I see that John Banks has taken his media trainers’ advice and begun to appear wearing an open necked shirt. According to a recent story in the Sunday Star Times, the candidate for the ‘Super Mayoralty’ was also counselled to be ‘more chatty’ when he talks and to ’speak up’ about his difficult childhood. Political makeovers are tricky at the best of times. To be effective they need to be both gradual and subtle, their effect on the electorate’s consciousness almost subliminal. Obvious makeovers make the public suspicious and resentful. They suspect that someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes and are offended by the idea that they can be swayed by mere cosmetic change. When David Lange had his stomach stapled, there was adverse comment that this was part of a makeover which also included changing his glasses. The reality was that the stomach stapling was essential to his continued health and that he had accidentally stood on his old glasses and broken them. From the time she became Leader of the Opposition, Helen Clark was constantly being told to do something about her hair, her voice and her teeth, but wisely resisted the advice. Her first words to Judy and me when we met in were, ‘I do not intend to be deconstructed.’ Her hair, voice and teeth subsequently proved no impediment to political success. Voters saw past these superficial matters to the leadership qualities within.
It was in any event too late. The time to change your image is before you have mounted the national stage and become familiar to the public, not after. A gradual and subtle makeover is virtually impossible when you are already well known. Helen Clark was to experience this herself when Monty Adams’ flattering portrait of the PM was used in the 2005 election campaign and attracted widespread derision. People were happy with the way she looked before and saw the photograph as an attempt at deception. ‘Helen doesn’t look like that.’ John Banks’ problem now is that if he stops wearing a tie, starts being more chatty and begins introducing the topic of his difficult childhood into speeches and interviews, these departures from his previous appearance and demeanour, far from being gradual, subtle or subliminal, will stand out like a sore thumb. He will be seen as trying to sell the Auckland voters a bill of goods. This is not to say that the advice he was given was necessarily bad advice; nor is he to blame for the fact that that advice was all over a Sunday newspaper days after it had been given. But someone with Banks’ political experience really ought to have known that absolute discretion is the sine qua non of public relations and sought assurance that everyone involved in the training session, from trainer to tea lady, had signed a watertight confidentiality agreement. Still, it will be fun to speculate on which occasions John will decide to wear or not wear a tie, to score each of his public appearances for their ‘chattiness’ quotient and to keep count of the number of times he manages to work his difficult childhood into the Super City debate. Local body politics have never been so interesting.