Monday 06 April 2020

A Government that listens, selectively

This blog first appeared on Malta Today.

The public outcry over the Transport Malta authority’s decision to allow advertising on “floating billboards” on Malta’s main beaches was swift and immediate.

Equally swift was TM’s major backpedaling on what was, by all accounts, a bizarre idea. Faced by public indignation at the very thought of having horrible floatable promotional messages for various brands (or even more unthinkable), faces of politicians floating past, as we are swimming in the open sea, TM has now said that it was reconsidering the idea.

“It looks like this will be thrown out of the window after the negative public outcry. The feeling is that it won’t go ahead,” the sources told the Times of Malta. Let’s hope it doesn’t just remain a “feeling” but that this really stupid marketing idea is well and truly buried.

I find it very telling that, on this issue at least, those in authority seemed to have sat up and taken notice and more importantly, taken action, rather than letting it all just slide by as they usually do, until the furore dies down and people’s flitting attention span lands on something else. Given the alarming drop in support for the Labour Government after a series of scandals culminating in the Panama Papers, it is not surprising that it wanted to nip even more negative publicity in the bud. So I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies (and Facebook) that an eye is being kept on public opinion even if it is only for reasons of purely political tactics. After the beating which he has taken over the last few months in the various polls, Muscat simply cannot afford to keep hemorrhaging more votes. After months of tuning out what he doesn’t want to hear, it seems he (or at least Transport Malta) have realized that you cannot keep tuning people out forever.

I also think that the many calls for people to boycott any brands which use these floating billboards as a form of protest had something to do with it. No company worth its salt could afford to take such a risk. There was also some rebel talk of actually vandalizing the billboards which must have also made many businesses extremely nervous. There’s nothing worse than spending money to promote your product only to have the medium you are using physically destroyed in an act of anger, sending out a very clear, loud message about what the public thinks of your company. Whatever it was which ultimately burst the bubble on the idea, it seems to have worked.

This whole issue has also underscored how difficult it is to predict what will capture the public’s attention and stir their indignation enough to make a difference. What makes one topic leap to the top of national awareness, while another topic is met with a half-hearted ‘so what’? I think it all has to do with how tangible and meaningful the issue is in real terms to people’s everyday lives. Obviously here I’m alluding to the Panama Papers. Despite the fact that it was a quite a shocking revelation, I still don’t think that, gauging by the reaction to it, that THAT many people were as shocked or outraged as one would have expected. The reason? It clearly didn’t matter enough to enough people. Unfortunately, it also has to be concluded that the possibility of corruption within political circles is not that big of a deal for many people for the simple reason that similar acts of corruption, cheating and tax evasion go on all the time without a blink of an eye. There has also been a bout of what can only be described as “Panama fatigue” – the topic has been dragged out for too long and lost its punch because of overkill. Here I must stress that I’m not condoning this indifferent attitude, I’m simply stating what I have observed.

But our beaches? The public spaces which we are still free to enjoy when our sweltering summers hit us and to where we escape to get away from it all? Now that is completely different. In a country which could easily be dubbed Consumer Island, where adverts hit us in the face everywhere we look, the very thought that advertising was now going to also hit us in the face as we practice our back stroke was just too much for people to stomach. We had just managed to get rid of the billboards on our roads, only for them to be taken out to sea instead.

People raised their voices, even if it was only online, and for a change, the Government listened. Let’s hope it continues to listen, and not just selectively.

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