As politicians hit the campaign trail in the run-up to the coming general election, the biggest ever marketing event in the country takes off with political parties marketing their star candidates and ideologies to the 714 million strong electorate. What makes the task daunting is the proliferation of the media in the past few years and the consequent audience segmentation. The popularity of new media platforms such as the Internet and mobile phone and the rise in the number of competitors within the traditional media space, such as television and radio and print, has created new channels of communication with the voter. The actual impact of this phenomenon is coming to the fore now, with political parties working out strategies to reach their target audience.
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This Rs10,000 crore here doesn’t include the cost of holding assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, and is nearly three times the Rs3,500 crore spent in the 2004 Lok Sabha election, says CMS, which has been tracking poll expense for the last four Lok Sabha elections. According to CMS, only 20% of the Rs10,000 crore is expected to be spent on making arrangements for holding the polls which will see candidates from around 43 political parties, including seven national and 36 regional parties, contesting for the 543 Lok Sabha seats. The rest will be spent by political parties, officially or unofficially, on campaigns.
The advertising budgets of political parties have more than doubled since 2004 to reach Rs800-850 crore, says N. Bhaskara Rao, a political analyst and chairperson of CMS. “Costs have definitely escalated,” says Tom Vadakkan, media secretary, Congress party, “but we are trying to get more out of our money by bulk buying and a clever mix of expensive and less expensive media.”
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Observers say the proliferation of media platforms between 2004 and 2009 and the need for political parties to spread themselves across all consumer communication touch points is the reason for the increase in spending.
“This year, most parties are adopting a 360-degree (across all media platforms) approach to reach out to voters,” says Ranjan Bargotra, president of Crayons Advertising Ltd, which along with JWT India is handling the Congress’ advertising campaign. Television, for instance, an ideal medium for any marketeer who wants to reach a mass audience, has seen the number of private channels uplinking from India increase from 131 in 2004 to 376 this year.
However, the number of television-owning households has only gone up from 108 million in 2004 to 123 million now, according to data from the Union ministry of information and broadcasting. “Because of channel proliferation , the share of the Top 10 channels has reduced in this period from 54% to 42%,” says Shubha George, managing director of the Mumbai-based media agency Mediaedge:cia, a part of GroupM India Pvt. Ltd . “This 12% (percentage points) drop means that political parties, like all marketeers, will have to spend more today to reach a similar number of people as they did four years ago.”
“Add to this media inflation, and we can see a substantial increase in TV spend in this election,” adds George.
The number of private FM radio channels has increased from 21 in 2004 to 245 now. And with the Election Commission allowing political campaigns on these channels, political parties have a larger media canvas to play with. As a localized medium, radio offers a better connect and allows parties to actually communicate with listeners in their own language, according to Sunil Kumar, managing director at radio business consultancy Big River Radio (India) Pvt. Ltd.
“FM radio will play the most important role for us as it covers 280 constituencies, reaching extreme interiors and giving the widest possible reach,” says BJP spokesperson Siddharth Nath Singh.
The print medium, a tried and tested territory for political parties, is the only space that has not seen much change, with the number of newspapers nearly the same since the last general election. Data from the Media Research Users Council puts the number of newspapers in 2008 at 132 compared with 136 in 2004.
“I don’t see much change in print advertising volumes this year compared to (the) last Lok Sabha polls,” says Sanjay Gupta, editor of Hindi daily Dainik Jagran and CEO of Jagran Prakashan Ltd.
According to Big River Radio’s Kumar, politicians have understood that new technologies have made available alternative spaces that are not only less expensive than traditional media, but also have a wide reach.
While the BJP and a few other parties did attempt to connect with voters via mobile phones or the Internet in the 2004 general election, it is only now that these media are being used on a large scale. Consider this. In the 2004 general election, 90% of the advertising budgets of political parties was dedicated to television and print. This figure is expected to come down to 60% in the election this year, with new media platforms getting a bigger share of the ad pie, media buyers say.
“In fact, the biggest change in political campaigning from 2004 to now is the use of new media which is going to be considerable this year,” says Farokh Balsara, partner and head, media and entertainment, Ernst and Young India.
The Internet has emerged as a popular medium to reach out to young, urban voters, with online audience analyses showing young people relying more on the emerging media for news. The digital efforts of political parties find relevance in a poll where around 70% of India’s estimated 1.3 billion population is less than 35 years old, many of them first-time voters.
According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, the number of Internet users has gone up from 25 million in 2004-05 to around 45.3 million active Internet users in September.
“The explosive power of the Internet can be used to engage voters, specific audiences, create communities around candidacy and even get people to be evangelists for the campaign,” says Amar Goel, chief executive officer of Komli Media Pvt. Ltd, a Mumbai-based digital advertising and technology company.
The BJP, for instance, is looking to drive traffic to the official blog of its prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani through online advertisements on Google, a global search engine. It is also using the party website Bjp.org for online campaigns.
Similarly, the Congress, too, is using its website Aicc.org.in for digital canvassing and is present on Twitter, a free social messaging service. “We also plan to start live webcast of our party press briefings and Sonia Gandhi’s election speeches very soon. We have already started the test runs,” says Vadakkan. Even the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, which opposed computerization in the early 1980s, has gone online to canvass for votes with a dedicated election website, Vote.cpim.org.
If the Internet helps in reaching out to niche audiences, the other new media, the mobile phone, is more ubiquitous with half the voting population reachable through it. The number of mobile phone users increased from 36 million in 2004 to 375.74 million by the end of February, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or Trai.
There are primarily three different ways to reach voters—through SMSes, voice calls or automated pre-recorded phone calls and GPRS (general packet radio service, a mobile Internet service). “Out of the three, the primary focus of political parties is on SMSes since it is non-intrusive and can help them reach voters directly and in a targeted way,” says Rajesh Jain, founder and chief executive officer at software solutions provider Netcore Solutions Pvt. Ltd .
Parties such as the BJP have recognized the benefits of that cold call. “The 35 crore mobile users, of which every one out of three is a first-time voter covering almost 300 constituencies, is a significant voter base for us,” says Singh.
The increased number of voter touch points means that there is no longer a captive mass media audience necessitating targeted communication in terms of content, distribution and advertising. “Today’s media consumer or voter, in this context, is unique, highly fragmented and short on attention span,” says Balsara. “Therefore, no political marketeer can afford to have a one-size-fits-all communication strategy.”
The BJP’s campaign targeted at urban voters addresses issues such as the high cost of owning a house, economic slowdown and joblessness, while that focused on rural youth highlights issues such as loss of job opportunities in rural areas, agricultural issues, poor availability of power, water and infrastructure, says Nisheeth Sharan, chief executive officer, Utopia Consulting, which along with advertising agency Frank Simoes-Tag is managing the BJP’s media campaign.
The party is also using satirical radio jingles composed in the style of renowned Hindi poet Kaka Hathrasi in an attempt to strike a chord with the common man. “The idea behind using radio and communicating with local idioms, dialect and metaphors was to reach out to the lowest common denominator,” says Sharan.
Does this mean it’s the end of the road for basic modes of campaigning, such as banners, hoardings, wall writing, jan sabhas (public meetings) and padyatras (road shows)? Apparently not. With almost 40% of the population outside the reach of traditional media, such as television and print, these continue to be central to a party’s marketing strategies. Singh says roadshows and rallies are an important part of any political campaign for their sheer personal touch.
Crayons, which is handling the Congress’ account, has installed billboards in at least 10,000 sites across the country, including the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Parties such as the CPM are big on traditional means of canvassing, including plays, slogans and graffiti, indicating that traditional forms of campaigning retain their importance despite the changing media landscape.
Some experts believe these are also still the most effective. “The orthodox and traditional methods of canvassing work best in India and elsewhere, since political campaigning is about face-to-face interaction,” says G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a political analyst and managing director of Development and Research Services Pvt. Ltd, a research consulting firm. “Other media can at best support the ground activities of any political campaign,” he adds.