Little Yadav
May 6, 2024

The changing face of political ad campaigns in India

From the era of booming TV ads to flooding social media in 2024, digital has completely reshaped the way in which political parties are approaching elections in India. Campaign speaks to industry experts to find out how and why.

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The world of political ad campaigning has changed drastically in India over the past decade. Transitioning from conventional tools like newspapers, television, and radio, political ad campaigns have now become predominantly digital. This shift is largely due to the increase in mobile phone users in India, facilitated by affordable data plans and access to social media and WhatsApp.

It's only logical then, that political parties too, have adapted their strategies to engage effectively with the electorate. And while television and print media remain relevant—since a substantial portion of India still consumes information through these mediums—their high costs often limit their use to well-funded parties, leaving cash-strapped ones at a disadvantage.

The rise of digital

Ravikant Banka, founder and managing Director of Eggfirst Advertising observes that India has entered a new era—one where the 2024 elections are contested not just in the streets, but also in the expansive realm of cyberspace, particularly on powerful social media platforms.

“Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram are being used by political parties, candidates, and their campaign managers to woo young Indian voters like never before. This is the smart way to reach out to the upwardly mobile Indian youth, especially when India is a young nation, with 65% of the population under 35 and almost 72 million Indians in the age bracket of 18 to 23. A large percentage of Indian youth is educated and tech-savvy. As many as 350 million Indians are on Facebook, 462 million are on YouTube, 363 million Indians are on Instagram,” says Banka.

Sanjay Jha (left) and Ravikant Banka

Digital platforms also offer ease of adoption for content, making them a popular choice for political parties. The digitisation wave has transformed content creation, proving highly advantageous for election campaigns—with quick adaptability and user-friendliness facilitating political communication. Key benefits include microtargeting, engaging the youth, and the speed, versatility, and simplicity of use.

Sanjay Jha, Indian author, politician, and former national spokesperson for the Indian National Congress (INC), contrasts digital ads with traditional media: “When you watch a pollical ad on television, there is nothing you can do about it. You watch it and forget it as it gets lost in the clutter. With social media, however, you not only watch it, you like and forward it to your family, friends, and colleagues, spreading the message.”

The shift

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was amongst the first to tap into social media-focused digital marketing back in 2014, a trend that has grown by 2019 with increased utilisation of political digital marketing services by national, state, and regional parties, as well as individual candidates. And while there's still a gap in evidence on the direct link between digital campaigns and electoral victory, a strong candidate paired with an effective digital marketing agency can significantly enhance a campaign's success.

“For political parties or candidates to draw in potential voters, they must concentrate on their target demographic. An Indian political digital marketing firm has developed a political model that considers the big picture instead of just the last point of contact for registered voters. It is crucial to keep in mind that both digital marketing and politics aim to influence people to do a certain action. It can mean buying something or getting someone to vote for you,” Banka shares.

Jha adds, "Digital platforms like Instagram and YouTube are becoming more popular with political parties currently. We are living in a time of more hyperlocal situation where candidates must make more disclosures, and there is more information available not just to the election commission, but through multiple data points where they know the what is the constitution of people, what is their income profile, what are their various other attributes. In old times people used to do a lot more rallies and campaigns, large gatherings for people to canvas. Now, political advertising is probably going more wholesale to retail.” 

The most successful political ad campaigns

While definitive data is lacking, both Jha and Banka regard the 2014 election campaign as one of the most successful in Indian history. Jha also credits the 1984 and 2004 campaigns for their impact on public sentiment.

Banka says that BJP experienced a landslide victory with his 2014 election campaign by redefining the idea of election rallies by integrating marketing gurus, event management campaigns, and technological background to garner maximum impact. His rallies were no less than corporate events. From 3D rallies to events to chai pe charcha (te to talk) to interviews to state visits, it would not be wrong to say that Modi’s 2014 campaign is one of the biggest mass mobilisation exercises seen anywhere in the history of political campaigns.

As per the Election Commission, a total of INR 714.28 crores ($115 million) was spent on the 2014 elections by the BJP alone. This is about INR 200 crores ($32 million) more than Congress’ expenditure during the 2014 polls.

One of the BJP's popular 2014 election videos

India shining advertisement campaign

One amongst BJP's "India Shining" ads in 2014

Speaking about the 1984 and 2004 campaigns, Jha says, “After the demise of Indira Gandhi, invoking a sentiment of fear that had enveloped the country channelised into a great public mobilisation. Similarly, in 2004, the Congress slogan “Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath" (Congress' hands are with the average man) trumped BJP’s "India Shining campaign." However, credit must be given to the BJP for their 2014 campaigns which were concise, no-nonsense and clutter-free.

Indian National Congress - Wikipedia

Congress' slogan and logo: "Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath."

2024 and beyond

As the polls loom, Jha observes that digital ad campaigning in politics are going to outstrip other forms in this year's and any other upcoming elections. "Information on digital platforms is like a double-edged weapon. In future, voters will be deluged with information and cluttered with an overdose of campaign content. This allows political parties to spread fake news. India, I think is the hotbed for the biggest disinformation campaign in the world. With a lack of regulations and disinformation, individuals will become disillusioned because they don’t have a choice, and they will have to distinguish and demarcate between what is quality viz-a viz what is complete thrash.”

Banka concludes that in India, technological advancements are driven by the digital revolution are influencing party structure and election campaigns, and will continue to do so. Although the BJP has been the most active party on the internet, other parties are beginning to make inroads, investing in IT and social media departments to increase their online visibility. 

“Party leaders need to understand the limitations of running campaigns exclusively online, even though these efforts may pay off. Online campaigning works best when combined with traditional retail politicking, not as a replacement or adjunct, for the 2024 election and probably beyond.”

Campaign India

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