/ 2 March 2004

Smoke, mirrors, posters, buses and taxis

Analysis of election advertising campaigns often provides an objective litmus test of what political parties actually stand for, as opposed to what they communicate in order to secure your vote.

In the build-up to the election it is interesting to look at the metamorphosis and development of how parties advertise themselves.

It is no surprise that “ambiguity” is the main theme of this year’s election campaigns, as the majority of parties scramble to appeal to the broadest section of voters, using smoke, mirrors, posters, buses and taxis.

Take a look at the ruling party. In 1994 the African National Congress’s election marketing was based on the slogan “A better life for all”, which embodied the sentiment of the movement that swept Nelson Mandela into power.

In 1999, as our country sought to cement its democratic foundations and Thabo Mbeki took over, the ANC’s campaign highlighted elements of continuity and seamless transition from Mandela to Mbeki. The slogan was “Together fighting for change” and the main election poster depicted Mandela and Mbeki clasping hands in a symbol of unity and continuance.

This year, however, we see a hard swing to ambiguity with a dual poster campaign showing Mbeki looking like the benevolent Chairman Mao and the cryptic message of “A people’s contract to create work and fight poverty”.

Let’s unpack this. “A people’s contract” — here the ANC is introducing a new theme, which seems to have fallen straight from the lips of our philosopher king. The ambiguity lies in the question of “contract”. Is it the government that is contracted to fight poverty and create jobs by the people, or is it the people who are being contracted by the government to do the job? Perhaps the contract is between the people and the government together.

Whatever the “real” meaning, there is far too much room for interpretation for a successful election slogan. The ambiguity of the ANC’s election “contract” advertising serves only to remind the public of the Mbeki administration’s failure to communicate directly on a number of key issues.

Although the message may be imprecise, the real coup in the ANC’s election advertising is its fetch. The ANC’s CommutaNet campaign, “with 11 different creative elements being applicated on to more than 16 000 vehicles” nationwide, will ensure the ANC’s advertising will at least be seen, if not understood. CommutaNet claims “unbeaten ability to effectively communicate to 16-million economically active South Africans”. Given the ANC’s brand awareness and loyalty as “the tried-and-tested revolutionary movement”, and the Mandela and liberation memories, one can expect the campaign to succeed.

However, on the subject of murky communication the ANC doctors of the spin needn’t feel too discomforted for they are in good company with the opposition.

The Democratic Alliance has given us the simple message of “more jobs, less crime”. However, it has gone and fudged it with a core slogan of “South Africa deserves better”.

What could be more ambiguous? Is it referring to a better government or opposition? If a punter agrees with the “South Africa deserves better” sentiment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he agrees that the DA offers the better alternative. In fact, the slogan can mean the opposite of its intention. That, in short, is sloppy copy.

But not as sloppy as the New National Party, which seems to have lifted the concept of a “deserving” South African electorate wholesale from the DA campaign and “fought back” with the cribbed “you deserve a fair share”.

There can be no greater sign of credi-bility (and leadership) bankruptcy than the NNP’s copycat election copy.

What is remarkable is that DA and NNP campaigns, by using the word “deserve”, are playing to one of the new South Africa’s negative character traits — the culture of “entitlement”. Only now appropriated from the “pre-viously disadvantaged” to secure the votes of the “continuously advantaged”.

The Inkatha Freedom Party’s campaign of “Real development now! Let’s make a difference together” is a clanger. It seems that the second half was hastily added after its election pact with the DA, and hearkens back to the good old days of 1999. It’s lucky for the IFP that the electorate seem to have no memory.

The United Democratic Movement seems to have spurned the logic of short, precise election sloganeering and has attempted entire policy downloads. Its campaign has involved taking out full-page adverts in the Mail & Guardian, among others, and crammed as much information as possible on to the page. The result is comprehensive about where the UDM stands on key political issues, but at the same time entirely impenetrable. As advertising it fails because it requires too much from the reader.

Vastly underfunded Patricia de Lille and her Independent Democrats have taken an innovative approach to their advertising. Unable to afford buses, roadshows, large-scale poster campaigns and the like, De Lille has been working on a viral marketing campaign, which has included night-club tours to tackle youth voter apathy and placing small adverts in the classified sections of national newspapers, such as the one in the Cape Argus Jobfinder under Executive Positions: “Urgently seeking new management to run the province. Vote for Patricia de Lille, Independent Democrats.”

Her “more voice for your vote” slogan is sharp and cleverly marries De Lille to her new party, but her real struggle will be to get adequate media coverage.

Peter Marais’s New Labour Party has decided to woo voters with the “come home” slogan, but the party has suffered the ignominy of its campaign being widely subverted from Marais “champion of the poor” to “champion of the poo”.

Which, in light of Marais’s history of alleged corruption and sexual discrimination charges, seems apt. Perhaps the “come home” slogan is a direct appeal to overseas voters who have no knowledge of Marais’s track record.

At the end of the day, to cap with some well-worn political rhetoric, the extent of free political expression embodied in the range of this year’s election advertising campaigns is a symptom of a healthy democracy.

At issue is the substitution, among the major political parties, of a clear electoral “message” for a “brand identity”. If voters were seen as consumers this year’s advertising relies heavily on emotional responses pushing an impulsive consumerist response, rather than a rational one. At stake are the core political issues that should be the focus of elections.

Andy Davis is a freelance South African youth culture journalist