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HomePageTurnerAds don't win you elections. Advertising BJP was conscious choice: Piyush Pandey

Ads don’t win you elections. Advertising BJP was conscious choice: Piyush Pandey

In 'Open House', author Piyush Pandey answers questions on ad agencies promoting political parties. The role isn't as big as you think.

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In the last couple of decades, there have been many debates about the role of advertising and the ethics in advertising. Does advertising manipulate people? Do we influence people into buying things that they do not require? There are many more questions addressing this broad area, and I won’t list them all.

David Ogilvy probably, unwittingly, answered all these questions when he said, “The customer is not a moron. She is your wife.” David said this in the context of the need to tone down what was a loud, hectoring tone in print ads of those days. I’m attempting to extrapolate David’s wonderful line as an answer to questions on the role of advertising and on the issue of ethics in advertising. It is the nature of human beings, that, when occasions demand, we present themselves in good shape and form. When people attend a wedding, they wear their best clothes. And when people go out to the church or to the temple or mosque, they go appropriately dressed. They dress, often, to get noticed at their best – if they want to get noticed. When brands want to get noticed, they present themselves in their true, but best, form. The consumer is aware that you’re presenting yourself at your best and will buy the brand if she is convinced that it is worth it.

Add to this is the simple truism: you can’t fool the consumer twice. Why would a customer return to buy your brand if you did not deliver what you had promised initially? If you are a fly-by-night operator, and not into delivering on your promises, you might get away with it once, and then change your line of business and find someone new to fool once. But if you’re in the business to stay, you have to respect the consumer, the consumer’s intelligence and the choices available to the consumer. It’s your job, as a brand, to present yourself as a meaningful offering to make it to the consumer’s consideration set.

Also read: Not always a stroke of genius: Decoding decades of Indian advertisements

That’s what advertising does. Allows brands to present themselves at their best and help brands to make it to the consumer’s short list out of a sea of choices. In the context of ethics in advertising, I’ve received more than a few questions on ad agencies promoting political parties. In many forums, I’ve stated that advertising alone cannot win you elections. Elections are won on the ground. Elections are won on beliefs and manifestos. Elections are won on the presentation of the candidates and their ability to connect with voters and convince voters that they would deliver on their promises. The past performance of the candidates is another consideration. Equally, how the opposition presents themselves is an important factor. It’s the same dynamics as say, two brands of soap targeting a consumer. Which has the better packaging? Which smells better? Which does the consumer trust more?

Advertising provides the air cover. Advertising presents the point of view of the political party in a consumer-friendly fashion. If advertising was the only source influencing the electorate, why would candidates travel thousands of kilometres to hold rallies, go to remote places through poor roads? It’s because consumers – the voters in this case — want that one-to-one interaction with the party, with the candidate, with the leader. So, don’t ever think that advertising can win you elections. It is your own success or failure, your own promises, the fulfilment of past promises, your past record, and the way you have read the mood of the electorate, and created your manifesto to address the needs of the people and how much the electorate trusts your words. That’s how elections are won. Elections are not won by advertising slogans. Advertising does, in politics, what it does in any other situation: bring the brand into the consumer’s consideration set.

That might end up going the other way – is there so little to the role of advertising in the elections? Bringing a party into the consideration set is as complex as bringing a soap or toothpaste into the consideration set. We craft messages that can efficiently be understood by as many consumers as possible. We try to capture the essence of the party’s promise and present this to the voter, making it as attractive to the voter as possible. And, as with any product, if we find a weakness in the competitor’s armoury, we try and take advantage of the weakness.

In a country like India, especially in the parliamentary election, it means that we have to understand the aspirations of people across the country when crafting believable messages. And we have to do that for region after region, in language after language, in medium after medium. Imagine having to launch a soap or a toothpaste across the country simultaneously to demographically different audiences in a 6-8 week period. There’s a lot that advertising does. But, despite all that advertising does, they only claim we can make it that we got the voter to allow a party to enter the consideration set.

Also read: ‘Asli swaad zindagi ka’ — this 90s Cadbury Dairy Milk commercial changed Indian advertising

Why did I decide to work on the BJP account? Is there an ethics issue at stake here? It’s apparent that those who asked me these questions are not great fans or supporters of the BJP. I’ve never asked anyone, after an election, who they voted for. India is a democracy and you have the right to vote for the candidate and party of your choice. I have a right, in any category, to work for the brand of my choice (presuming of course, that the brand wants to work with me).

In 2014, news media reported that Prasoon Joshi and I, and our respective agencies would be working on the BJP campaigns. Within hours, Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, made a statement to the media asking why people like Piyush Pandey (and Prasoon Joshi) were working with the BJP. (Incidentally, well after this statement was made (before the Delhi assembly elections) AAP approached us to work on the AAP election campaign and we politely declined. We thanked AAP for their interest).

All political parties enjoy support in the millions in a country like India, but nobody wins an election with a 100% margin. Voters have their choices, people have their philosophies and aspirations and make their choices. To those who do not support the BJP, my answer is simple: I do like the BJP. And I do support their policies. (An aside: when we were awarded the BJP account, my colleagues were free to choose not to work on the account if they were uncomfortable with the BJP philosophy, in much the same way that, in earlier eras, colleagues have refused to work on tobacco or alcohol accounts).

That doesn’t mean that others are my enemies. I have chosen to support a certain way of thinking. And I would encourage you to support the party best aligned to your set of beliefs. It’s exactly like what we said about products. There are many in the marketplace. You may choose Brand X, I may prefer Brand Y. You have your reasons. I have my reasons. The same is true for politics. In fact, you might be allergic to the soap that I use. And I may be allergic to yours. So, suit yourself. Don’t choose something that your skin reacts to. But if it doesn’t react on my skin and I get the desired result? Then we both have our own course of action. Abraham Lincoln famously said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

If a political party wins an election and does not deliver on their promises, they will be rejected when they try and ‘sell’ to the electorate the next time. In a democracy, we get the opportunity to choose our government repeatedly. Think of the soap that you bought. If it doesn’t deliver, would you buy the same brand again?

This excerpt from ‘Open House’ by Piyush Pandey has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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