant policies and programs. And research coming out of the vote shows 72 percent of respondents are concerned about "lies and misinformation" during the Referendum campaign. I don’t have all the answers, but surely this is the place to start. 


Our first priority following the Referendum needs to be to continue fighting for an equal and fair country for our First Nations people as the absolute bare minimum. What was initially a discussion of recognition and a say in their own issues became reduced to a political issue, dehumanising the real problems and lives at play. 

But our democracy also suffered this year, and now we are potentially sleepwalking into a future where no information can be trusted. 

Ideally, this isn't a glimpse into a dark, scary road ahead but instead a kick up the backside for us to re-define the power of communications. 

Words by Alycia Raco.