Election Campaign or Product Launch

With each successive election campaign, the difference between selling a product and a President is getting a little blurrier. Democracy used to be about policies and ideologies. But it now looks like just another mega launch. Listen to what people want. Then craft the product to deliver. Sit back and count the money. Or in this case, the votes.

At Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters, there is a group of highly gifted coders working to mine the information being gathered about ‘swing voters’ The ones who will decide which candidate gets elected and which one gets left behind. And with every campaign, the jargon mounts. This time, its ‘micro listening’. Getting to decipher not just what people are saying about the President or the opposition, but trying to understand how they will act on election night. The army of people assigned to do this include mathematicians, statisticians, software developers, organisers and of course, analysts.

Their grounding for this all-important effort comes not from political history but from consumer buying habits. How choices are made for shopping lists. Why grape juice is preferred over orange juice. How do you get to change the minds of consumers – by offering them a better deal, or fortifying it with vitamins, or by changing the way it is compared with other brands in the same category? What combination of qualities works best at moving the brand off the shelf faster? The analysts who crafted and implemented these strategies are now tasked with packaging the Presidential campaign and making sense of what people mean when they respond to polls.

So that’s what it has all come down to. Listen closely to what people are saying about the government on Facebook, on Twitter, in conversations on the ground and by inviting them to ‘Tell their stories’ on why they want to be involved in the Presidential campaign. Tease out nuggets from the stories and derive the patterns of behavior. Figure out what antagonizes and alienates them. Understand the hierarchy of priorities. And deliver a campaign that addresses these needs.

I don’t know whether I should be amazed or horrified with the way things are going. On one hand, the inference is that consumer behaviour is driving Presidential aspirations and motivations. On the other, it means that the whole process has been reduced to a set of cynical parameters that can be assessed and controlled. So the public is told and sold what it wants. But what happens after it’s all over is beyond their control.

Are you electing a person or the image of the person who leads you? Does the candidate believe in the promises they make to you or are they simply telling you what you want to hear? There is no answer. It’s the most extensive smoke and mirrors campaign on the planet, that reveals everything and nothing at the same time.

In comparison, the brute money power of Indian politics seems paleolithic. And the profusion of languages and castes mean that it may never be reducible to a set of equations that can be predicted. But you never know.This is a high stakes game and the levers of power are just to alluring to be left to the whims and fancies of the voters. The medium isn’t just the message, it shapes the messages now.