Awareness trap of govt ad campaigns

Ms. P N Vasanti, Director, CMS

Ms. P N Vasanti, Director, CMS

Instead of yet another advertising campaign, the nation needs to see action taken by the government

Communicating the achievements of a government in our country is often confused with announcing reforms or justifying harsh economic policies. Unfortunately, even our economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the same gaffe in his appearance on television to explain the reasons behind measures such as the diesel price increase and allowing foreign investment in multi-brand retail.

While speculation continues on the timing and intention of Singh’s address to the nation, it was quietly followed by another edition of the Bharat Nirman advertising campaign. This is the fifth time this theme-based campaign has been launched, highlighting the government’s achievements. The first Bharat Nirman campaign was launched by the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) administration in 2007 to highlight its achievements in rural India.
Such communication is primarily used as a political megaphone, allowing leaders to speak louder so people will hear their message and, therefore, accept their reform programmes.

Politicians often assume that the purpose of communication is merely to raise awareness of their reform programmes. They believe people will be prepared to support their policies once they become aware of the programme. This awareness trap has been plaguing our governments for many decades now. Crores of rupees have been spent over the years in trying to make people aware of the various government schemes and programmes. In fact, one of the missions of the ministry of information and broadcasting is to communicate and publicize information about the government’s flagship programmes directly to the beneficiaries through multimedia campaigns. A separate information wing with a multitude of media units such as the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity, Press Information Bureau and Song and Drama Division are responsible for this exercise.
It is through this machinery that governments release large advertisements on the birthdays of their departed leaders. In 2004, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government launched a Rs.150 crore plus campaign called India Shining. The media loved it and the tagline became a catch phrase for the emerging Indian economy. While such advertising campaigns highlighting government achievements are not new in our country, the magnitude of the India Shining campaign set it apart.
However, the disconnect between the campaign’s message and the reality resulted in an electoral backlash that contributed to the NDA losing the general election that year.
Similarly, evaluations of campaigns promoting government programmes show that such schemes, accompanied by interpersonal communication, community involvement and effective implementation, resonate much more with the audience than a mere mass media blitz.
In a 2009 assessment by the Centre for Media Studies for Prasar Bharati of the eight flagship programmes of the Indian government, it was found that only three schemes were known across the country by a majority of the 12,796 respondents in 30 states. Interpersonal communication channels such as panchayat (village council) members, government officers, frontline health workers, friends and relatives were overwhelmingly the main sources through which information about these schemes was received. Television was the second major source of information.
The general assumption underlying most campaigns is that the public is not using services or engaging in government schemes because of its lack of awareness. Other reasons such as quality, access barriers, leakages and, most importantly, trustworthiness of such services are ignored. This is the reason most campaigns fail or result in a backlash.
Today, with a multitude of information sources available, ranging from the modern (mobiles, audiovisual, Internet) to the traditional (street plays, wall paintings, puppet shows), the challenge is not a mere lack of awareness but of confidence. Confidence in believing the message, confidence in accepting government programmes, confidence in reform policies, and confidence in the governance provided by our political leaders.
Given the current sensitive economic and political scenario in the country because of a number of corruption scandals, hypersensitive coalition partners and a ruthless opposition, it had become imperative for the leader of our country to take charge and revive the dwindling confidence of citizens.
Many who saw or read the Prime Minister’s address to the nation were simply surprised and perhaps, placated. It will certainly require more consistent, frequent and convincing engagements to spread the message and build support for his reforms. Also, this message has to be conveyed in action (and not just in words) by political leaders.
As the media ecosystem in our country evolves, its use and relevance in communicating policies or reforms also alters. Instead of yet another campaign, the nation needs to see action taken to reassure its confidence in governments. It will need a different approach from using communication merely to disseminate information or sell achievements.

Cartoons, politics and hypocrisy

Ms. P N Vasanti, Director, CMS

Ms. P N Vasanti, Director, CMS

It’s important to remember that when we practice our right to speak openly, we are defining the contours of our democracy

It’s interesting that some of the most contentious political debate as well as controversial law enforcement has centred around cartoons.
Earlier this year, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Bannerjee was angered by a university professor who had emailed cartoons on her to his acquaintances, and had him arrested (he was later released).
A 60-year-old cartoon on B.R. Ambedkar in a government schoolbook rocked Parliament and forced human resource development minister Kapil Sibal to apologize to the nation and order the removal of the “objectionable” caricature. And a controversy was raked up over a cartoon depicting an anti-Hindi agitation by Tamils in a political science textbook for class 12 students.
The most recent controversy related to cartoons is the sedition charge against freelance cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who was arrested and then released by Mumbai police after a groundswell of criticism greeted the action.
Trivedi, 25, a member of social activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign, was targeted for a cartoon depicting four wolves in place of the lions on the national emblem, the Ashoka pillar, blood in the mouth of the beasts and the caption that read Bhrashtameva Jayate (corruption shall prevail) in place of Satyameva Jayate (truth shall prevail).
While some claim the cartoons are in bad taste and disrespectful to the state, legal experts and free speech activists have been shocked by the sedition charge, arguing that the most serious charge Trivedi could have faced was one of insulting the national emblem.
Indeed, it is perhaps the first time that such a serious charge as sedition has been laid against a cartoonist. Even the selective ban on a few Internet sites and social media recently did not have such a chilling effect as the arrest of Trivedi for alleged sedition, implying conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state.
To be sure, the cartoons were intended to provoke; they were representative of the anti-establishment stance of the anti-corruption campaign Trivedi backs.
The juxtaposition of satire, humour and hard-hitting facts in a cartoon gives the reader an alternative point of view of the subject that’s being lampooned. Every politician, event, cause and situation has at some point been catapulted into the public imagination through a cartoon.
The questions that perplex me are—why are cartoonists such easy and frequent targets for the authorities? Why have the more provocative programmes, discussions and articles in the mainstream media not been as provocative as cartoons? Not that I am in favour of gagging any voices in our democracy, but this repetitive targeting of cartoonists is disturbing.
Are these confrontations meant to serve as a warning to the media given the delicate political scenario in the country? Against the backdrop of a series of corruption scandals, the recent case clearly exposes the hypocrisy of a government which claims to support free speech.
The intolerance of critical voices and symbols of dissent are gaining ground with a recurrence of such incidents.
Although free speech is central to our democracy, it comes with a caveat of “reasonable restrictions”. There is a sharp disagreement about what we mean by free speech and about where the line can be drawn between right and wrong. We have the right to criticize the government, but can we also advocate its ouster? Does the right to free speech allow us to incite hate or use foul language in public?
Freedom of speech is our most fundamental—and our most contested—right. It is an essential freedom because it is how we protect our other rights and liberties. If we are not able to speak openly about the policies and actions of government, we cannot effectively participate in the democratic process or protest when we believe the government’s behaviour threatens our security or our freedom.
Freedom of speech guarantees us an individual voice, no matter how far removed our opinions and beliefs are from those of the society at large. The charge of sedition against an anti-corruption activist has diluted the right to that freedom.
Civil society, the media and academia have to unite to protest against this violation of our democratic right. It’s important to remember that when we practice our right to speak openly, we are defining the contours of our democracy. This is the way to keep the Constitution and our dreams of a just society alive.
The author contributed this article to Mint – http://bit.ly/1kY9Sn3