Electioned out before the actual election

2019-05-06 22:54

By the time you read this, you’ll probably have had enough of electioneering and can’t wait for Wednesday to have come and gone. I’m election numb, yet I still have no clear allegiance to any party and the electioneering process has not provided me with any sway. This is problematic, not only for the undecided voters, but also for the political parties. It means that the election campaigns of all parties have been lacklustre.

For this column I want to compare trends in communication, branding and marketing, with what we, as voters, have been on the receiving end of.

The attention economy

The digitalisation of media channels has provided us with a tsunami of information which is at our fingertips 24/7 and spawned the concept of human attention as a commodity. Attention is now a scarce resource. Managing what you engage with, and block out, has become a daily reality.

Let’s start with street-pole posters. On the roads where I drive street pole posters are dominated by the three main parties. I’m well aware of them, as are the rest of South Africa. So, do the parties really think that by bludgeoning us with visual litter it would sway how we feel about them? The smiling faces and election slogans have long blurred into the detritus of street pole wallpaper. In urban areas it’s a waste of money. I’m more likely to respond to something digital. Maybe.

With new apps like CallerID, which alert you to spam calls, prerecorded political party messages simply get swiped away like an unappealing Tinder profile. The same goes for email campaigning. I don’t relish any more mails than I have to deal with so anything spammy is immediately binned. This means that some parties have turned to social media.

Influencers and fake news

The problem with electioneering on social media is that any inauthentic or hard-sell messages are glaringly obvious – and off-putting. This is the lesson commercial brands had to learn really quickly and one the political parties still struggle with. It’s not only a distrust with influencers, who suddenly start talking politics, but also the likelihood of Twitter bots and the fake news they generate.

Voters have learnt to be wary following the revelations of the ANC social media “war room” set up for the 2016 municipal elections, not to mention the smear campaigns engineered by Bell Pottinger.

Identity politics and system changers

So, if we’ve blocked the PR noise out, then what of the actual party policies? What you hear is not necessarily what you get. In the past few weeks I’ve heard repeated conversations about the entrenched patriarchy in South African politics.

On the trend radar are issues of identity politics and a phenomenon Flux calls “the system changers”: Most prevalent in US politics where (ironically, thanks to Donald Trump) a wave of the most diverse collective has entered politics and is changing an entrenched system, one ward at a time. Our street pole posters are a visual confirmation that patriarchal politics is entrenched in South Africa.

Brand reputation and experience

If the political parties can’t rely on their street posters and digital spam, then the only thing they can rely on is brand reputation and how we, as voters, experience the brand of each political party. This is where it gets depressing.

In advertising they talk of the “stickiness” of a brand. Brand stickiness results in consumers trying the brand, continuing to use it over time and then recommending it. The stickiness factor is gained over a period of time so, in electioneering terms, anything a political party promises or says in the run-up to an election is simply ignored. We weren’t born yesterday. What does stick are seminal moments that make the news headlines. Actions speak louder than words.

For example, I will take the following sticky layers of brand reputation, for each of the main parties, into the voting booth

. The DA’s handling of the Patricia de Lille soap opera and professor Somadoda Fikeni’s quote: “The DA is busy mutilating itself in a corner, unprovoked.”

. Members of the EFF who continue to assault and threaten journalists (and security personnel at Parliament), which simply reinforces the party’s reputation for bullying and unruliness.

. President Ramaphosa’s comment at Davos about “nine wasted years”, which just emphasised the increasingly messy factional divide within the ANC.

There are other moments when the ruling party’s brand reputation has become unstuck, but that’s an entire thesis, not a column.

The missing middle

While the “missing middle” refers to the #FeesMustFall debate, it can also be used to describe what the Electoral Commission of SA calls “floating votes”: Millions of voters like me who don’t know who they should vote for. Not because of apathy, but because there really is not one party that resonates with us. If you have passion and loyalty for one party, then lucky you.

I’ll have to decide who is the best of the worst and that’s a sad indictment of our politics.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends

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August 18 2019