Tuesday, August 23, 2016

No one owns blue

A Phil Goff for Mayor sign on Waiheke [Facebook]
The USA isn’t the only country with people who do silly political things based on their political ideology, naiveté, or lack of information or clarity of thought. New Zealand has them, too, of course, but complaining about the colour used in political advertising is probably among the oddest examples of this.

A person filed a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over a billboard for Phil Goff, a candidate for Mayor of Auckland example above. The person wrote:
“I am complaining about the content of Phil Goff’s election billboard content, namely the use of blue to fill the billboards. To me this is passing off and trying to mislead voters who associate blue with national [sic].”
The Chair of the ASA, Heather Roy, a former MP for the rightwing Act Party, “acknowledged the Complainant’s view the use of the colour blue on an Auckland mayoral candidate’s billboard was misleading as it was associated with the National Party.”

After a convoluted review process that considered the rules, ethics, and the requirement in legislation to give political speech as much leeway as possible, Roy finally concluded, “the use of the colour blue in the advertisement before her was unlikely to mislead or deceive voters and the advertisement had been prepared with a due sense of social responsibility.”

Accordingly, the ASA ruled—correctly—that the signs were NOT in breach of the rules and there were no grounds to proceed.

As a graphic arts professional, I can’t help but look at the larger issue here: NO ONE owns the colour blue!

It was absurd in the extreme for the complainant to argue that the use of blue was “passing off and trying to mislead voters who associate blue with national [sic]”. Blue is a colour commonly used in advertising, and is meant to convey feelings of safety, intelligence, reassurance, and trust, among other things, which is why political parties, banks, financial and medical institutions all love using the colour so much. But the complainant’s assertion here was really that in New Zealand politics blue is associated with the National Party alone. Bollocks.

Parties contesting elections for the NZ Parliament do, indeed, have particular colours associated with them, but National isn't the only party to use blue. For example, the Colin Craig Conservative Party also used a lighter tint of blue. Others have used a shade or tint of blue, too, though not always as a dominant colour. It has frequently been used in campaigns for local government politicians of all political stripes.

Similarly, the blue that Goff is using is nowhere near the same shade of blue as National uses, so what the complainant was really suggesting was that all shades and tints of blue are the exclusive identity of the NZ National Party. Yet, I’ve already shown how that’s not true, that blue is used in political campaigns all the time.

The complainant’s suggestion that Goff’s use of blue was “trying to mislead voters who associate blue with national [sic]” is just plain stupid for another reason: Phil Goff was Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party 2008-11, and before that he served held various portfolios as a senior Minister in the Labour-led Government from 1999 to 2008. He’s been a Labour Party MP for all but three years from 1981 to the present. In sum, there is no way on earth that any New Zealander could ever in any way even remotely imaginable be “misled” into thinking Goff was anything other than Labour.

Roy correctly noted how unlikely it was that anyone could be confused about Goff's use of blue. She also noted that “the colour blue was strongly associated with Auckland City,” and she’s absolutely right about that, too: Shades and tints of blue have been part of Auckland signage, logos, and printed materials for decades, and are part of Auckland Council now.

I have no idea why the silly complaint was made—was it partisan pique? Political mischief? Sincere but woefully ill-informed opinion? It doesn’t matter. Whatever the motivation, the complaint was rejected, as it should have been. However, by making a complaint that was doomed to fail, and using specious arguments in the process, the complainant does look awfully silly.

Sometimes, complaints to the ASA are useful, particularly when companies make misleading claims about their products and services. This, however, was not one of those times, and it also won’t be the last such unhelpful complaint we’ll see.

We have plenty of people who will make even sillier and more pointless complaints.

Related: A PDF of the complaint is available from the ASA website [click to open the PDF]

Full disclosure: I support Phil Goff for Mayor of Auckland.

Photo credit: The photo above was posted to Phil Goff’s Facebook Page and is an example of the election signs he uses.

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