The 2014 elections were the most media driven elections in Indian history engaging all mass media channels, media products and media genres on an unprecedented scale. From the traditional media to mobile and social media, news and talk shows to reality shows, movies to daily soaps, elections and politics dominated the media landscape. Even the commercials were used to propagate political images, style, party, issues and debates in a direct and sometimes in a subtle manner. This paper tries to explore how the visual advertisements were used for political promotion. The paper investigates the manner in which some brands, advertisers and marketers went beyond their ethos, becoming a case of partisan creativity. However, some of the corporate houses did come forward to play a more responsible role and promoted citizen awareness and voting campaigns when the political parties were busy in election campaigns and rallies. It was also found that at some point of election campaigning the rhetoric of politics resembled the rhetoric of commercials and vice versa suggesting, a merger of politics and promotion.
Advertising does not mirror how people are acting but how people are dreaming. – Ad Executive Jerry Goodis
(Advertising at the age of the Apocalypse -Sut Jhally)
The dynamics of democracy are intimately linked to the practices of communication and societal communication increasingly takes place within the mass media. In particular it is television which has gained a prominent position within the political system of the modern world.
(Mediating Democracy, Peter Dahlgren)
TV commercials with political messages
Concern for democracy and elections automatically necessitates a concern about television and the message it conveys. I have chosen here to discuss the political messages placed in television commercials during the 2014 elections. Let us first look at some of these commercials.
In the Hero ad, two friends are riding the bike and one of them points at the poster of a girl and says, “She is going to win the talent show this time.”
“Why?” the other asks.
“Because she is from our side.”
“From our side, what do you mean? Talent is more important.”
“Talent? And what about elections, which is the biggest talent show of our country? This time let us vote for the talent.”
The message in the ad is – ‘an individual’s talent is vital to get elected’. The hidden message is to vote for a candidate who has ‘political talent’ as if the election is a hunt for ‘Super Prime Minister’ like ‘Super Mom’ and ‘Super Chef’. The ad also conveys, in a subtle manner, that this is for the first time that Indian citizens have such a choice available to them. Also consider the phrase used in the ad ‘Is baar talent ko vote’ which sounds similar to ‘Is baar Modi sarkar’, the catch phrase of BJP’s campaign.
‘Aapka sahi chunav ek bada parivartan la sakta hai’ (Your right choice can bring in a big change) – is the punch line for the Linc pens’ ad. The model endorsing this view is none other than Amitabh Bachchan. No need to remind ourselves that Amitabh is also the brand ambassador of Gujarat Tourism. The message here is ‘a change in government is the need of the hour to bring a so-called revolution in the country.
In the advertisement for Fevicol, a tea seller walks into a carpenter’s shop and sees him working on different types of chairs. “Ye tarah tarah ki kursiya kiske liye?” (Who are these different chairs for?), he asks. Then the carpenter shows him the different types of chairs he is working on. First a lotus shaped one, “Ye apne Narendra bhai ki hai” (This one is for our brother Narendra Modi); second a palm-shaped one, “Ye sure nahi ke kaun baithega ispe, to ise maine adjustable bana diya hai’ (Not sure who will sit on this one, so I have made it adjustable), and then a cluster of six to seven chairs, “Ye teesre morche ki hai, darjan logon ke jod tod se bani” (This is for the Third Front, there are too many people in this one). The teaseller replies, “Kursi me Fevicol jaroor lagayi, taaki kursi jiski bhi bane, der tak chale.” (Do put Fevicol on chairs, so that whoever comes to power, stays for long).The tongue in cheek references to the Congress, the BJP and the Third Front are sure to make one chuckle but anyone who follows politics will understand that the message is again to promote one specific party and personality.
There had been a flood of election themed brand commercials on TV during the elections. The advertisers and marketers found a new peg in the biggest election show of India to sell everything from fans, bikes, cars, glue to even a cup of tea. They were riding on the topical issue of election which has a mass appeal but what is striking is the way some of these ads were embedded with the political promotion of a certain image. The ‘personality’ is placed in the commodities whereas earlier commodities were placed in campaigns and programmes. Should we call it ‘co-modification’ of the personality culture? One can raise questions about this type of partisan creativity. It seems there is a perceived bias in these ads.
The firstpost.com declared the Fevicol ad the cleverest one. According to the website, the creative team of this ad includes Piyush Pandey and Prasoon Joshi. Incidentally, both of them were instrumental in the creation of the BJP campaign. However, Anil Jayaraj, chief marketing officer of Pidilite industries said, “We did not think of the campaign from an election point of view, it was just to make people smile. If ad plots involve topics like elections, parties and politics a fair amount of common sense is advisable.” (“Abki baar ads baar baar”, Economic Times, April 30, 2014). This also suggests that in this election polarization was limited not only to politics but also to the corporate houses and admen.
In his essay ‘American Advertising’, media theorist Marshall Mcluhan quotes Jullian Benda: “Benda was right. When the intellectual sells any brand of social or political neurosis, when fear or loneliness beckon him into some party, he is worse than useless.” (Critical Studies in Media Commercialization). He argues that advertising needs to be taken seriously, as a form of culture, a programme of education, and a mode of political control and social engineering. Marshall Mcluhan was one of the first scholars to provide a serious analysis and commentary on advertising, notably in his 1951 book, The Mechanical Bride.
The function of an advertisement is to sell a product, teach values, attitudes and behaviors, but were these ads funded by one political party and publicising the values and attitudes projected by it? Was there any behind-the-scene manipulation like paid news or paid programming? This demands an investigation though this is beyond the scope of this paper.
Media scholar Neil Postman says, “Unless the use of TV for television campaign is strictly prohibited, elections may be decided by which party spends more on television and media consultants.” (Neil Postman, Social Effects of Commercial Television)
In an article ‘Brands vote for elections’, Saurabh Parmar, CEO and founder, Brandlogist, says, “The challenge of associating with elections is that for all the brands the ‘product’ and ‘call to action’ is the same. It is about encouraging people to vote. Thus, the connect heavily relies on the creative execution or the angle.”
Educating voters or pure ads
Critics holding different views may argue about the ‘world’s biggest election’, it was but inevitable that creative minds would influence the mindset of people – both directly and in subtle ways. But what is important is to ask whether this opportunity is used to raise vital political issues and to educate the voters or was it pure advertising, just to get the mileage from a topical issue.
Well, some advertisers did appear responsible. They joined the poll pitch but in a different way. Case in point: The RR Kabel ad where the shopkeeper tells the young buyer, “Wire toh sahee chuna, sarkar bhee sahee chunana” (You chose the right wire, choose the right government too).
The Maruti campaign -India Vote Smart– announces,” Jab aankh band kar car nahi dete to aankh band kar desh kyuon” (When you don’t give your car blindly then why to vote blindly).The message is, think before you cast your vote. Some other interesting ad copies like “Paanch saal mein bahut kuch ho sakta hai” (Much can be done in five years), “Lado mat, miljulkar desh ke liye kaam karo” (Do not fight, work together for the country) tell a lot about the political system and the election process.
What seems to underlie the advertisements from corporate houses is a message of empowerment. Hindustan Unilever launched a campaign to encourage eligible citizens to cast their vote, with the Election Commission of India endorsing its two films. As a result of a challenge set by the Election Commission for finalists on an inter B-School challenge, conducted annually by HUL and CNBC TV18, the idea that won was the one that recognised that the urban voter was more politically apathetic and was less likely to vote as a result. Amrit Nanda, Ankur Chaudhary and Anurag Katiyar from IIM-B had observed that reasons such as ‘Don’t care about candidates’, ‘Too busy to vote’ and ‘stay away from home’ were reasons that led to a voter turnout of 58.19 per cent in the last Lok Sabha election.
(Brands vote for elections, Sayantani Kar, Mumbai April 1, 2014, Business Standard)
Some of these ads tried to convey a sense of pride that a first time voter could feel. Someone who is 18 years of age could feel it when reminded that she might not have been taken seriously earlier but now India is asking for her mandate. Out of the 814 million Indians eligible to vote in this election, almost 100 million voters are first-time voters who are in the age group of 18 to 22 years. For this age group, these types of ads could be a source of motivation and desire to vote. The other film which ran on all channels of TV 18 works on the guilt of people who refrain from casting their vote. It is seen as an opportunity to engage Indians for creating a better tomorrow.
The nuances of the different strata among India’s voters had also been captured in some of the ads. Star’s campaign which comes in between the daily soaps is one such example. To emphasize the importance of women in the electoral process, all the popular bahus (daughter-in-laws) of the daily TV serials came on the screen together and appealed ‘Bahu Nahin Bahumat Ke Liye Vote Karen ‘.
Subhash Sarees Salute Women Voters ad says the Kala Teeka seems to be the best form of adornment for any woman, apart from the Kajal, Bindi and so on.
Tata Tea ad, Power of Kaala Teeka, has an ordinary woman working at a salon showing women the way by pointing to her inked finger. She says pepper sprays won’t do, only voting for a party that protects women will.
Some of the ads sound preachy but some banked on the themes like corruption and clean government in a more innovative way and dominated the ad scene. Take the No Ullu Banaoing ad of Idea Cellular. The ad rides on the phrase Ullu Banana (fooling people), highlighting corruption and the busting power of mobile internet. Politicians beware.
In the Ambuja Cement commercial -New Classroom- a boy talks of the invisible wall that keeps him from playing cricket with his friend Iqbal. The ad suggests that the division in the society must be demolished.
Havell’s Hawa Badlegi: A candidate snubs a donation offer saying he is not fighting but contesting polls. Message: Enticements won’t beguile the electorate. (Outlook, 19 May,2014 )
A very interesting aspect of this relation between commercials and elections took a new form on 29th April when Narendra Modi announced ‘Ye Dil Mange More’. Campaigning in Palampur, the Himachal Pradesh hometown of Kargil martyr Vikram Batra, Narendra Modi borrowed his famous catch-phrase to ask for votes: “Vikram Batra died for the country. He had said – “Yeh Dil Maange More”. I say it too. I want all four seats in Himachal. I want 300 lotuses from across India.”
At his next election rally in the state, he said that again. “I want your best wishes. I want to serve you. You’ve given them (Congress) 60 years. Can’t you give me 60 months? Yeh dil maange more! Give me 60 months.”
It raised a controversy, but in Delhi the BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi argued, “It was a company’s slogan….it is not their slogan.”
Captain Vikram Batra immortalised the words “Yeh dil maange more” the catch-line from an ad campaign before he died fighting the 1999 Kargil war.(ndtv.com)
It was a case of merger between advertising and political rhetoric and how the ads have also changed the language of politics. It was almost similar to Bob Dole’s using Nike’s ‘Just Don’t Do It’ phrase in his anti-drug slogan during the 1996 US elections.
Dole hoped it would be the focal point of his campaign. In fact, Nike resented its priceless trademark being transfigured into an anti-drug slogan. As Jim Small, a Nike spokesman, said,” The slogan is cemented in consumers’ mind as a rallying cry to get off the couch and play sports. We are uncomfortable entering the political arena.” (Robin Anderson, The 1996 US Presidential Campaign)
Apart from all the catchy phrases and slogans, the question that needs to be answered is do these commercials have substance also. Do they raise pressing political issues or trivialize an already superficial media discourse? A mechanism has to be evolved to measure the effects of these commercials but it appears that they do address the issue of non-interest in politics while actually doing very little. The serious problems of corruption, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and the much publicised issue of development largely remained non-issues in the ad world.
Political strategists and marketers introduced advertising practices to promote personality, party and the electioneering to convey their concerns. Some of the creative minds used this opportunity to endorse a specific political line in a subtle manner suggesting the boundaries between political and advertising campaign are disappearing.
These commercials may be innovative, refreshing and make people smile, but it appears that there is a conscious effort to use advertising and marketing practices for political gains. The ads here are not passive reminders but they seem to be creating an image and trying to ‘manufacture consent’ for people about the person they should vote for as their duty to help bring in change in the country. The ethos of political persuasion, once largely restricted to rallies, posters and political ads, is now being effectively incorporated into the world of commercial advertisements on television. It refers to ‘the political class’, a term used by Hobsbawm (1994) for a special interest group which manages the political arena. It also leads us to conclude that there was polarization of the corporate and companies, advertisers and marketers also.
As for the apprehension that it was part of the trend of paid advertisement then the use of ads for political ends could be a threat to democracy.
In this media-driven world it is not surprising that media will mediate in the political discourse and the electioneering and it will manifest itself in several ways. Commercials are definitely one of them and it has given the advertisers an opportunity to associate themselves with the largest democracy and the voters. On the other hand, the politicians are adopting the marketing methods to promote themselves. It could be said that the merger between promoting politics and ad campaigns is complete.
- Advertising at the age of the Apocalypse -Sut Jhally
- Mediating Democracy, Peter Dahlgren
- The firstpost.com
- Abki baar ads baar baar, Economic Times, April 30, 2014
- American Advertising’, Marshall Mcluhan (critical studies in media commercialization)
- Neil Postman, Social Effects of Commercial Television
- Brands vote for elections, Sayantani Kar | Mumbai April 1, 2014,Business Standard
- Robin Anderson, the 1996 US presidential campaign
- Outlook,19 may,20140
- Extensive television watching between 15th April to 10th May 2014