Opinionista Justin McCarthy 15 April 2014

Election advertising: Opposition parties are all buck, but no bang

The impending general election marks only the fifth time all South Africans will have the opportunity to cast a vote. Despite the youthfulness of our democracy, none of the opposition political parties really have much of an idea how to leverage their increasingly sizable electioneering budgets. They’re mired in skull-achingly boring tub thumping. A little creativity and imagination might actually help their cause.

Anyone who follows British or American politics will know the scale of resources thrown at electioneering. They’d also know that advertising is only one component of the artillery, but a rather important and influential one. The British understand this particularly well – if you’re old enough to recall the 1979 Tory campaign orchestrated by Saatchi & Saatchi that swept Margaret Thatcher to power, then you’ll know what I mean. Saatchi used archetypal positioning strategy married with creative genius to cut up the Labour Party opposition. “Labour isn’t working” was the line at the heart of the campaign – a line that is widely acknowledged for bringing the UK’s first female Prime Minister to Downing Street. So effective was the campaign that Boris Yeltsin hired the agency to help him become the first democratically elected Russian President.

If one looks at the election strategies of the opposition parties, they’re mostly one-dimensional. The ANC has at least been consistent off a rock-solid base. All too often the default position of the smaller parties is a vague and empty criticism of the ruling party, and this is where their opportunities to improve lie.

“A better life for all” has been the ANC’s mantra since 1994, appearing alongside a beaming Nelson Mandela, and it’s the golden thread that’s been sewn into virtually every policy document, speech and publicity opportunity for 20 years.

It’s perhaps no accident that this 20-year-old line was also birthed in an advertising agency. The first rule of branding is consistency, and full credit to the ANC for getting this spot on. The real strength of this proposition is that it represented decades of hope realised by millions of disenfranchised people. The electioneering platform for 2014 is “a good story to tell”, which is much less compelling. But whichever way you look at it, you have to hand it to them – it’s smart electioneering by a party in touch with its electorate. The ANC-led government does in fact have quite a few good stories to tell, in spite of itself. And they’d be daft not to crow about the successes.

There are many nightmares too, including but far from limited to Mbeki’s AIDS denialism, the abomination that was the Arms Deal, Cabinet’s utter failure to heed Eskom’s desperate pleas for escalated infrastructure spending, a variety of Health Ministry policy and implementation disasters (remember African potatoes, beetroot and garlic?), repeatedly unforgivable failures in education, an astonishingly debilitating bureaucracy that is the antithesis of Trade and Industry’s mandate, a Police Ministry stitched into the pockets of thugs and gangsters, Public Enterprise’s incessant bungling of SOE’s SAA, Telkom and Eskom, a Communications Ministry that’s been a revolving door of ineptitude save for two exceptions (including the incumbent), and, of course, the most recent Public Works’ contemptuous abuse of state funds on the president’s private residence.

On the flip side, they can be proud of 20 years of stable economic policy and fiscal discipline in spite of some very tough and sustained opposition from their alliance partners and a global economic meltdown, a better than world-class tax collection system, a social welfare system that largely keeps the economy in balance, delivery of basic services like water, sanitation, electricity and housing to many millions of deserving citizens previously denied this right, and an infrastructure programme that is delivering despite corruption and collusion. Let’s be clear – government’s scorecard is a motley collection of an unacceptable number of abysmal failures, a swathe of middling to poor but passable performances and a smattering of gold stars – but it’s not all bad news, and we owe it to ourselves as citizens to acknowledge performance as equally as we lambaste failure.

My problem with so many opposition parties is that they offer no compelling reason to consider them. This clearly goes way beyond mere campaign slogans right up to the essence of their vision as encapsulated in their policies. Some seem to lack these altogether and exist only as criticism of the ruling party. That may win you attention, but it won’t win you votes. And this illustrates my very point – the hardest thing to do in advertising is to capture an entire brand essence in four or five words on a billboard. The medium offers none of the latitudes of motion, sound or storytelling that other media do. You have to be telegraphic in outdoor to be effective, which is why most election posters are just so easy to ignore. I strongly suspect that the brands behind them don’t have much of a differentiated story to tell, or if they do, they don’t know how to deliver it. That’s what great advertising does – it marries the rational and the emotional into a compelling proposition. “Labour isn’t working” was just that for Margaret Thatcher in 1979, as was “A better life for all” for the ANC for the past 20 years. I suspect that the 1994 election poster without that line would have made absolutely no difference to the ANC ‘s overwhelming victory back then, but consider for a moment just how many votes it might be saving them on 7 May, 20 years later.

The DA is headed for stagnation, if its ABZ (Anyone but Zuma) campaign is anything to go by. Gareth van Onselen, a journalist for Sunday Times and Business Day and previously Director of Communications for the DA, was spot on when he observed that the DA’s tactic of demonising Zuma while praising Mbeki and Mandela is deeply flawed. The approach underscores the very essence of the ANC’s good story campaign – it effectively says “the ANC does have a good story to tell, except for Zuma”. As a strategist, Van Onselen understands the difference between the party and its president, and more importantly how the electorate distinguishes them. Zuma is at once the ANC and not the ANC, a reality that is an enigma to many outside the party. Failure to grasp this is what so many citizens find exasperating. To DA supporters, Helen Zille is the leader, to non-supporters she is the DA. The same can be said of Julius Malema and the EFF. It’s this dichotomous nature of party and personality that is perhaps the reason we default to the position we’re most comfortable with, despite the evident character flaws of our preferred candidates.

The DA’s dual campaign platform, “Together for change” and “Together for jobs” doesn’t actually say anything other than a vague promise of improved work prospects premised on the ANC’s perceived failure in this area. But vague promises are just that – vague and premised on all manner of hidden caveats. What exactly does “change” mean? If you could be bothered to dig into DA policy, you’ll find that out. The problem is that the vast majority of people couldn’t be bothered. It’s your job as the advertiser to tell us what it all means. In one sentence, on one small lamppost poster – everything that my vote will bring me if I cast it your way. And then to build your entire campaign on that one message, through repeated substantiation that demonstrates yet another reason why your party deserves my vote.

COPE’s message is even worse: “South Africa deserves a better government” may very well resonate with many voters, including some loyal ANC cadres, but that’s a statement, not a promise of any substance whatsoever. They may as well tell us that the country deserves better rainfall for all the difference it will make.

The IFP’s “The power is yours” has a certain baseline appeal, but it’s so unsophisticated, so devoid of relevance and so non-contextual that if it weren’t for Buthelezi’s mug shot it might be mistaken for an erectile dysfunction product.

Agang offers us this unpolished gem: “Restoring the promise of freedom”. It does at least have relevance, if only relative to where the ANC has failed. It’s got substance, but no sizzle. It’s all left brain and no emotional hook.

Of all the parties outside of the ANC, the EFF comes closest to a clear-cut positioning. “Economic freedom in our lifetime” is a compelling proposition despite its facile substantiation. The party is appealing to the deep red in the exploited and marginalised, and nationalisation is a perfectly acceptable means of achieving this. It certainly works much harder than anything the rest of the opposition has to offer.

The ANC has executed its election message poorly with a myriad of messages that don’t really hang together cohesively. “A good story to tell” isn’t a campaign line, it’s a campaign strategy. But that isn’t nearly as damaging to them as similar mistakes are to smaller parties quite simply because “A better life for all” is the essence of what the ANC stands for – a long and very painfully awaited future that it de facto delivered on. The equity from that alone will last for as long as the opposition provides little of substance to sway the electorate otherwise. DM


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