Voter education campaign in Peru was designed to cause citizens to examine their own political awareness and motivate them to utilize their voting privileges thoughtfully to further a public policy agenda they favoured. Photo: Christian Vinces
Democratic processes have seen a resurgence in many developing countries in recent years, but elections often remain a context for political manipulation and consequent alienation of the economically disenfranchised. Much political communications is about marketing of particular candidates, parties and/or platforms. This article documents the genesis of an innovative voter education campaign developed by an advertising agency in Peru having a strong social agenda. The campaign distilled political choices for national leadership into more manageable selection criteria via analogies from daily life. It was designed to cause citizens to examine their own political awareness and motivate them to utilise their voting privileges thoughtfully to further a public policy agenda they favoured.
Most political education campaigns simply urge citizens to vote. There is an element of unenthusiastic effort by governments that run these campaigns so as to avoid jeopardizing their hold on power. Most political communications modelled on practices in North America and Europe are concerned about marketing particular candidates, parties and/or platforms. The mass of voters in developing countries, often the poorest of the poor, are justifiably cynical of their vote counting for anything, given their past experience.
Invariably the criticism is that politicians appear only around election time, promise the earth, attempt to bribe their vote, but no sooner are the results announced, no change for the better is seen. So while democratic processes appear to have improved in many developing countries and emerging economies in recent years, elections often remain a context for manipulation of the populace and invariably the alienation of the economically disenfranchised.
Such a situation might be said to exist in Peru which, as with many developing countries in Latin America and beyond, has seen its fair share of political turmoil, including military dictatorships and ineffectual politicians, not to mention a home-grown terrorist scourge. In 2000 President Alberto Fujimori contested for a third term, like many politicians worldwide who find themselves unwilling to relinquish the reins of power and overstaying their welcome. It took a scandal over corruption via the drug trade by his close aides to see him flee the country and the establishment of an interim government.
Into the breach came President Alejandro Toledo, who held much promise as a former shoe-shine boy turned World Bank official and the first indigenous person to be elected to the presidency. But he struggled to deliver on populist promises of jobs and poverty alleviation and became immensely unpopular and beset with corruption towards the end of his term.
In the 2006 elections, Peruvians were faced with the unusual choice between Alan Garcia, a former left-of-centre president, who in his previous time in office had mismanaged the economy spectacularly (by his own admission and repentance), and a nationalist former army officer Ollanta Humala backed by the even more left-leaning president of neighbouring Venezuela.
In the Italian context, Caprara et al (1999) demonstrated that personality traits did explain actual voter behaviour beyond political partisanship. Berman (1997) proposed the concept of political cynicism representingd a distrust of aspiring politicians, political parties, incumbent office-holders and government in general. In the US context Schiffman et al (2010) found a strong link between the personality trait of trust and political trust, suggesting that political candidates and their parties seek to build bridges to build trust. Cynically, they seem to propose that the candidates listen and embrace the concerns of various segments of the electorate and thus capitalise on their apparent alignment, which seems more political market orientation than independent voter empowerment.
Various marketing scholars as far back as Butler and Collins (1994) have argued that market orientation ought to adapted from commercial and non-profit sectors into political marketing beyond the election campaign, making the latter a profitable multi-billion industry in its own right. In seeking to research this, however, Ormond and Henneburg (2010) found that an internal orientation and one towards the public had the strongest influence on voter behaviour, more so than voter orientation of the political parties.
Most research on political marketing is US- or Europe-based and not necessarily transferable to other contexts. Nonetheless some findings such as those of Zaller (1992) that voters with low levels of political awareness have a greater probability of accepting a political message uncritically would seem to hold in other countries. Likewise Popkin’s (1994) argument that voters are investing in collective goods about which there is imperfect information and under conditions of uncertainty, would seem to apply universally to democracies. Later Popkin and Dimock (1999) went on to affirm that less politically-informed voters were more likely to evaluate candidates on personal characteristics, rather than policy platforms.
In the U.S. context, such voters are often identified as being Latinos who Marcus, Neuman and Mackuen (2000) found relied on cues about the about candidates’ personal qualities. Abrajano (2005) confirmed that low-education Latinos tended to use non-policy cues in evaluating candidates. What would seem to apply to this significant minority in the U.S. is arguably true of majority of the populace in many Latin American countries. This was certainly the premise on which the voter empowerment campaign in Peru was based and sought to change.
At the prompting of civil society groups, an exceptional Peruvian advertising agency, led by a partnership of a creative person and an anthropologist, devised a political communications campaign to encourage voting. Most importantly, it addressed the scepticism of voters over the effectiveness of their vote and suggested a radical way to think of their role. Instead of seeing politicians as all-powerful leaders, it encouraged citizens to see themselves as their potential employers. Thus the voter was empowered to evaluate aspiring candidates by using the analogy of day-to-day experiences as a worker, a parent, a small entrepreneur, or even a student.
The billboard seen at left carries what might well be the theme of the campaign. The headline states in translation: “The current candidates will be our employees” while the subheading says: “Let’s examine them”.
The corollary of this message seems to be embodied in another advertisement directed at politicians but with an indirect confirmation of the original message to the voter. The second ad states plainly: “Seeking this chair?” accompanied by an ornate chair draped with presidential sash.
The ad goes on to say: “First take this chair”, illustrated with a humble chair typically used in university lecture rooms, especially exam halls. It implies then that any aspirant to high office needs to be highly scrutinized for competence.
The wall poster (below) shows two elaborations on the theme. The one on the left reads: “Would you trust him/her with the future of your children?” It has overtones of whether you would be happy for them to be in his or her foster-care if you are no longer able to look after them. The other on the right reads: “Would you trust him/her with managing your business?” Again this has overtones of delegating control in one’s absence. One other elaboration not pictured is: “Would you trust your house to his/her care?” suggesting either house-sitting or home-management.
Included at the bottom of every advertisement is the web address for the campaign which leads to an online test for politicians which can be printed out as a pencil-and-paper one. As seen in figure 4 (below), the preamble to the online test reiterates the thrust of the campaign, namely: The candidates are our employees to be; it is time to exercise the power of one who hires, and ask these questions before voting someone to congress or the presidency.
The whole campaign as well as the questionnaire itself is called “Prueba ciudadana” or Civic Test. As shown in figure 5 (next page) the questions are classified as being about integrity, experience and capacity in three distinct sections, using the subthemes of the campaign. The questions are probing: “Do you know if the candidate has been involved in corruption?”, “Does he have an addition to drugs”, “Is he recognised as a serious worker?”, “Has he experience in running a complex organisation?”, “Do you understand the proposed plans of his government?” and so on.
The voters-to-be using this questionnaire are then provided with a key for rating their ability to assess the preferred candidate’s performance on the various critical factors, as shown below If the candidate scores between 0-5 on the positives, the voter is warned: “Do not complain later” and advised to click through to a site advising him or her on how to improve on their knowledge of the candidate. If the voter scores between 6-10, then he or she is affirmed in making the effort and advised to keep being informed. If the voter scores over 19, then he or she is advised as a Peruvian not to waste the vote.
It is not known and perhaps cannot be known just how many people were influenced by the advertising campaign not only to vote but to use the test or at least its criteria to evaluate politicians before voting. For one thing, Internet usage in Peru is quite limited at about 10% of the population.
On the other hand the billboards and posters were readily accessible. In a land where the literacy rate is over 90%, their impact could well have been considerable though such high rates are simply not true of many other developing countries.
The outcome of the election was the victory of Alan Garcia who in a previous term of office over a decade had wrecked the economy. Did the people nonetheless think he had the experience and capacity to lead? Subsequently his government was embroiled in a corruption scandal over the allocation of oil-drilling licenses and there have more recently been demonstrations by the native peoples of the areas where the drilling has commenced. It does raise the question that he and his political compatriots may have passed the test for integrity on paper but not in practice.
While democratic processes may have seen a resurgence in many developing countries and emergent economies, elections often remain a context for political manipulation. On the face of it, there could to be much mileage in adapting this voter education campaign elsewhere to overcome the alienation of the economically disenfranchised. It demonstrates how marketing communications tools can be used for political education about democratic rights, rather than mere voter persuasion about particular leaders or party platforms.
A key question however is whether the universality of human rights and social justice issues renders the adaptation requirements of this political education campaign relatively minimal for its use in other developing countries and even developed countries with marginalised groups.
Furthermore, given the fact that rates of literacy in Peru are simply not true of many other developing countries, a similar campaign might have negligible impact where elections are dominated by image and rhetoric. Even so, public policy-makers, election officials and social activists in those countries could learn from this case-study a fresh approach to communicating with citizens on how they might evaluate their political choices, exercise their democratic rights, even shape the national agenda.
Political education needs to go beyond the quite hackneyed “go-vote” didacticism which has had no demonstrable impact apart from assuaging the consciences of politicians and officials, to a whole spectrum of messages from “how-to-vote” to “why-bother-to-vote”. If the democratic ethos is to be upheld, if not promoted, then political education needs to be entirely non-partisan without any semblance of advocating voting-in again the incumbent government if it is to be credible. There is sufficient motivation and funding for political marketing by opposition parties without them dabbling in voter education with ulterior motives.
Yet there is scope enough within their campaigns to focus on political platforms and agendas to inform voter choice, rather than reliance on personality or rhetoric. Likewise there is a continuum of political advertising ranging from focus on leadership styles to party platforms to candidate integrity.
Presumably an effective voter education campaign such as the one in Peru, run by credible non-partisan organisations, could nudge political parties to communicate and debate their alternative proposals for the future and their leaders’ integrity to the benefit of the country and its citizenry.
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Amos Owen Thomas is presently a docent/reader at the Stockholm Business School in Sweden. For over three decades he has worked mostly in developing countries in Asia, Oceania, Africa and Latin America in academic, business, government and non-profit organisations. Amos teaches international business and marketing, and researches media industries, globalisation, intercultural communications and trade ethics.