In the build up to our third democratic election, it is interesting to look at the metamorphosis and development of how political parties advertise themselves to the public, specifically noting the evolving shift from 'revolution' to 'liberation' and now, third time lucky, we are starting to see the emergence of the 'real politik'. 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.
Just take a look at the ruling party. In 1994 the ANC's election marketing was based on the freedom and promise-filled slogan 'A better life for all', a slogan that embodied the sentiment of the mass movement which swept tata Madiba into power and then the celebration began. In 1999 as our country sought to cement its democratic foundations, Mandela resigned and Thabo Mbeki took over, the ANC's campaign chose to highlight elements of continuity and seemless transition from the elder statesman and global icon Mandela to the relatively unknown quantity of 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.
In 2004, however, along with failures to deal decisively with the HIV/Aids pandemic, internal corruption scandals and human rights abuses and the democratic and economic meltdown in Zimbabwe, we see a hard swing to ambiguity with a dual poster campaign showing Mbeki looking like the benevolent, cherub-faced Chairman Mao and the rather cryptic message of 'A people's contract to create work and fight poverty'. Let's unpack this a little bit. 'A people's contract' - here the ANC are introducing a new theme, which seems to have fallen straight from the lips of our philosopher king, verbatim. The ambiguity lies in the question of 'contract'. Is it the government who are 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, election poster included.
Although the message may be imprecise, the real coup in the ANC's election advertising is its fetch. The ANC's Commutanet campaign, 'w ith 11 different creative elements being applicated onto over 16 000 vehicles' nationwide, will ensure the ANC's election advertising will at least be seen, if not completely 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', the Mandela and liberation memories, one can expect the campaign to succeed despite the cryptic wording of exactly what the ruling party politicians are promising this time round.
However on the subject of murky communication Smuts, Ronnie and other ANC doctors of the spin needn't feel too discomforted for they are in good company with the opposition. While on the one hand the DA has given us the simple and straight forward message of 'more jobs, less crime'. They have gone and fudged it with a core slogan of 'South Africa deserves better'. What could be more ambiguous? Are they referring to a better government or opposition? If a punter agrees with the 'South Africa deserves better' sentiment, it doesn't necessarily mean that they agree that the DA offers the better alternative. In fact the slogan can mean the exact opposite of its intention and becomes an indictment of the DA. That, in short, is sloppy copy.
But not as sloppy, or devoid of creativity, as the NNP who seem to have lifted the concept of a 'deserving' South African electorate wholesale from the DA poster campaign and 'fought back' with the cribbed 'you deserve a fair share'. There can be no greater sign of credibility (and leadership) bankruptcy than the NNPs' copycat election copy. One will excuse the voters for thinking that the DA and NNP are still in alliance, instead of the Isaac and Esau of privileged politics. What is remarkable is that both DA and NNP campaigns, by using the word 'deserve', are playing straight to one of the new South Africa's most negative character traits - the culture of 'entitlement'. Only now appropriated from the 'previously disadvantaged' to secure the votes of the 'continuously advantaged'.
The IFP's double-barrelled election campaign of 'Real development now! Let's make a difference together' is a real clanger. It seems that the second half was hastily added after their election pact with the DA, and hearkens back to the good old days of '99, and Thabo's first run for the ANC. It's lucky for the IFP that the electorate seem to have no memory.
The UDM seem to have spurned the logic of short, precise election sloganeering and have attempted entire policy downloads instead, as their preferred medium. Their campaign has involved taking out full pages of the Mail&Guardian, among other newspapers, and cramming as much information as possible onto the page. The result is comprehensive as to where the UDM stands on key political issues but at the same time entirely impenetrable. As advertising it fails simply because it requires too much from the reader, in a country with an estimated 75% functional illiteracy.
Vastly under-funded Patricia De Lille and her Independent Democrats have taken a rather unique and 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 involved night club tours to tackle youth voter apathy and placing small advertisements 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 Patricia De Lille to her new party, but her real struggle will be to get adequate media coverage.
Peter Marais' New Labour Party have decided to woo the voter with the interesting 'come home' slogan, but have suffered the ignominy of their poster campaign being widely subverted from Peter Marais 'champion of the poor' to 'champion of the poo'. Which in light of Marais' history of alleged corruption and sexual discrimination charges, seems quite apt. Perhaps the 'come home' slogan is a direct appeal to overseas voters who have no knowledge of Marais' 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 elections advertising campaigns is a symptom of a healthy democracy and electoral process. At issue is the substitution, amongst the major political parties, of a clear electoral 'message' for a 'brand identity'. If voters were seen as consumers, and increasingly we are, this year's advertising relies heavily on emotional responses pushing an impulsive or 'blind' consumerist response rather than a rational one. At stake are the core political issues that should be the focus of elections and electioneering.