With the general election being declared to be held on August 17 once again the time has arrived for posters, cutouts, hoardings and incessant advertisements with catchy taglines featuring smiling, waving and greeting politicians vying for a most coveted spot in Sri Lanka’s next parliament. Election campaigns at present fully depend on such methods, so much so that millions of rupees and even more are spent on advertising alone during each election.

While a decade ago a candidate was mostly promoted through posters, placards and leaflets now due to development of technology the parliamentary hopefuls find their way into people’s homes and work places through email, websites and social media. But the question remains how effective can such marketing ploys and advertisements be in influencing a voter to make a decision to choose a desired individual from among a plethora of candidates, all so eager to serve the public. Do voters pay attention? ‘Does this barrage of political ads influence the outcome of an election’ are questions that too must be asked.

Around 10 to 15 per cent of the population still vote for the candidate with the most advertising due to familiarity and other factors involved

Advertising during elections come in many shapes and forms. Some tend to feature happy and smiling children along with a candidate giving a positive vibe while others try to persuade voters through fear, showing them the possible dire consequences of not voting for the particular candidate.

However the mind of a voter can be complex and confusing. Daniel Eskibel in his book ‘Machiavelli and Freud’ goes on to describe the mind of a voter as a dark labyrinth where in the darkness one  trips, walks blindly without knowing where one is, without even knowing if one is moving forward or backwards. His description is apt looking back at many an election result.

For example in 2012 French presidential candidate Francois Hollande swooped the polls by an advertisement that appealed to minority voters. The advertisement showed him mingling with the crowds and featured the uncensored version of a Kanye West song called ‘Niggas in Paris’. Surprisingly even with its most offensive lyrics in a country previously dominated by a conservative president with a reputation as a racist, Hollande’s advertisement was seen as an edgy breath of fresh air. As he took the election, he was met with overwhelming glee and a ready-made reputation as Mr. Modern France, a complete turnaround from his earlier persona of an elderly white politician.

Daniel Eskibel in his book goes on to say that this state of the voter remains till someone, obviously the candidates, put up figurative neon signs showing individuals the way to vote for a particular candidate and in this instance by way of advertisements in a bid to appeal to the public.

The argument that political campaigns ‘don’t matter’ has a long and distinguished pedigree in political science.  One of the earliest and most important books in the study of political behavior, an analysis of the 1940 presidential election by Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet, argued that voter’s decisions were largely consistent with a small set of demographic characteristics, and that few voters seem to have been swayed by the information disseminated during that campaign.

However it is clear speaking to experts that times have indeed changed. Sharing his views with The Nation, Lecturer of the Department of Marketing and Management, University of Jayawardenepura HM Aminda Lakmal said today in Sri Lanka the trend has moved away from traditional advertising through television, newspapers and radio for elections and other purposes while now main focus is on various digital marketing methods such as website pop up advertisements, social media and direct mailer campaigns.

“Considering the current situation it can be said that advertising in its various forms can have an impact on voters” he said adding that however in today’s day and age there appears to be a decrease in such an effect. “There however remains around 10 to 15 per cent of the population that still vote for the candidate with the most advertising due to familiarity and other factors involved,” Aminda said.

But according to Aminda candidates need to strike the correct balance between too much and too little advertisement in order such efforts to be effective. According to him this is a fine line as too much advertising can bore and even irritate voters while less advertising can overshadow a candidate among many others.

This rings true as over advertising can tire a voter with being confronted with candidates faces plastered on walls or every time you try to read a newspaper or watch your favorite television program.

With this much money on the line, one might assume that media consultants know what works and what doesn’t. However, it appears they rarely pay attention to burgeoning research by psychologists and other social scientists who are exploring whether the images and emotions evoked by campaign ads actually sway voters, researchers say.
Psychologist, Dr. Sarath Perera is of the opinion that advertisements, cutouts and posters are not that effective as contestants seem to think they are.
“In Sri Lanka 70 per cent of the people live in rural or remote areas and most are uneducated,” he said adding that therefore he personally believes that such people should be given instructions as to how to use their vote. According to Dr. Perera actions of candidates are instead confusing the people rather than educating or promoting themselves.

He firmly believes that methods of promotion can often be detrimental to a candidate. “We get distracted and we get confused as to which cut out or advertisements we should pay attention to” he said.  According to Dr. Sarath Perera it is obvious that people get annoyed by such promotions. “Therefore I think it works against the candidate than in favor of them,” he opined.

Perera also added that it is impossible for a candidate to win an election just by advertising, “I strongly believe it is impossible and if anyone thinks, that is the correct way that is not right,” he said.

In a sociological point of view Senior Lecturer at Department of Sociology and Anthropology of University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Dr. Praneeth Abeysundara too was of a similar opinion even though he admitted that advertising can somewhat effect a voter’s opinions.

In his opinion candidates need to find other effective ways to reach out to the voter. “The contestants need to meet their voters in person,” he added concluding that voter meet ups are a better method for self promotion.

The experts having had their say The Nation too spoke to those that truly matter in an election campaign that being the voters who are eligible to elect our leaders and those who the advertisement campaigns are targeted at.

To 32 year old Dilum of Wattala who has a keen interest in politics catchy taglines can be effective. However according to Dilum incessant advertising through various mediums can be a nuisance. “One can’t watch television now days due to the large number of advertisements and some can also be really silly,” he said adding that it can even influence a voter to not vote for such candidates.

When questioned as to how he chooses a candidate he said that even though advertising plays a part in his decision it finally comes down to policy and the candidate’s record as advertisements can also be deceiving due to always posing candidate in a positive light.

Kalpana from Kelaniya expressing her view said that posters and cutouts can be considered as an effective way to influence people when it comes to political campaigns, “It is quite an effective way of spreading the word about ‘what they did’ and ‘what they are going to do. For an example, in my area, I only see posters of JVP and UNP and not many posters from other parties. This has made me believe that they are more enthusiastic than the other parties” She said.

However she also mentioned the fact that she would not vote for anyone who is not concerned about the environment. “If they are not conscious about the environment, it’s hard for me to believe that they are conscious about fellow humans” she said focusing on a point many candidates seem to have missed but brought up by another interviewee Jevanthi.

Twenty-one year old Jevanthi thinks that posters and cut outs are incredibly effective since people are affected by what they see, read and hear.

“However, to anyone with some level of common sense, the large number of posters and cutouts only convince them that candidates have no regard for the environment and election law, “she said adding that she would rather vote for someone who has actually done something for the country’s people, for example, made donations to schools, local communities or organizations, than suffocate me with their posters and cutouts.

She further pointed out that a voter would remember the names of the people who put up large amounts of posters and cutouts.” If voters are sensible, then promotions are alone not enough to win the hearts of voters. So not all voters can be bought off through advertisements. The trick is to know your audience and to advertise accordingly” she added.

The current campaigns have failed to understand its audience with inane suggestions that one can acquire a car by electing a particular person or displaying the candidates familial connections a qualification least desired now. That is not to forget the many corny catch phrases of being a son or daughter or another family member to the whole island.

Therefore it is clear that while advertising is a necessary evil a fine balance must be struck in order to be effective while considering the current voter trends, a point clearly missed by many campaigns in Sri Lanka.