MASSAGING THE MEDIUM
Dated: May 01, 2014
The recent election multi-media campaigns, especially on social media, mounted by the three main political parties, the Congress, the BJP, and the Aam Admi Party, were more than a study in political science and the art of political persuasion. It ranged from the sophisticated (far and few between), the aggressive, the passive-aggressive, the black and white, the idealistic, the cultist, and the phobic, among others. It marked a watershed in political discourse. Yet the results at the time of going to press could be far from what could be decisively determined. So, what defined and constituted these campaigns? In an extensive chat with Creative Brands, Santosh Desai, a former adman himself, and currently the CEO of Future Brands, sheds light on what these campaigns could mean for India. “Now we are seeing a new form of engagement which places politics as an ongoing event in our lives. Thus, the engagement enhances considerably. So, politics is more than elections and democracy is larger than voting is the change that is beginning to happen. The rise of the notion of citizenry — the idea of the citizen — is becoming important,” says Desai.
CB: Can we delve into the political sociology of these campaigns...?
Santosh Desai: Let’s start with AAP because in some ways there is an immediate sociological impulse that drives it — which is of a class. Historically this is the educated middle class. In some ways in India it has been a sort of cornerstone that has always enjoyed advantages of social capital of a kind that it does not recognise fully, but, it has always done that. It sees itself as being representative of India. In fact, it calls itself that but it is not the middle class by any yardstick. The middle-class would be much lower.
As there is a system of government in place, it (AAP) is a response to that by [this educated] class that believes, with the coming of a new class of politicians post-Mandal, it has been excluded from the political process. This sense of alienation is the genesis of the AAP.
The AAP’s campaign has run largely on very resonant and very powerful use of symbols rather than advertising in any sense; starting with the name Aam Admi Party and AAP as an acronym, the election symbol of the group, the persona of Kejriwal. Today when every college leader projects himself/herself as a superstar, Kejriwal with sweat beads, dishevelled hair, the AAP topi and the muffler is a dramatic, stark, and deliberate contrast to the language of politics that was prevalent.
From being a counterpoint to the existing political system to becoming a voice of the people and in a sense reconnecting politics and democracy with their original purpose, is really the idea it has come to represent. So, a Kejriwal interview is always an exercise in the deft use of language, images, the use of logic — a very deliberate attempt to contrast what are seen to be theatrical actions with measured, logical responses — and the willingness to answer questions.
Everybody knows that AAP will win, at best, 15 seats that too for the fanciful, though they are projected to win more perhaps.
In spite of the fact that AAP is destined to be a non-player at least in this election the place that Kejriwal holds in our consciousness is a remarkable brand success. Whether it is a product success or not is a separate debate, but as a brand he has succeeded. Till the whole Somnath Bharti episode the AAP had done the impossible: they had managed to unite the middle class and the urban poor into a single constituency. And the fact that they had very little resources and how they used them is remarkable — the power of an idea translated into action. I mean every principle of brand creation that you can think was followed instinctively by the AAP. So, I think [it is] a very powerful idea speaking of a new set of aspirations.
But the biggest curse I think was their success in Delhi and the timing of the elections nationally. Had they not done as well as they did they would have been conscientious objectors — the best role — and they would have built energy across the nation. They came to power in Delhi propped by the Congress and overplayed their hand...
AAP had done the impossible: they had managed to unite the middle class and the urban poor into a single constituency. And the fact that they had very little resources and how they used them is remarkable — the power of an idea translated into action. I mean every principle of brand creation that you can think was followed instinctively by the AAP. So, I think [it is] a very powerful idea speaking of a new set of aspirations...
BJP over the years has sort of been confused managing itself because internally it is a more democratic structure than certainly the Congress is. Although in an absolute sense it is not the most democratic party, but, relatively it has more people who are important, or rather, allowed to stay important unlike the Congress; therefore, a lot of strong voices. I think what they have done is to create that kind of a collective leadership [as] the idea of strength which is what their reading of India today is.
But, today there is a new kind of voter who wants to hear some sense of a future. And the BJP, therefore, connects with the future facing voter — who is impatient with the nuance and complexities of politics and the political language in India which has always been complicated — with a clarifying simplicity [through] the idea of an individual taking us to salvation.
And, therefore, a hunger and a hankering for clarity and leadership found its expression in Narendra Modi. He clarifies complex issues into simple media bytes. He represents strength. It is fascinating that an idea of that singularity has had resonance in India. And, I think the answer, therefore, ‘lies’ in Modi and the fact that so many people are drawn towards him is because: a) he speaks the language of the future — of development, b) and he has proof to offer. For most people, they take it on faith, because he looks the part and speaks it.
The Congress is facing an existential crisis because of its leadership. And weak centralism as their definition of an ideology in essence says very little — it is neither here nor there... Internally, the Family makes everybody a shareholder in the company but nobody as the aspirant owner; because you cannot become an owner. The Congress is like a traditional business in India. You can be important employees...
The political campaign binds a stronger answer which is echoed in their campaign ‘Abki baar Modi Sarkar’. The election campaign has been very smart, because it has stayed true to its larger message of offering strong working governance where somebody is stepping up and taking responsibility. Firstly, it has calibrated the message [by] making subtle shifts as you go along. Second, it has deliberately avoided the extreme, fringe references which could undercut its campaign. Third, Narendra Modi has been excellent in expressing himself, in using metaphors and advertising tag lines — he uses four to five taglines in each speech that are new. Thus, that is the BJP campaign: the dissatisfaction and general sense of unease with the current governance and a strong leadership talking to people across classes.
The Congress, I think, is facing an existential crisis because of its leadership. And weak centralism as their definition of an ideology in essence says very little — it is neither here nor there — but, the fact that it is inclusive allows them to fill in the gaps.
So, the Congress in many ways is your default answer without you having a very strong reason to vote them in. Historically, it is better than the other alternatives as a default choice.
Internally, the Family, what it does is to make everybody a shareholder in the company but nobody as the aspirant owner; because you cannot become an owner. The Congress is like a traditional business in India. You can be important employees.
The fact that the top position is denied to anybody outside the family actually becomes a source of stability for the party.
The problem is that that model was based on the ability to get voters, because of charisma of the leaders and historical association — the strength of the brand. That brand over successive generations has weakened. Today the crisis they face is poor leadership that doesn’t have the power to draw in, but, more importantly there is a lack of self-confidence and a willingness to lead.
So, if you look at the bulk of the campaign they knew that they were under siege from the media for many years. Many courses opened to them including Rahul Gandhi stepping in earlier and taking charge. But the big internal question for Rahul Gandhi is whether he is willing to step up, or rather, will he stand. It is not a consumer facing question, it is an internal question that the brand could not get away with till very late.
The party started campaigning a long time back. In terms of content, their story is based on the right of centre view. So,
A hunger and a hankering for clarity and leadership found its expression in Narendra Modi. He clarifies complex issues into simple media bytes. He represents strength. It is fascinating that an idea of that singularity has had resonance in India...
sociologically its base has been the poor whom it addresses directly through programmes. Thus, their worldview is one that imagines India in the traditional sense: a country of poor people. When recently Rahul Gandhi spoke, in an interview with Headlines Today, he said, “development is important, ‘but’...” Now in today’s game you cannot have a sentence where you feel the urge to say development and then add a ‘but’. That is not to say that areas of inclusion are not resonant, but, these are separate questions. They are not to juxtapose it with the development as a counterpoint. So, this is a worldview issue. The poor do need development and, therefore, there must be a future-facing plan which the Congress lacks.
Their advertising campaign is a better produced one perhaps — it looks like an ad campaign whereas the BJP’s posters look like they have been made in 1980s. But these are just pretty pictures. Content-wise their advertising is nothing.
CB: Largely a post-facto question, how effective you think are these advertising campaigns politically? How much do you think this would have resonated with the voters? Shouldn’t political campaigns be based on authenticity?
SD: In India advertising campaigns don’t win elections. They have almost no impact on the outcome except by perhaps quantum to a certain extent. When you advertise it just creates a presence. But, by and large, India is too large and the media reach too low. Plus, there is so much coverage by other media — news and social media — that the role played by advertising campaigns is absolutely marginal.
But the advertising campaigns are important as they crystallise the message of the party. Internally they give everybody a sense of direction — they know that this is what we are. In a speech you can say everything, but, in a campaign you have to be focused. It expresses the key idea. So, overall they are not electorally significant, but, they provide a definition to the brand — the parties — and a comprehensive promise. The campaigns are circulated among the supporters of the party creating a clear and refined vocabulary. This is the role they should play.
CB: To your mind, therefore, is there a difference between product and personality?
SD: The medium was always the message, even before Marshall McLuhan said this. It would be a reductive view of the world if you separate the content from its form. But, in a mediatised world that blurring becomes much easier. So, when you look at the issues the media raises they are largely symbolic rather than substantial. What is the Gujarat model? Transparency in action, then all models are aiming that; support for the private sector, okay; but beyond? When you break it down, it is a media formulation. Has Gujarat done well and Modi played a role in that? Let’s say that has happened, but then crystallise it into some formation. I am not arguing that there is no Gujarat model as much I am arguing that there has been no concern raised from mainstream media.
The point is who said what is much more important in today’s discourse than who did what — speech over action. How does an MLA’s abuse to someone impact the nation? Why is it news? Does that word have a larger consequence or the actions — which are not considered? But what happens in the media is that the symbolic takes centrestage, because the image — what can be shown — is important. To that extent I think there has been a blurring between personality and product and even its packaging.
Thus, we buy into a blurring of meaning. To a certain extent we bought into the Gandhi family. What did we do about them? Did we support the Congress because of the policies? They bought into Indira Ma (mother) — those larger than life figures. So, yes, today it is very difficult to segregate product and personality, but, in a different way this always had been the case.
CB: You said in an article that Bharat Nirman in many ways is a step by the Congress to move away from the ‘sarkaari’ image. And with the advent of social media one sees parties reaching out in a different fashion. How do you evaluate this change in image and nature of politics?
SD: You know a vote is India’s most widely distributed product. And therefore the most evolved marketing would happen in politics. And yet the engagement with politics has been compartmentalised. Elections happen once every five years. I start engaging at a national level, if at all I do, around that time.
But now we are seeing a new form of engagement which defines politics as an ongoing event in our lives. Thus, the engagement deepens considerably. So, politics as more than elections and democracy as being larger than voting are the changes that are beginning to take shape. The rise of the notion of citizenry — the idea of the citizen — is becoming important.
So, social media has given the citizen a voice. Earlier I could only listen. Therefore, the nature of the political process is becoming such that it also gives chance to a new brand of politics to talk to you, listen to you, and respond. We can challenge and debate.
This is like a mini universe that is being created with its own rules and opportunities. As of now, electorally its influence may not translate into numbers directly, but, it is important as everybody keeps social media in mind that if I do this it’ll become a twitter thing. So, it has huge influence on action more than on votes.
Yes, it is a new phenomenon that needs to be understood. But, the language is English. So, its influence is restricted and thus, the influence remains indirect. Quantitatively it is one thing, but, qualitatively it has been impactful. So, the next elections are going to see a greater and a more direct influence, certainly.
CB: What is the impact when parties take recourse to history?
SD: Politics is a continuous process. You are trusting in a set of people to take you from the past to the future. On what basis do you make that choice? It is to say what have you done in the past and what will you do in the future.
If you look at the U.S. they have enough problems with democracy, but the biggest issues and divisions are around policies — are you pro-this or anti-that...
Now, in India there are no policy debates even in Parliament, forget debates in the media. Everybody knows about Narendra Modi’s wife but nobody knows what his policy on education is. In India when did a policy become an electoral issue? The reason why the past is looked at is: (a) is because it is a valid yardstick as politics is a continuous process and you cannot have an absence of memory; (b) because policies have not been part of the electoral narrative at a certain level and also because the parties, being products of their past, are driven by that.
CB: But in invoking history there is a sense of selective amnesia...
SD: Of course, but you will always pick and choose.
What we call history is nothing but selective amnesia, because you cannot possibly remember everything from the past. So history is the euphemised name we give to selective amnesia where a user will deliberately pick that aspect of history that supports his present.
So history also becomes a kind of contested space, because what is undeniably true in the past is very difficult to establish; which is where you will have the same event being looked at differently.
For example, Bhagat Singh’s re-invocation: if people actually read Bhagat Singh people who look upon him as an icon would be terrified. He is absolutely on the Left. And he is appropriated as a national icon without any sense of what he stood for. Or a Sardar Patel if you look at — his speeches — is a much more complex figure than what the Right is currently claiming he is.
So, you appropriate selectively. And in India history is mythologised. So, you always find that there is very little interest in the factual.
CB: Among the three — Rahul, Modi, and Kejriwal — who would you rate the best? Or what is your reading of the three personalities in this election?
SD: Rahul Gandhi today, unfortunately, is not really a brand proposition because he has no idea to endorse. The only thing he has espoused is a more participatory and democratised setup within his own party. Now, that is a very narrow and an inward looking idea. Does rest of the country care? This is the only idea he stands for. Beyond that he represents a vague welfare-ism. His persona and the ideas do not come together. When he, a dynast, talks about democratising the party it is laughable. It is an existential cul-de-sac.
Between Modi and Kejriwal, I think, Modi is a meticulous leader and Kejriwal is a spontaneous combust. One is laying layer over layer, planning and plotting slowly over time with the help of resources — thinkers, data etc. The other works with the sheer force of action with the idea of putting oneself on the line to being able to live it — a more heroic stance. He is a hero in the classical sense, that is, somebody who has an impossible target, crosses many improbable boundaries, puts himself on the line, and sometimes perishes. The Modi story is a more successful story eventually, perhaps. But the Kejriwal story is more inspiring.
CB: In such a complex environment what qualifies as advertising and what doesn’t? Would you call BJP releasing its manifesto on election date as advertising?
SD:The moment I control my narrative — I will show you only my media feed — then I have converted a communiqué into advertising, because I am controlling entirely what I show. The moment it is framed by your (the other’s) opinion it is journalism.
In social media if I am framing my message and what you are hearing is what I want you to hear deliberately, it is advertising. But if you are saying something which is your opinion then you are accelerating a debate — making a conversation — rather than mouthing someone’s words. So, the marker is the intention.
[Intentionally] the manifesto release was a managed media event what you traditionally call public relations. Of course, in its concept it is advertising, but, if the release of it came to us edited and commented upon then it is not advertising — putting it in a frame that is critical. And it is true that media in its coverage has been less critical around things: you just see direct feeds such as ‘Modi/Rahul/Kejriwal speech live’ and there is no editorial overhead to the speech; that I think is making more and more what I say yesterday’s journalism today’s advertising.
So, from there to move to advertising agencies is then a big jump, as the advertising agency has nothing whatsoever to do with writing a politician’s speech. They are the experts, supposedly, at framing the messages, so why are they only at the tail end to design a poster. Why are they not coming out at the front end?
CB: Then what is the role of the ad agencies that churn out campaigns worth crores? What in essence is the ‘dharma’ of an ad agency? Is vote and product the same?
SD: An ad campaign is a kind of insurance. When I say that vote is a product that is to say that the implications of this choice are most dramatic. In the conceptual sense you are using it to a certain end which in this case is to attain a desired political environment.
The dharma of an ad agency, in the ideal world, what it should be is a sense of responsibility to the consequences, because you cannot be detached as everybody is going to vote for somebody and everybody has a responsibility of a citizenry. Thus, the interest of citizenry need to be taken in account in the way you act.
In concrete terms the whole show becomes a mockery of pledges — of good governance — if you are taking money in cash. To me the loftiness that goes into advertising campaigns is undone so dramatically by the process. Crores are being spent and what is being shown is a fraction of that. The actual accounts of any party do not have that kind of money. From an advertising agency perspective it gets funnelled through somebody in the advertising arena. So, where does that money come from and where does it go? These are questions nobody can answer which is the reason a lot of international agencies in principle do not take political campaigns, because they have suffered when they support one party. The fact that this is the place where you can legitimately ask that if it does not meet your principles and it is not satisfactory then I think as a citizen it certainly becomes a ‘dharma’ — to not do anything that violates the spirit of larger intention you are working towards — whether you follow it or not.
CB: In a political sense what is the moral framework of an ad agency?
SD: Let me just come out of the political frame to answer that. There are a few moral responsibilities that advertising has towards its clients, the consumers, and the larger context of the nation. One is respect for the individuals advertising caters to — the ability to look upon them non-judgementally and respect the choices that they make. It is an implicit contract the ad agencies have with the world. The other is to speak the truth as they know it. And ‘as they know it’ is a qualification that is necessary, because you cannot chase the truth which is an endless process. Say a particular ad is demeaning to women. Then that is an internal question — a moral one — in a sense believing in a societal responsibility that my message is a public good.
In political advertising I have to take care that the message does not hamper the larger democratic process. It is not to say that if I do not support a political party individually then I shouldn’t advertise — it is a personal choice, but, not an advertising agency’s choice. It is possible to work for something professionally in which you do not believe personally. So, it is a moral choice rather than a moral imperative. Moral imperatives aren’t dependent on individuals, but moral choices are.