Election media race gathers pace!

With just about two months to go for the general elections, the action on the media front is finally about to get interesting. Thus far it has been virtually a one-voice blast from the ruling BJP-led government brilliantly staged by Grey Worldwide.

With the Congress finally looking ready to unleash its own media blitz, there will finally be some sort of opposing "noise" to challenge the BJP blast.

But can the Congress make up for the huge lead that the BJP has built in this race for the media mind space? Here's an account of the Congress-BJP rivalry on the media battlefield and what professionals in the industry have to say about the election ad campaigns done by both the parties!

BJP gains headstart with India Shining campaign

The 'India Shining' campaign has seemingly done no harm to BJP's campaign in the forthcoming Lok Sabha (Lower House) elections. Despite criticism or negative publicity for the huge advertising spends on the 'India Shining' advertisements, the advertising professionals feel BJP has already got a head-start and Congress needs to counter this with a precise strategy or so called 'out of the box thinking'.

O&M senior creative director Sumanto Chattopadhyay said, "I think Indians are fairly cynical about advertising. Especially when it is coming from a political party. Poorer Indians, who have not seen any concrete improvements in their life, may regard the campaign as a cruel joke. However, those who have actually experienced the so-called "feel good" factor in their lives, will identify with the campaign. BJP supporters will be reassured about their choice. Some fence-sitters will get converted. Of course, some of the negative publicity the huge ad spends have received may undermine the good feelings of informed voters."

O&M creative consultant Ajay Gahlaut says, "I think with India Shining the incumbent party has done a good job of playing up their achievements. The phrase 'India Shining' has entered the common person's language which is a pretty good indicator of the campaign's reach. How much good the India Shining campaign will do for the government is hard to say, but one thing is certain: it's going to them do no harm at all!"

On the impact of India Shining campaign, Triton executive director Vivek Srivastava says, "It does give a dimension and understanding of the country's stature to the common man. It brings him face to face with the India at a variance from the pet theme and feel of unemployment, destitution, poverty etc. It has a distinct urban and yuppie feel. I guess it aims to blunt the negative vibes or ambivalence urbanites had towards a party like BJP - more known for religious overtones till now."

Srivastava adds, "It is in terms of an idea pretty similar in intent to what Congress' governments under Indira Gandhi used to do earlier on State-run television by way of portrayals based on Balkavi Bairagi's verses. Yes, it is more glossy and more based on real-politick in the choice of situations, depictions - they are real and factually sound to rebut any criticism."

With the feel-good factor (being propagated by the BJP-led government) refusing to get drowned by the feel-bad theory (a Congress party attempt at neutralising the government's aggressive media campaign), it was just a matter of time before the country's main Opposition party hired some professional help.

Journalist-turned-PR consultant, Dilip Cherian's Perfect Relations has been mandated to take care of the communications and media management activities for the party.

The Congress account is valid till the elections are held and would not be restricted to any particular region. "It's nationwide activity that the agency has to undertake," a senior Congress leader said, however, refusing to divulge the financial details. But industry estimates put the account to be worth over Rs 5 million.

According to Cherian, "The communications and media management mandate would be undertaken at various levels, including being an interface between Congress' main strategy and those of its allies."

Cherian also told that the multi-layered strategy would target different aspects of the rival parties of Congress in the sense that a game plan to counter Telegu Desam Party (a Bharatiya Janata Party ally in the coalition government) would be different from the strategy to counter the 'India Shining' campaign.

The overall Congress media campaign is being supervised by senior leader and a trusted lieutenant of Sonia Gandhi, Ambika Soni, with the nitty-gritty's being co-ordinated by Jairam Ramesh out of an office in South End in Delhi. Others helping him include Salman Khurshid.

Shining is fine but is Hindutva the main mantra?

Going forward, some feel that BJP might return to religious mantra for the elections campaign.

"First of all, I think, too much is being made out of this Indian Shining campaign. Yes, it is fine to showcase the economic progress but I don't think the election campaign can bank upon this. This kind of communication is obviously targeted at an educated and liberal audience to a large extent. But the real the strategy of BJP is expected to focus around the Hindutva or Hindu religion," says an executive director - account planning.

The account management professional further adds, "If one follows Vajpayee's poetry, which has been translated in the form of TVC, it is all about Hindutva. I see nationalism, poems, 'shloks' or even 'bhajans' coming to forefront during the election campaign. BJP's as a party has got a solid leader and the Prime Minister has managed a great balance, considering there are likes of Narendra Modi on one hand (bright spot) and others, who have been in the news for wrong doing. So I think the campaign can revolve around the Prime Minister as party leader and then the major focus would be on reaffirmation of religion."

Against this backdrop, the job is definitely not going to be easy for the Congress. Some feel the political party should bank on the youth while the others feel countering the achievements of BJP is another option.

"Congress seems to be getting rounded up into a whirl of progress which its governments didn't deliver. If I were to advise them they should look at a disengagement strategy from this issue. Instead it should highlight a new issue to deflect the debate to its areas of strength - Dynasty is definitely out. The rest of the advice wouldn't be for free!" says Srivastava.

Gahlaut suggests a strong hard-hitting communication. He says, "The opposition should counter this with equally hard hitting communication of their own. Remember the Conservative party's famous 'Labour isn't working' campaign in Britain? The current strategy of the Government is to make a noise about their achievements and ride the so called 'feel good' factor. With the state elections going overwhelmingly in their favour, the PM's stature has increased considerably and the party has decided to use this to their advantage."

Vajpayee vs. Sonia

How is Sonia perceived to be as a leader? What kind of effect has it on Congress?

The analysts feel initiatives such as PM's poems being translated into television commercials definitely works in his and the party's favour. On the other hand, Sonia's image needs an overhaul.

"To me, Congress has got very less chance and they should work on a long-term strategy. Sonia Gandhi needs a repositioning. She has to be portrayed as a reluctant leader. She is the one who should be presented as a stop-gap arrangement; one is holding the party unless the younger guns like Priyanka's and Scindia's get ready. She is the caretaker of the party and not the aspiring leader," says an account management head.

Considering the life cycle of Congress, some even suggest that the political party can counter BJP with youth vs. old.

"Congress should focus on youth. BJP as a party has got aging leaders and Congress should focus on younger faces, exuberance of youth and try to tap it through lively faces and messages. I don't think Congress has an idealistic agenda. It needs to redefine itself and that should come from youth," says a senior planner.

(Advertising industry inputs by RITESH GUPTA)

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