While door-to-door campaigning and political rallies continue to be the mainstay of election campaigns, political parties in India are looking at advertising campaigns across media platforms to reach the elusive voter, especially in urban areas.
Political parties are now more focused in their marketing strategies, and communication campaigns are going beyond reinforcing the party symbol. The proportion of poll budgets allocated to advertising has gone up and professional advertising agencies are being used.
For advertising agencies, too, it has been a learning curve—the target group is diffused and most ads take the regional language route.
Outdoor media, with its banners, hoardings and pamphlets, is the most obvious choice in political campaigns, with print ads a close second. The digital media has gained significance because of its ability to interact with urban voters; radio ads made their debut in the ongoing assembly elections. Television, despite its potential, has failed to click with parties and voters alike, mainly due to the poor quality of the ads.
Campaign looks at how political parties are using these mediums to spread the word—and how effective each is.
Although India’s 115 million television households (75 million of them cable and satellite homes) make TV an ideal platform for any advertiser who wants to reach a mass audience, the medium has failed to click for political advertising campaigns.
The combined spending of the two major political parties—Congress and BJP—on TV is Rs60 crore, or 15% of the Rs400 crore advertising budget (for all political parties in the fray), for the ongoing assembly elections in six states.
Advertising experts believe it is because TV does not give political parties enough bang for the buck. A 10-second spot can sell for anywhere between Rs5,000 on a regional language channel to at least Rs1.5 lakh on a popular channel during prime time, say media buyers, while other platforms such as radio and outdoor are as effective and cheaper.
“Voter banks are not in big cities but in rural areas where posters, meetings and mobile vans reach out to more potential voters than a TV ad which costs 10 times the amount,” says Sumira Roy, founder of Mumbai-based advertising agency Postscript. “And spending so much on a political campaign, like the BJP did with the India Shining campaign last elections, can actually backfire and work against the party.”
“At a time when Indian advertising has become so creative and has set standards internationally, the quality of political campaigns on TV remains poor and reflects badly on the industry,” says a senior advertising agency executive who didn’t want to be named. “Especially the BJP ads that featured politicians using the attacks in Mumbai to gain votes on TV and print was atrocious and will make them lose supporters.”
Adds Emmanuel Upputuru, national creative director, Publicis India, “Earlier, political ads on TV looked like an A/V (audio-visual), so at least now they look like an advertisement as the production has improved after advertising agencies were hired; but at the end of the day, the advertising will be just as good or bad as the product, so maybe the product is bad.”
However, with 400-plus TV channels, 60-70% of which are regional language channels, the media does hold potential—if used intelligently.
On 21 November, the Election Commission allowed political campaigns on airwaves. From the very next day, radio stations in Delhi and other states going to the polls aired political advertisements, mainly from the BJP and Congress.
Analysts say the speed with which parties integrated radio into their campaigns is indicative of the potential it has to reach out locally. “Radio is a localized medium that reaches out to 19 crore listeners (above the age of 12) and unlike print and TV, where there are time and space restrictions, radio allows parties to actually communicate to listeners in their language,” says Sunil Kumar, managing director at radio business consultancy Big River Radio (India) Pvt. Ltd.
“With the poll panel putting restrictions on the expenditure for campaigns, parties are looking at less expensive outlets. It is natural for political parties to use radio channels which are popular among youngsters,” says BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy.
According to a senior executive from a media buying agency, who did not want to be identified, radio accounted for Rs20 crore of the Rs400 crore political advertising budget. The Congress took six radio spots, the BJP took three. The ads ranged from 10-50 seconds and cost the parties between Rs250 and Rs1,200.
Reaching out to 23% of the population, radio may be a more effective and cheaper medium, but experts say political parties will have to learn how to use it to debate and discuss opposing viewpoints instead of using it as a platform for mud-slinging.
In Delhi, where Congress is the ruling party, radio ads highlighted the work done so far—no promises were made. But in Rajasthan, where the Congress is in the opposition, the ads looked at the inefficiency of the government and pointed out what could have been done better. Similarly, BJP’s campaign warned voters about the shortcomings of the government and rhetorically asked voters if they would make the same mistake.
“These ads were not fancy and did not need much production work as they basically had voice-overs communicating to voters. So the ads were probably developed in a span of two days and were all set to air as soon as the government gave the green light,” says Prathap Suthan, creative director of Cheil Communications.
Confirms Ashit Kukian, executive vice-president of Radio City 91.1 FM, “The commercials were ready; we were just waiting for the Election Commission for the broadcast certificate, and as soon as the formality was met, the ads were aired on our station.”
In 2004, the Internet accounted for less than 1% of the advertising budget of political parties. Today, however, the digital media makes up at least 10% of the budget,” says Atul Hegde, chief executive, Ignitee India Pvt. Ltd, the agency handling digital advertising for the Congress.
With 40 million Internet users and Internet penetration in urban India at around 9%, the importance of digital media in political campaigns cannot be ignored. Add to that the fact that 100 million youngsters, half of whom live in urban India, are expected to cast their votes for the first time in the Lok Sabha polls next year, and the Internet emerges as a very useful tool to engage with young people.
“The focus on digital and mobile media is to engage the urban youth in India who make up a large voter base,” says Hiren Pandit, managing partner of GroupM ESP, the entertainment, sports and partnerships division of media buyer GroupM. “While they are involved in political affairs, they may not be interested or inclined to vote, so these digital initiatives aim at interacting with them and getting the message out.”
The BJP and Congress have tracked US President-elect Barack Obama’s successful online campaign—social networking sites such as Facebook, Orkut and MySpace have communities built around the two parties and individual politicians. On Facebook, for instance, a BJP group has 275 members who engage in discussions and post information on important dates and events related to the elections, while Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have their own communities built on the site, with 358 and 1,310 supporters respectively. “It’s the success of Obama’s campaign we are trying to replicate here,” says Hegde.
The BJP has launched a website for its prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani. It had one, too, for V.K. Malhotra, its chief ministerial candidate for Delhi. The Congress opted for a dedicated Internet campaign for the Rajasthan assembly elections.
In addition, the two parties have engaged voters through video-sharing sites such as YouTube and video ads on popular websites such as MSN and Rediffmail.
The approximate cost for an extensive online campaign can be Rs1 crore over a month—“40% of a typical advertising campaign goes towards contextual search and advertising networks and 60% is spent on popular websites such as Yahoo, MSN, Rediff, among others,” says Sidharth Rao, chief executive and co-founder of Webchutney, a leading digital marketing company.
The lion’s share has traditionally gone to newspapers, and even though platforms such as digital and radio have gained significance, loyalties have not shifted yet. According to a media buying agency, print accounts for 40-50% of the Rs400 crore budget in the latest assembly elections. “Newspapers account for 50% of our spends because it reaches out to the masses, yet it is a very localized form of advertising that gets the message across to the lowest local denominator,” says Ranjan Bargotra, president of Crayons Advertising Ltd, the agency handling the Congress account.
According to the latest figures of the Registrar of Newspapers in India, or RNI, India had 64,998 registered newspapers as of March 2007, with a total circulation of 190 million. A political party can pay anywhere between Rs5 lakh and Rs45 lakh for one full-page advertisement in a newspaper depending on the reach it has, says a senior media buyer who did not want to be identified.
Print ads also allow parties to respond to unexpected situations. “Yes, print is a localized form of advertising but the main reason for using so much of this media is because these political campaigns are all developed (at the) last minute and print is the fastest way to do it—all it needs is some script, party symbol and mugshots of the politicians,” says Gullu Sen, executive vice-chairman and creative director of advertising agency Dentsu India.
Despite all this, experts believe the entire effort may be a waste. “The quality of print advertisements is still very tacky and seem like a big sham to me,” says Anil Madan, founder and creative director, Aqua Communications.
Adds Sen, “They are bad leaflets, not advertisements—all it does is familiarize voters to their faces, so when someone does go to the poll booth, they might just recall the face and make a connection.”
Hoardings, bus stands, mobile vans and floats have proved to be the most effective forms of communication and are used extensively by political parties. In fact, the outdoor medium gets a higher budget than television. According to a media buyer, 20% of the Rs400 crore advertising budget was spent on outdoor, while 15% was spent on television. “Outdoor advertising is the first indication that elections are coming up because all of a sudden, streets and parks in cities and villages across the country are filled with banners and hoardings of politicians,” says Sumira Roy of Postscript. “This platform connects with the rural population the best because it talks to them in the language they understand and is effective in delivering results.”
Adds Gullu Sen of Dentsu India: “We know the leaders of political parties such as Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh but how many of us know the other politicians standing for elections in the states? So outdoor advertising helps spread awareness and educate people on who is who.”
Apart from effectiveness and recall, outdoor media is more cost-effective than advertising in the mainstream media.
According to a leading outdoor advertising agency in Delhi, hoardings in a city such as Delhi cost political parties Rs2.5-5 lakh for a month depending on the location and can be as low as Rs50,000 a month in smaller towns. The cost of advertising on bus shelters for a month can be between Rs80,000 and Rs1.5 lakh for digital print banners. Compare this to approximately Rs1.5 lakh for a 10-second TV spot ad during prime time on a general entertainment channel or a full-page advertisement across all editions of a national newspaper that can cost up to Rs1.7 crore a day.
Our understanding of political campaigns probably gave us an edge over others
It has been a hectic two months for Delhi-based Crayons Advertising Ltd, which put together the Congress’ advertising campaign for the assembly elections in six states. The agency has already started work on the party’s advertising strategy for the Lok Sabha polls next year.
Ranjan Bargotra, president, Crayons Advertising Ltd . Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
A veteran at political ad campaigns, Crayons has in the past handled campaigns for the Bharatiya Janata Party, Samajwadi Party and Akali Dal. Unlike commercial campaigns, political campaigns require the ability to respond immediately to new situations, says Crayons president Ranjan Bargotra, referring to how the agency had to change its game plan in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks.
Using a mix of traditional and new media to reach out to rural India as well as urban youth, Bargotra tells Campaign what won them the coveted Rs150 crore Congress account and how the campaign has evolved at a time of recession and the Mumbai attacks. Edited excerpts:
How did Crayons fend off rival pitches from agencies such as Rediffusion Y&R, Percept Holdings, Madison, JWT and Mudra to win the Congress account?
It was our understanding of political campaigns that probably gave us an edge over other agencies. We have been the agency for BJP’s assembly elections for the past two years as well as for the Samajwadi Party and Akali Dal party. In addition, we have worked with the state governments of Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab before, so that came in handy as we clearly have a good understanding of the communication necessary to reach out to the masses. Also, communicating in Hindi is our strength and as people may have seen, a lot of our communication for (the) Congress was in this language as it helps people connect to the campaigns immediately.
What was the Congress party’s brief to you?
There was not one single brief, it was different for different states. For example, in Delhi, where (the) Congress is the governing party, we had to highlight the governance for the past 10 years and pointed out the achievements and progress made by the government, while in Rajasthan, where (the) Congress is in opposition, we had to show what was left to be done and how (the) Congress will do it. The end objective was, of course, to win the elections.
How did Crayons execute the campaign?
We were prepared with the work and the vision was clear but we were dealing with a tight time frame. So this, of course, meant we had to work overtime and sometimes overnight.
Also, you must remember that even though we had the campaign in place, things change on a daily basis and we have to suddenly turn everything around and deliver a new message in a matter of hours by addressing the issue or responding to what our competition has done. The Mumbai attacks, for instance, changed the campaign plan completely.
We came out with an advertisement on 28 November that condemned the attacks, but unlike our competition, we didn’t capitalize on that. In fact, we pulled out our advertisements planned for the last day because it would be in bad taste as the country was dealing with a terrorist attack.
How was the Rs150 crore budget allocated among the various media platforms?
While I cannot disclose our exact break-up, print took up about 50% of the spends and digital media, where we were very aggressive this year, was about 5%. We used TV very judiciously and the rest of the money went on outdoor, cinema, radio, among others.
What did the Congress do differently this time?
Congress was very active on the Internet—we were present on almost every popular website such as MSN, Rediffmail, Indiatimes, social networking sites, among others. While the content remained the same, the quality was much better this year and our approach was very clear—we wanted to retain dignity in our communication and simply tell voters to see for themselves the progress that has been made with (the) Congress as their governing party.
Will the Mumbai terror attacks lead to an increase in advertising for the Lok Sabha election?
We are going to wait and watch. Let the results for the assembly elections come in first and then we will decide the approach to the Lok Sabha elections.
BJP will focus on highlighting the shocking record of its rivals in combating terrorism
With the Lok Sabha election just a few months away, the biggest opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, has a lot to gain if the polls being held in six states work in its favour. It is no wonder then that the Rs120 crore advertising campaign rolled out by the party has used every media platform to reach out to voters. The 360-degree plan has used traditional media such as outdoor, print and TV along with a strong focus on new media such as the Internet, mobile phone and ambience media.
Sushil Pandit, Owner, Hive Communications India Pvt. Ltd
From the outset, the BJP campaign’s tag line has been Mehangi padi Congress (The Congress has proved costly). The campaign talked about inflation, the incompetence of the government at the Centre and internal security, the latter becoming the central theme after the Mumbai attacks.
For Sushil Pandit, owner of Hive Communications India Pvt. Ltd, the mastermind behind BJP’s communication strategy, the past two months have involved a lot of planning, quick reactions and execution of a campaign that has gone for plain speaking, as he says. “It’s only plain-speak that people can relate with and believe in,” Pandit says.
In an interview, Pandit talks about how the BJP campaign took shape and why he thinks this is “the only way to win people’s trust”. Edited excerpts:
What will be the biggest issue in the upcoming general elections?
Terrorism. If not the issue, it will be one of the most important issues in the elections. To be sure, terrorism is not new to India. (The) past three centuries have been consumed by the issue. It is not a new political issue either. But what is different this time is that it has shaken the entire nation. Mumbai attacks have brought home the fact, and quite strongly so, that India is a soft target in this whole din of global jihadi movement and right now, there is a complete lack of political will and strength to combat this menace. The current political establishment is bereft of ideas on how to address the issue internally as well as at the global political level. There is no strong line of thinking on the issue.
Mumbai attacks have made terrorism and the country’s security the biggest concern among people. It is, therefore, going to be a big issue in the upcoming general elections.
The kind of communication political parties are resorting to seems to be stoking anger instead of placating it. Is that a good approach?
I agree that hyping the issue, or dramatizing it, is going to be counterproductive. Any kind of embroidery that takes you away from the reality will have to be forsaken if one wants the people to identify with it, believe in it and to support it. Creating hype around the issue will only dilute the effort.
It’s only plain-speak that people can relate with and believe in. Keeping things to what they are and projecting the real picture is the only way to win people’s trust.
What’s the brief that you got from the BJP?
The party’s focus is on bringing out in the open the shocking track record of its rivals in combating terrorism. We intend to highlight the compromises they have gotten into at the strategy, the policy and the execution level in handling the issue. And all this at the altar of the vote bank.
We will also highlight their failure in managing other issues, including the economy.
Having said that, we will also focus on how our party is different from others. We will highlight their track record and their world view on issues of importance and relevance to people. We will highlight the fact that this is one party that has always shown consistency between thought and action.
What are the broader contours of the media plan that the party plans to follow?
Cliched it may sound, but it will be a 360-degree media plan. In the Delhi state assembly elections, for instance, we began with outdoors, then we moved on to print and television and also used new media such as (the) Internet and mobile phones.
The strategy for general elections obviously will be much more comprehensive. There will be salience building through events, road shows and other outdoor events and platforms. In the Delhi elections, we ran extensive advertisements on out-of-home television, which primarily refers to the screens put up in multiplexes, malls and restaurants among other places that see a lot of footfall. To give you an idea of the level of the campaign, 2,000 screens across the national capital were running messages from the BJP every 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, print and television will continue to be used extensively and we will also see an increased use of radio. Radio is a local and a cheaper mode of communication. It could be used for local communication.
Also, we will see a lot of innovative use of the new media, such as mobile phones and (the) Internet, in campaigning. BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani’s website is a case in point. We know the young audience in the country is on the right side of the digital divide. It is, therefore, a good medium to, not only reach them, but also interact with them.