Argentina’s bizarre and expensive ad campaign

The Argentine debt saga trundles on. The Economist reports this latest default as the eighth default in Argentina’s turbulent economic history.

We’ll leave the financial stuff to them. What concerns us is the diabolical communications campaign launched by the Argentine government as it attempts to win the world’s trust and sympathy.

As a preface to this, please note that the Argentine government is not trying to achieve the impossible. Respected economists, including Martin Wolf and 108 British parliamentarians, have already sallied forth to defend Argentina’s government from the “vulture” funds that would pick at it. They have done so of their own initiative, and they are certainly not paid shills.

And so Argentina began the latest episode in its struggle with a valuable asset: supportive third voices.

We often pick up clients who are without many friends in high places at all, let alone economics editors in prestigious global newspapers. Third voices matter, we argue, because it’s so often the reasonable, trusted, disinterested parties who win a public debate. Rarely is an audience brought round by the protestations of one of the two opposing, interested parties. Argentina already has third voices.

What Argentina seems not to have, though, is any notion of how to take a given audience and persuade it to do what they want it to do.

Take, for example, perhaps the most prominent approach taken by the government: a brash, confrontational advertising campaign printed in large point font in global newspapers including The Times and the FT.

In a series of ads, the office of the President has lashed out at various parties, from Judge Griesa (whose interpretation of US law and its effect on Argentina’s repayments fell afoul of Argentina’s expectations) to BNY Mellon (see top picture). The first was written in lousy English, but it seems a translator has since been employed.

These ads aren’t cheap. A full page spread in the FT costs well in excess of £100,000 for the worldwide edition – although perhaps Argentina’s repeat custom has earned it a discounted rate. As one reader quipped, the FT must be loving the advertising revenue.

But this strategy isn’t only a colossal expense for a cash-strapped country. It also makes the Argentine government look like it doesn’t know what it’s doing. Sure, ad space can be used to convey political messages, sometimes to great effect. Public apologies, for example. It’s been said that the medium is the message: buying ad space to deliver an apology is a way of showing sincerity, so the medium amplifies the message.

But buying ad space to criticise somebody suggests that you couldn’t find a real editor willing to give you column inches to prosecute your argument. This isn’t actually the case: Argentina was given letter space by the FT, and used it pretty well.

The thing is, when you read an ad, you always ask: what’s the agenda here, what are they trying to get me to do? This is why sophisticated companies and governments hire PR people, as well as advertising people: they know that messages are scrutinised for ulterior motives when they come in ad form, but are treated far less guardedly when they come from trusted, familiar sources, like reporters or columnists.

We at Chelgate are not entirely sure what motivated the Argentine government to launch this campaign. Did they believe that it would bring unfamiliar arguments to the table? Did they think people would say anything other than “well, that’s exactly what they would say”? To us, the decision seems pretty bizarre.

It is worth mentioning that their ad campaign met with a response in kind from the “Fact Check Argentina” campaign. Run by the American Task Force Argentina, this lobbying machine defends the claims of those left holding the hot potatoes of defunct Argentine debt when the music stopped playing – or, indeed, those who bought the hot potatoes at discount on the speculative hope that they would one day be able to twist Argentine arms, and finally get a fraction of the bonds’ original values. Their full page ads will also have brought much cheer to newspaper advertising departments in London and New York. When all is said and done, we suspect that they will also have achieved little.

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