A sound communications strategy could backfire without astute media planning. AB Vajpaye led NDA government had lost elections due to bad media planning. In fact there was nothing wrong with the communication strategy of India Shining campaign. Probably the segmentation was also done meticulously. The India Shining argument was also a logical & true representation of the economic growth in the India. But the party managers had faltered on establishing a correct level of advertising spend believing that if they spend more on communication the result would be in their favour. How could one assume that when most research indicate otherwise.India shining campaign has been consigned to history as a flop show as the NDA had lost elections. A closer study would reveal that there was real merit in the communication strategy adopted as the election theme. Most experts had also agreed that the campaign was generally good and effective before the election results were out. The devil did lie in the media planning. From political marketing viewpoint no one tried to look at what was the desired level of media reach for an incumbent party. The overkill in media cost them elections.
More recently Samajwadi party in Uttar Pradesh used the most powerful brand endorser in India combined with messages that had top grade production values, but that was not enough to keep the party in power. Did the political advertising campaign worked in this case?
There are major differences between the American and European way of conducting advertising campaigns. In USA you have candidate centered, repetitive, and short advertising messages as against the European way that features party centric, longer duration, and single shot advertisements.
If the Labour party in UK could use professional help and successfully re-brand itself as New Labour and go on to win successive elections. Why can’t political parties in India learn from their experience and seek professional help in place of some inhouse experts who could be susceptible to the phenomenon of tunnel vision.
If congress party in Punjab assembly elections 2007 had succeeded in reminding the loyal voters of Shromani Akal Dal in towns about their ‘differences’ with hardcore Hindutva forces then the election results outcome would have been different. If the media experts in congress party had targeted advertisements on the basic differences within the loyal cadres and voters of SAD and BJP it may have been continued to rule Punjab.
The hardcore Akali and RSS/BJP do not seem to have resolved their ideological differences over major issues like Punjabi language, river waters, Chandigarh, and attitude towards religions etc. Therefore Congress party in Punjab had a cut out task of reminding the core voters in both camps about their past.
It was that core Akali voters who for the first time polled votes in favour of BJP that made the difference to the unprecedented BJP victory in the state. The credit went to the young leadership of SAD for engineering a shift in the voting behavior of traditional Akali voter by very successfully mobilising and convincing them to cast the votes in favour of Akali BJP combine.
SAD & BJP are parties with a strong core. These kinds of parties can win an election on the basis of a strong wave only. It is very important for these parties to appeal to the floating voters to vote in their favour. In the last Punjab elections there were other strong reasons for the victory of SAD BJP alliance.
Use of marketing instruments, concepts and techniques is on the rise in India with every new election. Most political parties realizing the importance of political communications have created in house teams, often named as media cell, to establish, maintain and improve the image of their party and advise the party on professional political communications. These media divisions within parties generally consist of current and former journalists and a smattering of political communications experts. Well-planned political marketing helps to influence the election outcome by convincing the electorate about real effective issues.
Elections and political management remains under tight control of the in-party specialists who claim to understand the political scenario better than the marketing expert who generally gets involved in elections during election time only. The politicians and parties in India have yet to get onto the perpetual political marketing mode as undertaken in democracies in western world and the ASEAN countries. The war room mentality remains the favorite style for leveraging the political marketing process in developed world.
Punjab elections in 2007 featured high decibel advertising campaigns, public election broadcasts, road shows, exit polls, news management and a more organized campaign management to get the voters out to vote. The reverberations continue to be felt in the form of daily dose of news coverage about the arrest & trial of high profile previous chief minister and his associates.
The role of media and the media advisors have never had attracted such attention in election campaigns in particular and managing a political party in general. Can we conclude that astute media handling, and overall use of marketing tools have become a necessary feature for the success of a political party? The application of marketing techniques and strategies to the political marketplace is a paradigm shift that will continue to change politics, as we know it today.
Media in Punjab, India too, has long been associated with social and political movements. It has been considered as an instrument with the potential to usher in a socio-political change in society. Till recently, major media in India could have been identified with distinct religious, political, social and economic interest groups having a definite agenda to promote without regard to the overall health of our democratic nation. In the current democratic set up media openly seems to side with political parties and other vested interest groups to sway the public opinion in a particular direction. Therefore news management has become a full time activity for the political players. Success in politics is measured by the ability of a party to move the public opinion in a direction it wants it to move.
Since vast majority of Indians are religious and God fearing therefore it has become a general practice amongst politicians of every hue to be seen to be seeking blessings from religious leaders more during the time of elections so as to impress upon their followers to vote in favour of their party and candidate. But for the first time in Punjab, a Baba from the neighboring state of Haryana took out series of advertisements impressing upon his followers to vote in favour of a Congress party.
This cocktail of religion and politics seem to work all over India and has produced enormous aftershocks long after the polls have gone. A professional approach in handling such communications could reduce the unsavoury aftershocks in the country. The intensity of the competition could be gauged from the fact that socio-religious leaders are prompted to appeal to their followers to influence voting.
It is not the media companies alone who take recourse to the pre poll surveys to assess the mood of the voters and pump up their TRP. The political parties also resort to use of market research to fine-tune their campaign strategy. Since these surveys make catchy headlines therefore their impact on the voters and the party workers is powerful. A positive survey finding motivates the party worker to get out work to get all the votes polled on the Election Day.
A pre poll survey predicting a negative outcome could demotivate the party rank & file and also convince the floating undecided voter to form a negative opinion about the projected looser party. These surveys provide new debating points to the media and do seem to colour their own news analysis also.
The Parties employed below the line media to reach out to the rural voter. Music videos and election songs have become a major tool of communicating a political message to the rural audience. Terrestrial television in the form of state owned Doordarshan has an extensive reach in the rural areas and therefore used for the purpose of public election broadcast to disseminate the message to the people who otherwise depend upon vernacular print media.
The cap on election expenditure also restricts the political parties from involving professional advertising organizations to execute a political campaign on their behalf. Because the political party would not want to disclose their actual advertising spend to the election commission.
Persuasion remains the main objective of the political players. The parties stop short of finding out what the electorate wants from them; instead they claim to know what people must expect from them. The parties have generally ignored the need for marketing research to list the issues facing the public.
There has been an extensive use of negative advertising during the election campaigning. Some of the advertisements do have advocacy tone also. But nothing that could be called a creative advertising campaign capable of producing measurable effects. The media cells in parties continue to believe that voters would buy everything that they have to tell them. When would these media experts accept that we live in times when creating credibility of the messages is a challenge.
There has been plethora of research suggesting that incumbent party does not gain from higher share of voice. Though it gains remarkably from share of mind and share of heart. This would require limited use advertising and leveraging the other promotion vehicles. But most incumbent parties do not seem to take lessons and keep on wasting resources on government advertising.
It is believed by many that there are no upper limits to the quantity of communication to strengthen the appeal of a political party. More the merrier, but that’s not true. Several studies in political marketing have established that there is a non-linear relationship between the spending and net marginal benefit to the advertiser. Particularly for the incumbent party it has been generally accepted that low level of spending, than the challenger, may be better for producing a positive effect for an incumbent party.
Most political pundits seem to have concluded that advertising and other marketing devices have almost negligible effective role to play in Indian elections. But several parties have tried to deploy sophisticated political marketing tools to convince the voter to elect them to power. But the results may not have been turned out in their favour.
While most political parties use sophisticated technology to get across their message to the voters, they still rely on party old timers, journalists and bureaucrats from the government’s department of public relations to work out a communication strategy. Professional advise in election management is still not very popular way. Therefore, most of the times, the quantity and quality of communication is way off the mark.
Political parties in India have recently begun consulting outside professional marketing experts to understand the mood of the electorate, plan communications and advertising in order to mobilize public opinion in its favour. Definitely the political parties see wisdom in using marketing for persuading the people to elect them into the office during elections. There are few skeptical political pundits who may not agree with the effectiveness of continuous campaign mode and adopting comprehensive political marketing for victory in elections.
Gurinder Singh Ahluwalia
Marketing Consultant & Asstt Professor Marketing