Daniel Stone
Monday, 5 June 2023

Rediscovering ‘It’s Time’: Forgotten Footage from Australia’s Iconic Political Campaign

If you developed an interest in politics growing up – it’s probably thanks to the power of political advertising. For many of us, the ads of past campaigns were our introduction to each party and its leaders. Neatly, colourfully and emotively bundling together complex ideas – shared widely in the community.

That was certainly true for me – I vividly remember the looming portrait of Keating’s 1993 “Leadership” poster when I was 6. But Gough Whitlam’s 1972 “It’s Time” campaign looms largest in Australian political history.

Although television had been rolling out in Australia since the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 60s they were common in Australian homes. By then, a generation of new creative talent had also emerged and wanted to push the boundaries of television with creative new approaches to telling stories.

After almost 23 years in opposition, the leadership of the ALP shared this thirst for a new way of working. National Secretary Mick Young began work with the ALP’s long-time agency, Hansen-Rubensohn–McCann-Erickson. Led by the 34-year-old creative director Paul Jones, who had oddly helped the QLD Liberal party prior, the two built out one of the first truly integrated campaigns in Australian political history, with television, radio, print and outdoor sharing the same key messages, brand and visual identity.

The campaign was tightly planned (which you can read in remarkable detail here) and rolled out across three phases. The first stage was to “condition attitudes” and help “the electorate…reposition their opinions and images”. In short, to create momentum and a strong positive image and ‘vibe’ around the party. The second stage, which would start later but run concurrently with the first, worked to create urgency and lean much more heavily on logical policy arguments. And the third and final stage was to highlight the limitations and failures of McMahon’s incumbent LNP Government.

A rhythm that remains largely still in place for election campaigns today.

The first stage, the most famous, resulted in the “It’s Time” chorus commercial. Featuring a “Who’s Who” of more than 20 Australian entertainment and sports personalities, such as Tony Barber, Barry Crocker, Brian Henderson, Graham Kennedy, Little Pattie, Bert Newton, Jack Thompson, and Jacki Weaver.

But recently unearthed material from the ALP archive reveals several alternative executions of this famous ad, as well as variations from that often forgotten second stage of the campaign which supported it.

Phase One: The Song

Although the colour cinema commercial is the often replayed ‘classic’ version of the ad – we can now see an extended two-minute version, a one-minute version, and six 30s TV edits which each highlight different celebrities in the crowd. The 30-second edits even include prominent captions, which feel remarkably similar to the contemporary videos designed to be watched on phones without sound. The tactic of creating multiple subtle versions of an ad to keep it fresh over a long campaign also remains common today.

You can watch each of them in the playlist embedded below. However, I think the supporting issue ads are far more interesting and underappreciated.

Phase Two: The Policies

Since federation, most television and cinema election advertising failed to take full advantage of the medium – such as this Arthur Caldwell ALP commercial from the 1966 election. However, in 1969, the ALP campaign demonstrated a new creative approach that fully embraced television’s vision, sound and emotion to explain complex and often abstract ideas. 

The following four ads use simple visual metaphors to quickly communicate the party’s policies to reduce school class sizes, create new jobs, grow prosperity outside the cities, manage foreign ownership of key assets and tackle inflation.

Another used more casual and relatable language than was typical and engaged in a call and response with the images being shown – as if the voiceover was watching along with the viewer. It’s also a very early example of what is commonly known as a ‘PosNeg’ – where you highlight the achievements of your party in contrast to those of your opponent. 

One uses visual subtext to make its point, with Whitlam in voice-over discussing a commitment to reducing strikes – walking shoulder to shoulder with ACTU Secretary Bob Hawke to illustrate his productive partnership with the union movement.

The “It’s Time” campaign also created the first in what would become a common trope in Australian political advertising, most famously defined in the 1987 Hawke campaign – a “whinging wendy”. 

The campaign was not only electorally successful but culturally transformative – changing the nature of Australian political advertising forever and inspiring a new generation of political campaigners. Its influence echoed through election advertising for nearly 20 years, with its spiritual successors such as the Liberal Party’s 1975 “Turn on the Lights Australia”, Neville Wran’s 1981 “It’s Gotta Be Wran”, leading to the most memorable of the genre, Bob Hawke’s 1987 “Let’s Stick Together” campaign.

You can read more about the 1972 Whitlam election, and many other key moments of Labour History at https://laborhistory.org.au/

About Daniel Stone:

Daniel Stone is the Executive Director of Diffusion.Au and has spent 10 years advising CEOs and Cabinet Ministers on how to use data to improve the social outcomes of their organisations.