How Did Captain GetUp Go So Terribly, Horribly Wrong?

The fall and fall of Australia's worst superhero.

Captain GetUp

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You can almost see the room where it happened. In a rented office somewhere on Australia’s east coast, the bright young sparks from Advance Australia — the self-conscious attempt by conservatives to counter the people-powered influence of GetUp! — embark on a raucous ‘beerstorm’ (the combination of brainstorming and beer).

Their mission is to cook up a big, attention-grabbing election strategy that will garner headlines and votes, particularly in Warringah where their hero, Tony Abbott, is struggling in the polls. As the booze flows, the ideas ferment — none of them good.

Conservatives just don’t understand a movement like GetUp. Traditionally reliant on the patronage of wealthy major donors, the idea that micro-donations from everyday folk can generate over $10 million dollars a year in campaign support is perplexing to them. But they still they want to give it a shot — and they figure a big, splashy stunt ought to do the trick.

As the evening wears on, someone eventually shouts ‘”What if we dressed up?? Like that time in The West Wing with the dude in the chicken suit!” Building on this (“there’s no such thing as a bad idea in a brainstorm!”) someone else says, “Yeah! We could have a super hero!! With a cape!!”.

And finally, the piece de resistance. “I know! Let’s call him Captain GetUp! And we’ll make sure everyone knows he’s about lefties by putting the GetUp and the Greens logos ON HIS CAPE!”

Flawless. What the Captain GetUp strategy lacks in conceptual sophistication it has more than made up for in inept execution.

Where Captain GetUp Falls Down

Strategic Communications 101 generally starts with asking ‘who is your audience?’. From there, campaigns build through a careful analysis of your objectives, the barriers you face, the strategy you need to overcome those barriers, and finally the tactics that will deliver you your objective. This is basic stuff and, if deployed well, it works.

Captain GetUp didn’t have to be a massive failure, yet he really seems to be. Let’s look at a few ways that this could have worked.

Problem: The public disagree with your version of events or, worse yet, they haven’t even heard about them.

Solution: Change the story.

Strategy: Earned media agenda setting. Providing actual news to the media and changing the way your issue is covered through case studies, reports, analysis, guest speakers, press conferences and even captivating visuals like a giant super hero suit.

Captain GetUp seemed to make the news — on social media at least. And if the Captain had simply followed candidates around — like the guy in the chicken suit — he might have effectively communicated Advance Australia’s message. A compelling visual is a good tactic for getting coverage from a resource-starved media with a 24-hour news cycle to fill. As long as they’re covering your issue, in your way, you’re changing the story.

Not so for Captain GetUp. A quick look at media monitoring shows that in the last 14 days he’s had only 79 stories written about him (many of them syndicated across the same news network), and almost exclusively negative or bewildered. By contrast, the supposed target for the Captain GetUp stunt, Abbott’s independent opponent Zali Stegall, had over 1700 stories in the same time period. As an effective tactic for changing the story we can strike Captain GetUp off the list — his posing and strange American accent are not here to change the public’s mind.

Fire Up The Base

Problem: You don’t have the money to spend on advertising that will sway your target electorates

Solution: Fire up the base and get them knocking on doors.

Strategy: Bring together large numbers of people, who are motivated by your key issues, and get them to talk to each other and to others in key electorates — changing votes one-by-one. People power.

Building people power is genuinely about shared values and a common cause. In the union movement they use a three-step process called ‘anger — hope — action’ to inspire belief that individual actions can combine to create change. It’s hard to see what hope or action Advance Australia is providing with Captain GetUp? Did anyone actually understand what issues he was fighting for? What is the alternative that the Captain is proposing? What is he giving people to believe in? Where are the avenues for people to get involved? ARE THERE MORE CAPTAIN GETUP SUITS AVAILABLE? Seems like Captain GetUp isn’t here to fire up the base of true believers either.

The Dead Cat

Problem: Your opponent has too much momentum (ie: you are losing)

Solution: Distract your opponent

Strategy: Dead cat.

This Tory trick throws a metaphorical (hopefully) dead cat onto the table, forcing everyone to engage with a truly gross idea and lose focus on the ideas that had them winning before. It should be a concept that forces your opponent to spend time defending themselves or calming internal dissent. Whatever it is, it puts you back in control. What’s important is that it forces the other side to talk about your issue (your dead cat).

And that’s where all of this really falls apart. Captain GetUp was most likely intended to be a dead cat — to distract GetUp and the Steggall campaign and stop them talking about actual issues. It didn’t work because the Captain doesn’t talk about any issue that people genuinely believe is a problem. Advance Australia have fallen into the oldest trap — they made the campaign about themselves and about their opponent, not about the issues that matter to voters.

From day one, it was never clear who Captain GetUp was trying to speak to, or what he was trying to say. Maybe it’s because Advance Australia aren’t sure, maybe it’s because Captain GetUp’s mouth is stitched on.

If we cast our minds back to that fateful beerstorm, it becomes easy to see that the only audience Advance Australia had in mind were the other people in the room. It’s a sign that this extraordinary vanity project won’t be advancing terribly far.

Hayley Conway is a writer and campaigner with over a decade of experience in strategy and movement building. She currently works as a consultant for Essential Media, and was previously a senior adviser to an Greens leader Richard Di Natale and spent four years in the USA working on national and international campaigns.