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Has political advertising matured?

April 02, 2004 11:35 IST

'Labour isn't working. Britain's better off with the Tories' -- Saatchi and Saatchi's advertisement for Margaret Thatcher in 1978, not only made Saatchis famous, but also opened the doors for the entry of professional agencies into the world of British politics.
Closer home, in the last state elections, the BJP supposedly did a constituency-by-constituency analysis and applied localised strategies for each market -- depending on the issues in each market. The result: BJP swept the polls in three of the four states. And thus reaped the benefits of micromarketing.

Use of a professional agency for a political campaign in India dates back to the 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi used one. However, it seems only now that political parties are beginning to see the value of scientific planning and marketing techniques as they go into elections.

Even the Congress has classified its constituencies based on sure wins, doubtful and lost -- and are supposedly focusing efforts accordingly. A far cry from the otherwise intuitive strategies adopted by the local leaders to rouse local emotions and garner votes.

The first 30 years of elections were driven by one wave -- the euphoria of Independence and the Congress' heritage of being involved in the struggle against the British. And so poll after poll, the Congress came to power.

In 1972, the Indian victory over Pakistan in 1971, provided the Congress brand with that momentum to keep going. The fact that Indira Gandhi had a surname that connected with the father of the nation just helped the brand.

The first election where the party lost was in 1977, on the issue of democracy. The 'emergency' created enough public 'badwill' to get the Congress voted out of power- clearly, a case of 'negative' vote rather than a 'positive' one for a real better future.

The same was the case in 1980, when the Janata Government collapsed and 'stability' versus 'instability' was the platform that brought the Congress back to power.

In 1984 and again in 1991, the ruling party came to power on the back of 'sympathy' votes -- two assassinations actually turned the hearts of an emotional nation and made them vote for the Congress. It was a landslide in 1984, it settled with a coalition in 1991 -- in both cases the Congress being the beneficiary. Once more not a future promise led victory.

The 1989 defeat of Rajiv Gandhi was more a vote against 'corruption' rather than a positive vote towards some positive promise. So till the nineties, clearly elections and electorates were driven by 'waves' -- independence, anti-emergency, stability, sympathy, or anti-corruption. Parties, in all these elections, tended to ride on public opinion rather than attempt to shape them!

One must however recognise that the Congress from 1947 instinctively tapped into the Indian psyche and ensured the brand stood for 'Independence struggle'.

The Indian National Congress was the one that fought the Independence struggle and that remained the brand name to ensure continuity of associations.

Quite cleverly, they adopted and owned the 'cow and calf' symbol -- subliminally appealing to the large 'rural Hindu illiterate' population. The other core of Congress' strategy had been using icons as brand ambassadors to be the face of the brand.

Nehru and his independence associations and Indira Gandhi and her dynastic lineage were the drivers of iconic images that attracted voters for three decades. Coincidentally, the 1984 elections were won on sympathy for a traumatised 'son' -- Rajiv Gandhi!

The first semblance of parties trying to differentiate and position themselves happened in the late '80s. The Janata Party with the promotion of the Mandal Commission Report took on the role of being the 'promoter of the scheduled class and tribes'.

And the BJP came out openly with its philosophy of 'Hindutva' -- both clearly segmenting the market by socio- economic or religious classes and trying to base their appeal to specific segments. This was perhaps a watershed in Indian political history.

Both seemed to be very divisive -- and that is what made them sharp -- clearly making a trade-off to stand for something. And both stood out and grabbed attention. However, neither was sustaining. While the Janata Party drifted away into a morass of brands, the BJP got more sensitive to the environment and reshaped its perceptions over a period of time to become more relevant in time to come.

The big opportunity came in 1991 mainly due to circumstances. The seeds of opening of the economy were actually sown way back in 1984 by Rajiv Gandhi's Congress. And the acceleration to open up happened in 1991 with the foreign exchange crisis and the International Monetary Fund directives -- that led Dr Manmohan Singh to start the liberalisation process.

Interestingly, a new generation of consumers, and hence voters, were coming into the market. Gone was the 'freedom struggle hangover' and in came the era of 'optimism and individualism'. The Congress actually initiated the changes but failed to own them. 1996 was a good year for the economy, but the Congress got trapped in both corruption scandals and leadership issues.

The Congress caught in the 'brand ambassador' trap, did not recognise the changing consumer -- and so failed to capitalise on the wave started by its finance minister. It possibly lost the opportunity of re-engineering its brand.

However, the BJP's approach to the current polls is fairly instructive. While they have a strong leader, an icon, in Atal Bihari Vajpayee, they have resisted the temptation to ride on his goodwill. And have also intelligently stayed away from playing the 'Hindu' card or the 'foreign' factor.

So there is no pronounced comparative communication nor is there an attempt to rest the brand on a personality. They are following the typical marketing principle of "don't go negative, play positive". They have decided to focus on the positives of the last five years and magnify them to the electorate.

Clearly, moving away from traditional political advertising norms of accepting public opinion and actually boldly trying to mould it. Thus attempting to create a 'feel good' emotion within the electorate.

The 'Bharat Uday' campaign, the 'Bharat Uday Yatra' and the 'Friendship Series in Pakistan' have all been synchronised well together to build and reinforce this 'feel good' factor. Rather than let the electorate at a time of review -- which an election is -- see what has not been achieved, the BJP has attempted to create a positive feeling that could help people to be optimistic for the future.

The BJP has consciously tried to adapt classic brand building principles in this communication. Having a strong product is not good enough -- it needs to be packaged in strong emotions to actually make consumers move.

Interestingly, the African National Congress learnt the same from extensive research in post-apartheid South Africa in the '90s. Rather than ride on an anti-white mood which was most prevalent in South Africa at that time, it decided to paint a better tomorrow -- 'a better life for all'. The ANC thus gathered greater support in the long run from the other minorities who were, in the early '90s, apprehensive of black rule.

The key will be whether it will sustain these principles and build on it for the years to come. Is science here to stay or will it be back to good old intuition?

Something worth thinking about.

The writer is Country Manager - Discovery, Ogilvy and Mather India. Opinions expressed are his own and not of the organisation he works for.

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Madhukar Sabnavis