Polling booth = Point of sale?

Just wondering about this aloud, considering elections are around the corner in Karnataka:

Individual candidates from assorted political parties communicate through many methods – door-to-door campaigning, public meetings, mainstream media, social media, and so on. Through all these modes, they purport to tell voters why they should vote for her/him.

But these communications are all over the place and not cohesive for voters to consume and form opinions. Plus, there are party-level communications and manifestos that voters need to consider and tally that with individual candidates’ perspectives from those parties.

At a very basic level, I see this as a communications problem: there are people who are vying for our votes, and there is us, the people, who need to decide whom to vote for.

Given such a complex system, I wonder if it may be useful to apply some marketing-level thinking to this problem.

From a marketing point of view, broadly there are 2 levels of communications: brand-level communication and point-of-sale communication.

The brand story is a large-level ‘why should you pick this?’ advertising narrative. If you pick this, you get X, Y, and Z. This then leads us to move to the final stage – the point-of-sale, whether online or offline. The entire advertising industry is tuned to make people reach the point of sale with memories of what they heard in the brand communication stage.

Now, this stage is already being handled by political parties as far as election campaigning is concerned as I have explained above.

The point-of-sale, whether online or offline, requires more pointed communication. This includes specific things like price, delivery, returns (online), warranty, etc., and details and communication in the packaging itself (for products, offline). The package-level communication has to be succinct and limited, depending on the size of the packaging itself and more importantly, the time we spend at the point of sale – it could be a supermarket store aisle where we spend fleeting moments reading the text on the packs, or a car showroom where we speak with the salesperson. This communication could lead us to other destinations owned by the brand for a more detailed read (URL on the pack, or the car salesperson referring us to a brochure, and so on).

Now, let’s compare this point-of-sale communication with polling booths. All we see at the polling booths are the names of candidates and a party symbol! We, the voters, are expected to come prepared, having already made our decision through what we listen to during the campaign phase.

The equivalent of that in marketing would look like this: brands advertise, but at the point of sale, all we see is plain/empty packaging with just the brand name and the product category mentioned. At the car showroom, it would be akin to us just seeing the cars with no extra information whatsoever from a salesperson. On an e-commerce store, all we see is just the product name, price, and product category – nothing else.

Meaning: we are expected to come pre-decided to a departmental store or a showroom, and we get no additional information at all during the purchase stage!

So, is there merit in adding another layer of communication on behalf of the candidates, at an election’s ‘point of sale’ equivalent – the polling booth?

The basic premise is this: is there merit in asking each candidate to crystallize their pitch to be displayed at a booth level?

While we enter the polling booth, would it be useful for us to get a, for instance, 50-word (in 3 languages – local language + Hindi and English) summary of each candidate’s top priorities should they win? These could be put up as posters at the polling booth, and given as hand-outs. This could also be made available in audio formats (for people who cannot read) that could be sent on demand to phones or on listening posts at the polling booths.

For a more detailed note on how and why the candidates chose those priorities and how they plan to execute what they promise, they could always lead us to other destinations – the party office, online websites, send a text message to a number to receive detailed notes, and so on.

How would this help?

1. It would force candidates to be precise and crisp instead of simply falling back on party-level communication. In other words, individual candidates need to think through ways to convince voters at the point they make their decision. More importantly, this forces both candidates and parties to not field stooges/figureheads and get even parties wanting to stage-manage this communication to really get to know the priorities of individual constituencies which may be very different from city-level, state-level, or India-level priorities.

2. For voters, who are normal people like you and me, already inundated with an overload of information on every topic from every possible source, this offers the crux of the people vying for our vote. Even news has been made into byte-sized drip feeds via WhatsApp and Inshorts – why not a candidate’s pitch? For detailed versions, there is always a source to refer to, additionally, anyway.

3. Crucially, this may enable voters to look beyond political party affiliations and truly look at the candidates as ‘one of their own’, but only if the candidate’s pitch is rooted in the locality they are contesting. If they resort to broad, sweeping pitches like ‘I’ll improve infrastructure’, or ‘I’ll help with women’s empowerment, it may not stand against the more pointed priorities of other candidates.

4. And finally, this also presents a written/documented version of a candidate’s pitch of ‘Why me? Here’s why!’.

In fact, I feel uploading these crisp pitches on the election commission website would also be useful as a single, official source of such summaries. We could compare notes with what the same candidates said in earlier elections and if their actions have been consistent – what they speak at the state-level legislature, how convincingly are they able to push for what they prioritized in their pitches (that led us to us voting for them), and the overall track record.

On the election commission website, the pitches in text format could be under 50 words, and if audio/video format, they could be under 30-45 seconds. This dispenses with the flowery, beating-around-the-bush language of electioneering and campaigning, and forces candidates to come directly to the point. After all, we do not elect Presidents, like in the US – we elect local representatives, and for us, what they do at a local level matters foremost.

Do note that the pointed details like 50 words or 30-45 seconds are merely indicative, based on what I thought would be feasible from multiple perspectives – the amount of space available at polling booths (very limited), the kind of files (audio) that can be sent easily to phones on-demand, and most importantly, the attention span of voters who are already drowning in an overdose of content of all sorts.

But the larger point is this: why expect such a large group of people to assimilate so much information and decide, while they seek shorter, crisper versions of every other facet of life to cut through the clutter? Sure, they can consume all the campaigning too – but at the ‘point of sale’, that is, the polling booths, force candidates to really summarize the pitch of, ‘Here are my top priorities for the area you live in’.

And yes, candidates may have similar pitches, and they could copy from each other too 🙂 But, to manage that and add context, we anyway have the larger pitches during the campaign phase, right? For instance, if two brands of toothpastes say their primary ingredient is ‘clove’, to protect your teeth, you would use other criteria to make a decision – price, the standing of the brand in terms of years in existence, reviews/views from people who have used the brand, the brand’s other forms of communication (advertising, website, brochures, etc.). So we already know how to handle that, I presume.

Also, you could argue that we cannot really compare the products/services market with elections and voting that involve people choosing candidates to represent them/the place they live in. Of course, we cannot. But if you think about it, from a pure communications perspective, both are about us, the people, consuming information and making a decision. With products, we can change our decision the next time we are in the market for the same product, and with elected representatives too, we can change our decision in the subsequent election. We perhaps don’t need to get all sentimental or emotional about politics and politicians – it is a profession by now, like any other. After all, people choose to be an elected representative.

On a related note, the Bangalore Apartments Federation has been making tremendous efforts to overcome voter apathy, particularly in urban areas, by enabling interactions between voters (apartment residents) and candidates. This is being done by conducting townhall events where voters get to meet and interact with candidates from all political parties.

But, ironically, the Election Commission has started to come down upon such events and interactions. The reason given for rejecting such events seems rooted in archaic definitions of influence. For instance, if during such an event, one candidate speaks eloquently and people clap for her, that is considered as influence by the Election Commission and is disallowed!

A candidate speaking eloquently to win over voters is the VERY point of an election! It could happen on the stage of a public gathering organized by the party she is representing, on a road show she is organizing, or at interactions organized by private bodies like Bangalore Apartments Federation.

Election Commission’s notion of ‘voter awareness activities’ seems stuck in the 50s – talk among yourselves, encourage each other, but don’t bring the candidates themselves amidst your discussions for them to pitch directly to you because they may… influence you!

With such an outdated idea of influence, I doubt anything would be done towards communications at the level of the vote booths and we may continue to see just the party symbol and name at the point where we make our decisions.