A day after terror struck India’s commercial capital Mumbai, while the city was still under siege, dozens of innocent people were still trapped, and the army and police were hunting down the terrorists, senior leaders from the country’s two leading political parties, Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and the Congress, were busy planning new communication strategies. Terror was the new theme.
For BJP, the biggest opposition party, it was a unique opportunity to corner the ruling coalition at the Centre at a time when assembly elections were being held in several states. The Congress, leading that coalition, had a dual task—it not only had to placate an angry and anxious country, it also had to counter rivals. What followed was a full-fledged war between the two parties across media platforms.
In less than 36 hours of the 26 November attack in Mumbai, the BJP placed prominent ads in a cross-section of newspapers, holding the ruling coalition responsible for the mayhem in that city. The message read, Brutal terror strikes at will. Weak government, unwilling and incapable. Fight terror. Vote BJP.
The Congress responded the following morning by pointing out in Hindi—Yeh rashtra ka prashna hai, rajniti ka khel nahin (this is about the country; it’s not a political game).
“Political mud-slinging is not a new phenomenon in India. Nor are terror attacks. What’s different this time, however, is that the attacks happened at a time when the political parties were gearing up for general elections,” says a senior advertising agency executive who did not want to be named because his agency is in the race for the advertising account of a leading political party. “And none of them had a unified, universal message with which they could target their entire audience across the country. The Mumbai attacks have just given them that.”
The general elections are scheduled to be held by May. A host of issues would have been played up this year but the Mumbai attacks may change the communication strategies of most political players. “The economic slowdown mostly concerns urban voters. Rural voters are not directly impacted by the slowing economy or the rising cost of living because of the increase in oil prices or interest rates, among others,” says Sushil Pandit, owner of Hive Communications India Pvt. Ltd, the agency handling the BJP’s advertising account. “Whereas loan waivers or other developmental- and employment-related steps taken by the government in rural India don’t concern the urban voter. Terror, however, is a common concern among people across the country. And in the coming elections, terrorism, if not the issue, will be one of the most prominent issues during political communication with voters.”
With politicians as a class in the dock after the Mumbai attacks, political parties aren’t forthcoming on this. While maintaining that the final tone and tenor for the general elections has not been decided yet, they say there will be a lot more focus on communicating with voters this time because of myriad issues. “The party has been highlighting the issue of terrorism,” says BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy. “But at the same time, price rise, the wrong policies of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government, its appeasement policies, distress of farmers, failure at the economic front are also issues we are (raising) and will raise.”
Congress leaders supervising the party’s communication say they will focus on different issues, including the good work done by the government, such as the Indo-US nuclear agreement, the farm loan waiver and the rural employment guarantee scheme. “Our communication is being planned according to the situation,” says Motilal Vora, treasurer, Congress party. “We will be projecting Congress president Sonia Gandhi as a leader, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s good governance and Rahul Gandhi as the hope for the youth in the country. Rahul Gandhi attracts a lot of women and youth to the party.”
Elections work as a booster for the entire advertising industry—even more so this time because it has been reeling under the economic downturn which has seen most companies cut back on ad spending. At the beginning of 2008, the industry, which had clocked Rs19,800 crore revenue in 2007, had hoped to grow around 22% against the previous year’s 20% growth. By the middle of the year, however, it was clear that the industry wouldn’t be able to clock more than 10% growth. “Elections will definitely bring a lot of respite to the industry,” says Prathap Suthan, national creative director of advertising agency Cheil Communications.
Though the Election Commission of India has said a candidate can spend a maximum of Rs25 lakh for Lok Sabha elections and Rs10 lakh for assembly elections, actual expenses are much more. In the 2004 general elections, an estimated Rs500 crore was spent by different political parties. This time, while the advertising fraternity is expecting overall spending to be in the range of Rs1,000-1,500 crore, some players think the parties will spend much more owing to the heightened need to communicate with people to exploit or diffuse the anger among voters. “In the wake of the terror attacks in Mumbai, this (the spending) is all going to change. Now, the entire campaigning will take a new twist,” says Suthan.
Advertising experts, however, caution parties on the use of terrorism in campaigns. “Dramatizing the issue or hyping it will negate the entire effort. You have to do plain speaking. You have to raise the real issues and the real concerns. Any effort to gain political mileage runs the risk of being seen as an insensitive approach and it could put off people who are already quite agitated,” says Pandit, whose agency has been handling the BJP’s campaigns for the assembly elections across six states in November and December.
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Experts aren’t sure the campaigns so far have been at all effective. “What the politicians are trying to say here (in the campaigns which have been running) is not understood because there is simply no truth to it and political campaigns have to stem out of truth,” says Prasoon Joshi, executive chairman, McCann Erickson India Pvt. Ltd, a leading advertising agency. Agrees Anil Madan, founder and creative director, Aqua Communications Pvt. Ltd, a Delhi-based communication and design firm: “People are intelligent and informed about their political preferences and these knee-jerk campaigns that so desperately try to grab attention will not yield results.”
The print media has, so far, been the chosen medium of communication for political parties of all hues. Till the last general election, print commanded at least a 55% share of the total money spent on political advertising, with television pretty much taking the rest. “Our priority will be on the print media campaign as it is more advantageous. Even if it is expensive, the print campaign reaches more voters and it lasts at least for a day, whereas we have to repeat the visual campaign every now and then, for which we have to pay for each slot,” says a top Congress leader who doesn’t want to be identified.
The proliferation of radio channels and the Election Commission’s recent decision to allow political parties to advertise on the medium will see active use of radio in political advertising. The recently concluded Delhi state assembly elections are a case in point.
“We got started on the ads for Congress nearly a week before the ads were actually on air—the work started as soon as the I&B (information and broadcasting) ministry cleared the amendments to allow political ads on radio,” says Ranjan Bargotra, president, Crayons Advertising Ltd, the agency handling the account for the Congress party.
Similarly, the increasing popularity of online media among the younger population and the penetration of mobile phones is likely to see increased use of these two mediums as well in political advertising. Assembly election campaigns engaged young voters on social networking sites such as Orkut, Facebook and MySpace, building communities around parties and individual politicians in the running.
In the wake of the terror attacks, a mass SMS was sent out to at least 2 million people on their mobile phones from the technology head of BJP, Vivek Goyal. It read, “India can no longer afford a weak government. Mehangi padi Congress” (The Congress has proved costly).
The advertising agencies for the two parties are already planning the campaign for the Lok Sabha election next year and although details were not divulged, the focus on the digital platform was a common mantra. According to a senior executive from an online gaming company who did not want to be identified, “We are in talks with a leading political party to develop some interesting games online that will help youth to connect with the party in an interactive and fun way.”
“Digital media works well for political parties because it’s very targeted and the reach, which is 40 million Internet users, is just as wide as English print media—the only difference is, we are much more cost-effective,” says Sidharth Rao, chief executive and co-founder of Webchutney, a leading digital marketing company.
The political parties are also expected to use the outdoor medium in a much more innovative way this time. The BJP has already tied up with LiveMedia, a strategic captive audience network that places LCD television screens in public spaces to reach out to specific target groups and engage them.
The parties have also used digitally printed ads at bus stands in cities as well as rural India. “Advertising on bus stands costs about Rs70,000 to Rs80,000 but this year, political parties are opting for the designer look, where they (are) paying almost double the regular amount to grab (the) attention of passers-by,” says a senior executive of a leading outdoor advertising agency in Delhi who did not want to be named.
“The use of different media in campaigning is the need of the hour. Urban and young voters will be extremely important this time and the online medium is an effective way of targeting and engaging them,” says Sumira Roy, founder of Mumbai-based advertising agency Postscript. “Radio, on the other hand, is a cost-effective medium that can target people on the move.”
Joshi, however, says parties executing the campaigns will have to be careful about choosing the right medium with the right message for the right target group. Unimpressed with the recent campaigns, he says: “There is something wrong with the media planning as the ads are not targeted. There are too many messages being sent out and while there is money coming in, the campaigns are not going to help people to choose one way or the other.”
Liz Mathew contributed to this story.