Poll Plot

Election time is usually open season for political parties. Here’s why they have been forced to innovate this time around

Anupam Roy is a known name in the Bengali music circuit. Apart from having cut solo albums and his own band, he has also made his mark in the regional film industry. Last year, he took his first steps in Bollywood with the commercially successful Piku, for which he not just composed the music but sang songs and wrote lyrics as well. In 2016, Roy, who is in his mid-thirties, also made his entry into the turbulent world of politics. Earlier this year, he and three other musicians composed and sang a catchy jingle for the state’s ruling party All India Trinamool Congress (or TMC) that released on the radio in the third week of March and marked the first instance of a political party in West Bengal advertising on the medium. The jingle was later released as a video by TMC supremo and state chief minister Mamata Banerjee, with its lyrics ‘Paanch bochore bodle geche Banglar mukh’ invoking the changes the state has undergone over the past five years. 

Conservative estimates state that the TMC will spend Rs.2.5 crore on radio advertising alone during the upcoming high-decibel assembly elections. In all, its total media expenditure is set to be close to Rs.50 crore, with other local political parties spending another Rs.80 crore. This is at least twice as much as what was spent during the last assembly elections in 2011, with even the BJP, a minion in the Bengal story, expected to pump in no less than Rs.50 crore this time around. Much the same story should ideally be playing out across Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry, all of which go to the polls between April and May 2016. In all, the media bounty at stake is a handy Rs.1,000 crore, again twice that in 2011, with Assam witnessing a three-fold hike. The total media spend over a two-month period across these states is at least 25% more than what big-ticket advertisers such as Havells and Idea Cellular together spent on media and promotion during the whole of 2015. Most importantly, for the media houses on the other end, this money will come in advance, without the normal 60-day credit waiting period.

Open season?
Zee Unimedia COO Ashish Sehgal speaks of the assembly elections with a distinct sense of optimism. “We can charge a premium of 20-25% on advertisements. It definitely makes business look better for the quarter,” he says. In line with the strength of his network, Sehgal is banking heavily on West Bengal, where he runs three channels — 24Ghanta, Zee Bangla and Zee Bangla Cinema — that account for 40% of TV viewership; it helps, he says, that political parties are now creating advertising specifically for television. 

“Although Tamil Nadu is a big advertising market, Zee Tamil is not big and the revenue implications are not great,” he explains. While Zee may be a bit player down south, those with a larger presence are trying out several innovations to lure political parties — right from full-page and jacket ads in newspapers to bus shelter ads and vinyl-cardboard cut-outs of leaders outside rally venues during the run-up to the event in an attempt to duck a local ban on outdoor advertising. Another fairly new trend in these states has been the introduction of mobile displays on vans (costing Rs.40 lakh) that sport a driver cabin in the front and a large flat-screen LED display that plays audio-visual messages from the leaders.  

The move from television to print and outdoor advertising in Tamil Nadu could be because political advertising is far more targeted today. Explains Ashok Venkatramani, CEO, ABP News Network, “Political spend on news channels as a whole is on the decline, as parties now outsource their media planning to third-party agencies, which conduct extensive research for better understanding of the former’s constituencies. The extensive use of digital and social media has also affected the spend on TV.” In fact, Tamil Nadu, which brings in 10% of the national advertising revenue each year, is witnessing serious media polarisation. The ruling AIADMK in the state doesn’t advertise on the Sun TV network, the largest media player in the south that is known to be close to the chief opposition party DMK. 

“There are very few channels that are viewed as being neutral in this politically active state. Even they will not gain anything significant by way of revenue, what with the additional burden of government-dictated advertising rates,” maintains PV Kalyanasundaram, MD, Polimer TV. Consequently, the largest benefactor is the print media, led by Tamil newspapers like the Dina Thanthi. According to Narendra Alambara, COO, Sovereign Media Marketing, the marketing arm of the paper, the limited campaign period means political parties try to maximise their reach. “They use power jackets and full-page advertisements for high impact.” With even small opposition parties like the PMK and non-entity BJP boasting of Rs.50-crore budgets, the game is on for the Rs.500 crore prize.

The situation is a little different in the other poll-bound states, where traditional electronic media still quote premiums upwards of 60%. Prashant Panday, CEO, Radio Mirchi, says TV and radio operate on a fixed inventory in terms of advertising volumes, which means that political advertising usually substitutes other advertising. “Therefore, the gain to the channel is not political money but only the amount emerging from the pricing difference,” he explains. In a city like Kolkata, his station — also the market leader — reportedly charges political parties Rs.750 for a 10-second spot compared with Rs.500 for normal advertisers. “While political advertising is desirable, the fact of the matter is that it occurs once every five years and cannot be included in our annual plans. That said, the bump-ups in revenue are always welcome,” says Alambara of Sovereign. “The quantum and fragmentation of business makes the extra amount insignificant, with it making no difference to a channel’s annual performance,” adds Venkatramani of ABP. 

Fallback options
With the audience dynamics being so varied across states, political parties might also get priced out of the market in some cases. In Kerala, which boasts of the highest literacy levels in the country, print remains the most expensive medium: a full-page ad in the Malayala Manorama costs at least Rs.70 lakh. In such a scenario, big spenders such as the Congress and BJP are doling out no more than 20% on print, with outdoor hoardings accounting for 30% of the Rs.220 crore ad spend in the state. According to Raju Menon, MD of the Kochi-based Maitri Advertising, the agency that handles the campaign for local player LDF, it has become necessary to look at solutions outside of print. One option has been to take the railways route, which sometimes means getting entire trains painted with the LDF’s electoral message, or blasting 10-second advertisements right after public announcements at stations. “These ads, featuring the respective LDF candidates talking about their plans, have been running at least 500 times a day across 13 railway stations,” he explains. “At least 60% of the LDF’s money [estimated to be no more than Rs.15 crore] is being spent on social media advertising and missed call alerts, while the rest is spent on radio and television,” adds Menon. Despite crimping on print ad spend, both BJP and Congress, each with a budget of Rs.100 crore, are expected to advertise heavily in Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi nevertheless. But none of these trends have resulted in a consistent rise in advertising gains. “Revenue might be up 25-30%, but that is only for a month at best. Rates go up the same levels that they do during the Onam season,” says Satheesh PR, head, sales and marketing, Malayala Manorama TV.

The one place where there is good news is Assam, where the print medium has grown to the extent that the ad spend in this field has reached Rs.100 crore, from just Rs.30 crore five years ago; there is a 100% surge in ad revenue across media as well. In fact, poll season is referred to as ‘second Diwali’, since a similar hike in ad rates is the norm during the festive season. And every large player, starting from regional newspapers to the English daily Assam Tribune, gains in the process. Kunjesh Parihar, MD, Ad Space, who has been closely involved with the media business in Assam and the northeast, points out that historically, the state has been a third-priority market. “This election has changed that perception. A full-page ad in the Assam Tribune costs upwards of Rs.16 lakh today, up from Rs.7 lakh in the past. TV channels, too, are charging at least four times their usual rates this year,” he explains. For some in the media business, which typically starts off the new financial year on an uncertain note, this spike in revenue is the best thing outcome possible. With most large advertisers in the middle of finalising their media plans for the year, and with a part of that being snatched away by the IPL, a big-ticket election with a lot of money thrown around spent might just hold the promise to an Indian summer.