Marketing of Politics!!!

Last week’s explosive expose of Channel 4 on the role of Cambridge Analytica (CA), a British political consultancy firm in the Trump campaign has thrown up many questions on the devious marketing ways parties use, to influence voters.  At the outset, it would appear that CA has been doing nothing else but extending time-tested established marketing techniques to the political domain. For years, brands have used psycho graphic profiling of target consumers in addition to the more rudimentary demographic profiling to fine-tune their messaging. Extending this into the realm of political campaigns, particularly with the help of social media would seem to be a very logical thing to do. After all, one of the key attractions of digital marketing viz-a-viz traditional mass media is the possibility to deliver customized, targeted messaging based on individual likes and preferences.

As can be seen from the expose, what CA has been doing all along, is not as straight forward as it appears. It seems apart from profiling voters and using it for targeted messaging, manipulation of news, spreading fake news and playing on people’s fears,… have been part of the game. “Marketing of Politics” has indeed come a long way since 1960 when probably the 1st political mass media campaign was used by John F Kennedy against his rival Richard Nixon in the US elections.  Bruce Newman in his book, ‘The Handbook of Political Marketing’ in fact says, “This was the beginning of the modernization of marketing in political context”. Concepts like “Branding” and “Positioning” which were hitherto considered important in the marketing of consumer goods struck a chord with politicians and leaders during elections and they started “Branding” themselves.  From then to the 2016 presidential campaign with social media as the pivot, US has been leading the way in Political Marketing!

While all this seems plausible in developed and mature countries like the US, UK,… it indeed came as a surprise that a foreign political consultancy firm like CA has been operating in India in different avatars since 2010! In a vast country with voters of diverse social, educational, cultural, economic backgrounds as India, can advance techniques like targeted messaging through Social media be used to influence voting patterns in elections? This question gains added significance particularly when Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook said this week that his organization is committed to upholding the integrity of elections around the world, including India. This statement in itself reveals that there was a possibility that Facebook would have been used to compromise elections in the past. With due respect to Zuckerberg’s intention, I do feel that this statement is more a marketing statement for the brand Facebook!  Be that as it may, the more fundamental question is – “Do Indian’s allow Marketing of Politics?”

As far as my memory goes, I think it was Rajiv Gandhi who brought in to Indian politics the concept of mass advertising campaigns way back in 1984. For the 1984 elections, Congress under Rajiv Gandhi had hired Rediffusion as their ad agency for their campaign which was largely print. In that election Congress, in the aftermath of a massive sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi’s death, got 3/4th majority in the Lok Sabha. So it’s not clear if the Rediffusion campaign around the theme of “Give Unity a Hand” played a big part in the victory. In the following election in 1989, Rediffusion was back doing the Congress campaign. However, the mega Rs. 25 crore “My heart beats for India” campaign couldn’t silence the boom of the Bofors gun scandal! Congress lost and I think it was the last time Rediffusion worked for Congress!

The subsequent elections all saw quite a bit of Political Marketing in India but, I guess that the next tipping point was the 2014 elections and the campaign of BJP in general and Narendra Modi in particular. “Abki Baar, Modi Sarkar” is part of marketing case studies. Piyush Pandey of Ogilvy, the man behind this campaign however admitted that they or the media didn’t create “Brand Modi” and that they only amplified the features of the “Modi Brand” which already existed.

2014 is also when I guess, we saw the advent of professional election strategists like Prashant Kishor (PK) for the 1st time. There were election strategists in the past but they were from the party and subscribed to an ideology.  As we see now, PK is ideology agnostic and basically works with whichever party contracts him. Again looking at the track record of PK it’s been a mixed bag. As an election strategist who worked with Modi in 2014 and then with Nitish Kumar for Bihar elections, Congress for UP, Punjab and Gujarat elections, he has been successful only with a good product in the 1st place.  The old adage of “Great marketing cannot redeem a bad product” holds well in Political Marketing also.  However it’s abundantly clear that election strategists like PK have found their calling mainly with the advent of Social media.

In a country like India, even now traditional Social media vehicles like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,… remain an urban/semi urban/youth phenomenon.  Having millions of followers on Twitter or FB may not still ensure a victory in the hinterlands of India!  Having said that, it’s obvious that one takes these vehicles seriously as they are part of day-today narrative. I just heard that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of the very early hoppers among Indian politicians onto the Social media band wagon, suggested to BJP MPs to be active on social media to communicate the party’s accomplishments. Because, he knows that today, Social media vehicles like Twitter and Facebook feeds off to the conventional media. Conventional media picks up trends from Social media. “Breaking News” happens these days on Twitter. Trump fires his Secretary of State on Twitter! Notwithstanding all these, still using these for targeted messaging may only help brands (including political parties) reach urban, semi urban and youth audience. However there is one exception.

Among the social media vehicles, literally the elephant in the room or rather hand is WhatsApp. I believe that more than FB, Twitter, Instagram and Blog sites if there is one media which has the most exponential and explosive reach, it is WhatsApp. With anonymity part of its structure and design and primarily being accessible from a Smart phone, it can be conveniently used for spreading News, views and stuff masquerading as News. Today, I find that even educated and informed people get swayed by propagandist material doing the rounds on WhatsApp and do their bit by “forwarding as received” to their near and dear! Imagine the effect of this among more gullible voters in rural India!  And therefore, it has become the most potent medium for spreading fake news.  One cannot realistically expect one and all to do due diligence before forwarding something which they feel as interesting!

Therefore, it is not surprising that when Cambridge Analytica and the subsequent Facebook stories erupted, tremors could be felt in the political circles in India with parties scrambling to distance themselves as much as possible and blaming each other.  Social media, in particular vehicles like WhatsApp can today be used to deliver targeted messages that can easily influence voters. With the proliferation of WhatsApp groups, you have a set of people who have a certain common denominator.   And hence spreading an appealing message to them is cheap, quick and effective. Hence in the elections to come, unless regulated, I have no doubts in my mind that a medium like WhatsApp will be the most sought after during political campaigns.  It already is as we saw recently in Gujarat!  Marketing of Politics that too with Social media as the mainstay is here to stay!

No wonder then Marketing of Politics has now led to Politics over Marketing!!!

Pic Courtesy: NBC News

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