February 25, 2020

Podcast: A Conversation on Political Ads and their Potential Impact on Pakistan Elections 2018

The 2018 election campaign season was dominated by political advertisements on broadcast news channels. Thousands of TV commercials were aired by political parties during the election campaign. The big three — PTI, PML-N, and PPP — appeared to produce and broadcast the most campaign TV commercials. However, the phenomenon of using ad space on news channels was not limited to the larger national parties. The Balochistan Awami Party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, and Allah-o Akbar Tehreek also took out ad time on TV.

I and my colleague Zafarullah Nizamani were frankly taken aback by the sheer volume of campaign ads on news channels. Towards the end of the campaign, we decided to randomly monitor primetime hours on two major news channels. We looked at ARY News and Geo News — two market leaders in the broadcast news industry — from 9 to 10 pm on Friday, 20 July. We also looked at Geo News from 7 to 8 pm and ARY News from 10 to 11 pm on 23 July, the last day of campaigning.

It was not a scientific way of monitoring the ads, but we just wanted to get a snapshot of the durations and obvious differences between the ad campaigns of different political parties. We found 52 commercials during the four hours of news broadcasts, with a total duration of 41 minutes and 22 seconds.

Out of the 52 ads, 12 PPP ads ran for 17 minutes and 33 seconds, the PML-N aired 22 commercials for 11 minutes and 44 seconds, and PTI had six ads for 6 minutes and 10 seconds.

A Dawn Business & Finance report published before polling day suggested that each major political party could be spending as much as Rs. 25 million a week on broadcast advertisements.

We also spoke with friends at different news channels to get an estimate of the cost of putting up primetime ads on news channels. We got different figures, ranging from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 200,000 per minute.

If we extrapolated the PPP’s average ad duration per hour to primetime hours, the PPP is estimated to have spent at least Rs. 3 million on just one day’s ads on one major news channel. The political parties were running ads on most of the 20+ national news channels. For nearly three weeks!

We have since then also filed one Right to Information request to the ELection Commission of Pakistan and another to PEMRA to seek details of the expenditure and duration of the advertisements broadcast by the political parties.

While our own monitoring couldn’t unearth trends and patterns due to our limited and non-scientific process, we felt it was a conversation we needed to have.

So on Election Eve, Zafar and I sat down to talk about our observations and concerns. I think the matters we discussed are still relevant as we need better laws and more scrutiny on campaign finance. Here’s everything we talked about. You can also listen to the audio podcast below:

Waqas (W): What differences did you notice in the political ads that went on air this campaign season and the ones we saw in 2013?

Zafarullah Nizamani (ZN): In 2013, the volume of political ads was not so great as it is now. The big political parties, PML-N, PPP and PTI, had broadcast ads back then but the number of these ads was low. In 2018, within an hour of programming, there are often 10 to 15 political ads. Sometimes there are even as many as 20 to 25 ads from different political parties in an hour. Another thing in 2013 was the PPP’s campaign faced security threats so they were unable to run their public campaign in large parts of the country. They resorted to TV ads. The PTI and PML-N also had advertisements but these were fewer in comparison. Now in 2018, PTI and PML-N have put out a lot of ads.

Transcript too long? Listen to the audio of our full onversation (in Urdu):

W: I think in 2013 we first realised that TV ads can be used for election campaign. Traditionally our election campaigns are on-ground affairs.

ZN: Or print media are used.

W: Political rallies, gatherings, door-to-door campaigns. When PPP took out political ads in 2013, everyone was of the opinion that they are trying to circumvent their inability to campaign on the ground. This time the political ad activity has been unusual.

ZN: Exactly.

W: It seems it’s become a trend that’s irreversible now.

ZN: The political parties believe it is a great marketing tool. To target people who can’t make it to their public gatherings with political messages through their TV sets. It takes hours to attend a political gathering. Even if you watch a rally’s proceedings on TV, you might have to wait for your leader’s speech. Through these ads, parties can focus on key issues such as corruption or their own governance achievements in 30-second slots. They could say, for example, that they ended loadshedding or brought peace to the country. So they can succeed in getting their message across in 30 seconds.

W: You are assuming that the public will get the message…

ZN: Quickly.

W: And the public will also be receptive. Why do you think people would be receptive to political ads on TV and absorb the political messages? Usually we don’t pay so much attention to product ads on TV. Why do you think that people will not be annoyed or irritated by political messaging on TV?

ZN: So the problem is that if you watched the news channels in the past two weeks, then you will know that there was no choice. Whichever channel you switch to, you would find some political ad. The only way to avoid campaign ads was to switch to National Geographic…

W: Haha!

ZN: If you stuck with the news channels, you would have had to watch the political ads.

W: So you can’t avoid it.

ZN: It is very difficult.

W: Can’t shut your mind to it either?

ZN: Because the ads are so different. The political parties have churned out many ads frequently. There’s curiousity to know what’s in the ads. If you look at the PPP ads, they are lengthy. Some last up to two minutes. You might miss it once or twice but not forever. For example, the PPPP ad with the carrom board game. I finally saw it on Monday night (the last day of campaigning). I finally decided I wanted to see what was it about. These things create curiousity for the viewers. It’s a corporate approach, I think. That if you advertise in this manner, you will get some benefit.

W: Similar to the carrom board advertisement, I saw a political ad for the first time on Monday which was almost a three-minute long song and it was repeated several times. It had a lot of political sloganeering on-screen but it had a soundtrack in the background which was, you know, if it is going on for three minutes, that’s your average song. It was fascinating that this three-minutes spot was being bought by a political party again and again. One thing that we notice in other countries where political ads are used is that often one contender attacks rival contenders. I noticed such ads in Pakistan in the first week or so of the campaign. But not in the later part of the campaign. I think there was some intervention by the authorities.

ZN: Yes, the ECP told them not to use foul language.

W: So now it’s mostly their own achievements. Have you noticed that?

ZN: Absolutely. They targeted their voter base with their achievements. PTI talked about the Billion Tree Tsunami, education, and hospitals. PMLN about their construction projects, power projects, metro bus and Orange line train. PPPP mentioned health units in Sindh and its provincial performance. Cardiology units, SIUT etc. They stressed upon highlighting such achievements. They are saying, ‘We did all this, if you elect us again we will do even better.’

W: So going back to the thing about viewers not able to avoid the political advertisements. I still feel that there is a difference between not being able to avoid watching the ads and actually taking some political decisions after watching them.

ZN: Yes, that’s different.

W: Then do you think that these parties are targeting their own voter base with these political ads or trying to convince the undecided voters?

ZN: One thing is I think they are looking at new, young voters. Overall, the appeal to voters seems to be that you have to vote for someone, then vote for us. There is another factor I noticed. A few weeks ago you must have noticed Shaan Foods launched a new ad. It was really good. But I don’t buy Shaan Masala, not even after watching the ad. Tarang has an ad with a lot of Pakistani actors. I don’t use Tarang. There are some ads that purely for entertainment but they might never get you to act. I feel political ads might fail to do that, too.

W: So you think production of these ads has a corporate philosophy and then voters might also respond like consumers do; they will decide whether they want the product or not.

ZN: You might have noticed that Imran Khan’s Karachi political gathering was really big. It attracted a great crowd. The same with some PPP and PML-N gatherings. But the issue is if these people will turn up on Election Day to vote. So the people who are being shown the same political ads four, four times, are they going to vote? We’ll see the practical demonstration on the 25th. But I think it’s difficult. There’s another aspect of this ad situation. That’s the financial aspect. There are so many ads…

W: Thousands…

ZN: And these are being aired on the major channels, which you’ll be shocked to hear their advertisement rates. Rs. 150,000 per minute, in some cases. And the ads are being aired on repeat. We have monitored some channels. I watched the Monday 7 to 8pm slot on Geo News and there were 16 ads by PML-N in one hour.

W: How long were these PMLN ads?

ZN: On average, 30 seconds. So these 16 ads were roughly 8 minutes of PML-N ads in one hour. If one minute was Rs. 100,000, then that’s Rs. 800,000 in one hour of campaign ads for one party on one channel alone. Imagine the many parties broadcasting ads on as many 20 to 30 news channels. I observed PPP, Pak Sarzameen Party, and MMA ads in this one hour, too. But surprisingly there were no PTI ads on Geo News. The PTI ads on Geo News dried up towards the end of the campaign, even though they were still appearing on other news channels.

W: We monitored ARY News as well. PPP dominated the ad slots there. We are only talking about last weekend, though. Not about all two or three weeks of campaigns. So we cannot identify any trend. But what you said about the money involved. It’s in hundreds of millions.

ZN: I’m surprised that the ECP only took notice of the political ads once and then we never heard of it. The news media would not cover it because they are generating revenue through these ads so they are unlikely to challenge their revenue stream. But as we know the ECP has put limits on campaign spending by election candidates. It’s Rs. 2 million for provincial assembly candidates and Rs. 4 million for national assembly candidates. But nothing has been said about the spending limits of political parties. So will we get to know about this when candidates submit their campaign expenses returns to the ECP. Will they show political ad spending. I don’t know.

W: Even if the political parties are questioned, I think they can say that these ads were for the parties not the candidates. The ads call upon voters to stamp their election symbols, not individual candidates. Although all the party heads are also candidates from different constituencies. But there is no rule against…

ZN: Exactly.

W: About campaign spending of political parties.

ZN: We have looked at the big channels. But surprisingly there were many political ads on the regional language and city-based news channels. I also saw an MMA candidate run an ad on Geo News. If that ad was run by a candidate, he will have to submit the expenses for that in his returns after elections.

W: I also saw some ads for Punjab Assembly candidates but these were were not lengthy, just six seconds or so. I think these would be acceptable within the spending limit.

ZN: But political parties have spent unbelievable amounts of money.

Transcript too long? Listen to the audio of our full onversation (in Urdu):

W: What about the quality of these ads? Did you find you were emotionally affected by any advertisement? Did you find any interesting ads?

ZN: The production quality of ads was good. I found some messages to be important. So this one PML-N ad where a women looks into the camera and says Nawaz Sharif and his daughter are in jail, how can I accept it? And she keeps speaking for 10 seconds and then it’s followed by the party messages, I thought an ad like that had impact. It looked serious. I have not seen many PTI ads but the ones I saw looked almost similar. They had the same style, their achievements and then Imran Khan. One ad mentioned Imran Khan won the World Cup. I thought you cannot compare the World Cup win with running the country. The logic that if he won the World Cup, then make him the Prime Minister. Younas Khan also won the T20 World Cup.

W: I think they were trying to prove his leadership skills.

ZN: The PPP carrom board ad was great, too. The character enumerates areas where the Sindh government has worked. So many hospitals. I thought before this nobody had directly counted the achievements. But the character was giving figures.

W: I think the examples you have given are different because apparently these are common-man characters sitting in a home setting or looking directly at the camera and suddenly the faces of the political leaders disappear and you feel that ordinary voters such as yourself are having a conversation. Obviously it’s all scripted and staged and propaganda. But for a bit, like a drama serial, it captivates your attention and gets you to follow the argument. I personally really liked the PPP ad on minority rights where a Christian woman is contemplating immigration after watching news of a bomb blast. I think we don’t hear about Pakistani non-Muslims in the mainstream much but the credit goes to PPP for inserting this issue in primetime broadcasts. PMLN and PTI were in direct competition so I think their ads mostly stressed their performance. But I hope that there is some transparency in spending on ads.

ZN: That’s really important.

W: Sure there’s a lacuna in the campaign spending law and the parties might not face any penalty but at least we should find out how much money was spent.

ZN: At least the total amount

W: It’s also interesting for us that if news groups have made so much revenue during the election campaign then are they paying the salaries of their journalists on time.

ZN: The salaries are being delayed.

W: If the owners are minting money, then it should translate to timely salary payments for the employees. So I hope there’s accountability on that front, too. Thanks, Zafar sir.

ZN: Thank you!

Cover image: Screenshots of TV ads aired by political parties.

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