6 February 2013

Kenya: Television Now Essential for Election Success


Every year in Africa we see the advance of the democratic process. It's never smooth, its never the way most people want it. But every election seems to bring some advance. Perhaps most importantly African people believe in democracy, and maintain that faith regardless of setbacks.

This year its Kenya's turn to take some steps forward. The Presidential Election looms in March. The incumbent President is standing down as he promised. A selection of hats is now being thrown into the ring.

Preceding this we have elections for new positions created under Kenya's brand new constitution - for county governors and senators. Many prominent figures from a variety of backgrounds are putting themselves forward.

There is jostling, there is joy and there are tears as contenders are cleared or rejected by the IEBC. And all over Kenya media channels are beginning to buzz with electioneering messages.

It started slowly, with outdoor billboard contractors offering free sites to local government aspirants. The siting and maintenance of billboard sites is highly dependent on local government approval, so this is a sound business move by contractors.

It has however resulted in a rash of billboards featuring huge pictures of people who look about as surprised to be up there, as we are to see them.

Now that the major party alliances seem to have been decided, we're beginning to see Presidential candidate and running mate messages replace these.

For the first time in Kenya, these billboards are hinting at manifesto promises like 'more investment in industry for more jobs'. This too, is progress.

Recently I wrote about African politicians needing to develop better speaking and debating skills. There's quite a transition required from sweaty shouting demagoguery, to the intimate environment of the TV screen.

I was reminded of this while watching coverage of the opening rallies. Too many candidates see speaking to a crowd as a physical struggle. They grip the mike.

They close their eyes, and shout as loud as they can. They are on a mission to get their message out, regardless. The shame is that holding the mike too close makes diction unintelligible. And not opening your eyes prevents you from assessing crowd reaction.

But there's another aspect to television that our future leaders need to master. The campaign TV spot, or advertisement.

Back in 1968 Roger Ailes, the TV producer who helped US President Nixon win his election said: "Television is no gimmick, and nobody will ever be elected to major office again without presenting themselves well on it."

A contrasting view was expressed by Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson: "The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process."

But that didn't stop old Adlai using TV advertising when he needed to up his game.There's a marvelous resource online called www.livingroomcandidate.org

Click on it to see every significant US election TV spot: from Eisenhower to Obama. There's some great work there. And it's surprising how early the Americans began using ads that 'diss' the opposition. It's no modern phenomenon. In fact there's a spot there from 1952 in which Adlai Stevenson trashed his opponent for 'double talk'.

Adlai didn't win though!

Chris Harrison has 19 years experience in marketing and advertising in Africa. From Nairobi he leads a communications agency network that is active in 19 markets on the Continent. His writings can also be found on www.chrisharrison.biz and on a variety of marketing sites around the world.

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