The 30 second candidate

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Marketing expenses of US President hopefuls are rising by the day. The 2008 election campaign may well see ad spends crossing $5 billion. There’s a lesson in it for Indian political candidates


“Change we can believe in” or “Yes we can” are popular slogans in America today. They are not punch lines of a popular shoe brand or apparel manufacturer, but of a political candidate. The political campaign in America has been the most exciting and as Election Day nears, it gets more and more intoxicating. Obama, Hillary or McCain? The verdict stands suspended. The aura, the election fever has been most dramatic, more exhilarating than even the best suspense thriller you can think of. The campaigns of the three candidates are lessons in advertising and marketing. The three products (candidates) have used all the rules & principles available in the book. However, the most interesting product and my personal favourite is Barack Obama. The man has shown the world the power of advertising & promotions. Surprising but true, today a political candidate can be marketed like a box of cereals! With a name like Barack Hussain Obama, the man could have been a loser from the word go. A name almost rhyming with Osama, he could have been a lost case, especially after the 9/11 attacks. Yet, today he is fast becoming the blue-eyed boy of America. He was a total misfit – a black, young and inexperienced and half Muslim. Intelligent campaigning turned it all in his favour. According to Time magazine, Obama’s campaign turned out voters 25 years of age and younger, in record numbers. It was not just sheer charisma that helped him do it, but also sophisticated marketing techniques like Micromarketing. Here, by layering typical demographic data with psychographic data, they found new voters. With the help of indicators, like which TV shows you watch, which magazines you subscribe to, which car you own, which club you belong to, et al, with near certainty they found out potential voters (something similar was done by Bush). Once the voters were identified, they were called up by people like them. So veterans called veterans, high school students called up high school students and convinced them in their own unique ways to come and vote.

Obama knew old party loyalists would be difficult to convince. It was those who had yet to form strong opinions that were easy to swing in his favour. A shrewd move; something similar to what Howard Dean had done in 2004, when he campaigned intensely on college campuses. It is these first-time voters who turned out in record numbers and gave him most of his margin of victory. This under-25 set – the most elusive of all voters everywhere – gave Obama a net gain of 17,000 votes and helped him defeat Hillary at Iowa.

The Marketing of a President

Obama’s campaign is unfolding with clockwork precision. There is a systematic branding effort behind everything. No wonder it’s working. Every Presidential candidate of America has been marketed to the people, however in Obama’s case, for the first time, it’s being done in a manner similar to the marketing effort of any high-end consumer brand.

Brand Obama has a cool logo, cooler t-shirts for supporters. His viral video “Yes we can” received 6 million hits. It became so popular that it was soon developed into an on-line community where you could post your own version of “Yes we can.” A successful brand is one, which connects with the people. In Obama’s case, the focus was not ‘Obama’ but the idea, the idea of change... of hope. It worked. Every part of the campaign focused on this. So much so, that to drive home the point, a website hopeactchange.com was created. The logo, with a blue circle and red & white stripes, stood out most distinctly. Every single banner had the same font type – something even corporate clients find difficult doing with their campaigns! According to Michael Bierut, a leading graphic designer, Barack’s campaigns are flawless. He is the only candidate to have a coherent, top to bottom, 360 degree system at work. His campaign scores as high in designs & quality as any of America’s best brands like Target or Apple or Volkswagen.

Assassinations, not ads

Back in India, the situation is totally lackluster. Campaigns only have a limited impact on elections. Print campaigns are read by only the educated few. Around 80% of rural households can still not afford black & white TV sets.

Back in 1980’s, a man whose smile made you skip a heart-beat did use a professional agency for his political campaigns. Rajiv Gandhi & Congress spent Rs.40 crore in 1989 on advertising. However, his sales pitch, “My heart beats for India” failed to move the voters. In 2004, BJP spent almost Rs.100 crore on the ‘India Shining’ campaign but lost, while Congress which hardly spent much, won. In fact its been the two assassinations (in 1984 & 1991) that actually made a whole nation cry together and vote with their hearts. The Congress saw a landslide victory in 1984 and a decent win in 1991. No planned ad campaigns have ever been able to generate such fervour. No party has approached elections with proper thought & planning, and created campaigns powerful enough to move people.

In the recent past, Narendra Modi’s political campaign did show some sparks of innovation and creativity. The party’s poll theme, ‘Jeetega Gujarat’, focused on Modi. Only a few ads hit out at the Congress. Modi used hoardings, TV commercials and even a website to impress the young voters. He even got masks of his face made (similar to the ones made for Hillary & Bush in USA). The masks, made in China, generated a lot of curiosity, especially among the common people, who had never seen something like this. Modi used TV Gujarat and Zee Gujarat to reach out to his voters. Congress too used TV, but focused on national channels, which sadly diluted its efforts. It’s local focus that works here. In West Bengal, a CPM candidate had a string of three thousand kites with his message written on each of them. They were later cut off so that they could land all over his constituency. Bengal loves kites and his efforts were appreciated. In the south, Jayalalitha used her Jaya TV to promote herself and her party. Locally specific, well-tuned, well-timed, low-cost, but high-relevance promotions are what can make a party successful in India.

The changing face of political campaigns

It may not have taken off in a big way in India till now, but in future, only well marketed candidates and parties would be able to influence the voters. The one with a market-oriented approach would succeed, that’s for sure. Just as successful brands need to appeal to consumers, candidates must appeal to voters. With radio and television spreading their reach every year – they are fast becoming the media that are shaping peoples opinions. Candidates need to use them to reach out to larger audiences.

Consider this. He was finished, declared a loser, even before the election race started. The Jennifer Flowers scandal (she squealed on her 12-year relationship with Bill Clinton), when he was running for President, ensured that Clinton was left with nothing when America went to polls in 1992. Then, Clinton & his wife went on air to accept and confront all allegations in the popular programme “60 Minutes.” That Sunday night, as millions hung on to every word the Clinton’s spoke – marketers congratulated each other quietly – their campaign was rocking. Bill Clinton used all possible marketing tools like focus groups, telemarketing, et al, to emotionally connect with the audience, who forgave him & voted him to power.

With each passing year, elections are getting more expensive. It’s not just the creative, but the one with deepest pockets who will survive. In 2004, George Bush and John Kerry spent about $600 million on TV & radio ads. This was three times more than what Al Gore & Bush spent in 2000. This time, it’s estimated that in 2008, political ads spending figures could surpass $5 billion.

The best part is great ads work. Back in 1964, the ‘Daisy’ ad was shown only once in America on CBS. It showed the image of a girl picking petals off a daisy juxtaposed with the image of an atomic bomb exploding and was intended to raise fears about the opposition candidate’s inclination to start a nuclear war. Though the ad was withdrawn immediately, it was shown numerous times in the news and most senior Americans still remember it.

Televised political advertising began in 1952. It has been evolving continuously ever since. Hubert Humphrey used comparative ads to attack Richard Nixon. John F. Kennedy used lyrics like “a man that’s old enough to know, but young enough to do” in his ads. In the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan came out with “feel good” ads with happy times, smiling faces.

This year, Obama has a new message. He is asking his voters to create an ad for him. “Obama in 30 seconds” is asking you to make an ad for Obama & the winning ad would then be aired nationally.

Yes, just like soaps and shampoos, it requires only a few seconds to create a leader. To create those winning seconds, you need to work hard. But remember, the one who markets and advertises will win. The future belongs to the 30-second candidate.