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Electronic political platform

Contrary to myth, free advertising time works and helps voters

BUENOWe will interrupt our reading to convey an important message: a recent survey conducted by Datafolha shows that 45% of the voters have no interest in watching TV when free political advertising/HGPE is being aired, while 38% of the viewers state that the free political commercials will have no influence on who they will choose as their candidate for the mayor’s office. Meanwhile, this program will cost government coffers approximately R$ 242 million, the sum that Federal Tax Authorities will fail to collect because of the tax breaks granted to TV and radio stations to broadcast free political party commercials. The related costs are not borne by the political parties nor by the candidates for political office. In the last seven years, this tax exemption corresponded to nearly R$ 2.1 billion. The HGPE invades viewers’ homes at prime time, when viewers are back from work, that is, during family time, and just before the soap opera goes on air, of course; this obliges viewers to wait for 30 minutes, while listening to candidates’ campaign promises and many “vote for me” pleas, before they are finally released to see what evil doings Flora, the soap opera villain, is up to. In a country where 90% of the homes (according to Media Dados) have TV sets, which means that television is the main source of information for the great majority of the Brazilian population, doesn’t this half hour which interrupts citizens’ daily leisure time with political commercials seem to be a useless and burdensome “sacrifice”?

“An analysis of opinion polls correlated to the airing of political commercials shows that these programs have a high effectiveness level, even though this goes against the general impression that viewer ratings are very low and the political impact is insignificant. The election campaign only begins to be really defined after the candidates’ commercials start being aired,” states Fernando Antônio Azevedo, coordinator of the post graduate program in political sciences at UFSCar (Federal University of São Carlos) and director of the Brazilian Association of Political Communication. “In most of Brazil’s state capitals, we have examples of candidates who were lagging behind in the polls before the HGPE and who started to lead the opinion polls, or grew significantly in this respect, following visibility on electronic media, via political talk shows or the insertion of commercials advertising their political platforms,” he points out. According to the researcher, the candidate running for political office “virtually” enters the home of each voter. Even if the voter does not watch all the TV programs, or the candidates’ commercials are not a pleasant experience, as is the case with soap operas, voters are exposed to these commercials on TV at prime time during the 45-day period they are aired.  “Surveys conducted by Ibope reveal that HGPE reaches out to 30% to 40% of the viewers, a highly significant number which denies the alleged rejection by the voter.” To illustrate, Jornal Nacional – the leading prime time news program – celebrates when viewer ratings hit an average 37 points; the prime time soap opera is considered a success when ratings hit 40 points. “The time during which the campaign runs is not measured in terms of days, but in terms of the intensity of media exposure. The decisive platform is not physical – it is electronic. In a few years, it will be virtual,” says political scientist Sérgio Abranches, in whose opinion a political campaign on TV is fundamental in terms of converting undecided voters (which, at the beginning of the election race, might translate into a supply of 60% available voters) and in terms of strengthening firm voting intentions.

“Above all, the political campaign time on TV clearly highlights the election campaign time and places this issue to be addressed in the public debate. It highlights ‘it’s time for politics’ in the minds of people,” says political scientist Afonso de Albuquerque, from Fluminense Federal University/ UFF). But doesn’t the general public opinion make a distinction between TV entertainment and reflections, especially about politics? “It is precisely because Brazil has so many homes with TV sets that it becomes necessary to acknowledge the central role of media in politics. Campaigns in the last 20 years have found TV to be a privileged and strategic locale to communicate with voters and debate with opponents,” says political scientist Cloves Oliveira, a researcher at the Research Laboratory on Political Communication and Public Opinion/ Doxa-Iuperj. Thus, election campaigns conduct a dialogue with voters in order to persuade them to vote for a given candidate and reject the candidate’s opponents. Information is the core instrument of this “conversation” – “an infallible remedy for the “disparaging” factor of the election process: the apparent disregard for issues related to “politics” in the daily lives of ordinary people. “When they perceive that they are on the sidelines of the decision-making process related to public policies, people see no use in including this issue in their daily agenda of interests, which makes political alienation a major obstacle to mobilizing voters,” says Luciana Veiga, also from Doxa.

In this context, the free election campaign TV time raises the voter’s awareness of politics. “The major function of election campaign commercials is to reduce the cost of information, facilitating the ordinary voter’s access to important issues that impact the voting decision.” Voters do not believe in politicians and have scant information on them. Given the fact that voting is compulsory in Brazil, says the researcher, the voter resorts to this election campaign time, motivated by the expectation that he will maximize his opportunities; in other words, the voter feels he will “err less,” if he votes for someone who “keeps his promises to some extent.” “These commercials provide people with information that makes them feel confident about their voting decision and fulfill personal needs. Voters still look for arguments in these advertisements that can be used in their daily conversations, because politics during election time is included in issues that are discussed in bars, bus stops or with work colleagues and neighbors. Thus, this kind of advertising also addresses the demand for social interaction. This is why voters listen to political advertisements,” Luciana points out. Hence the noteworthy incoherence of voters’ reasoning, detected by a survey conducted by Ibope (and which is in line with the recent numbers mentioned at the beginning, of an alleged lack of interest in the election campaign TV time): most of the voters responded that they consider these political programs as being useless and without any influence on the voting decisions of the population. “The voter is quite critical  and is not easily convinced by the politicians who appear in the commercials, but he has to accept the fact that the population in general, and this includes himself, ultimately attests to the importance of those commercials when the time comes to make the voting decision.”

Thus, the free election campaign time on TV allows voters to monitor and learn what the politicians’ platforms are; it is a voter’s guide, as it organizes ideas at decision-making time; it is advance communication, that is, it provides voters with arguments to discuss election campaign issues with other voters, which many people feel is important in terms of their choices;  it opens up speculations as to which candidate has the best chance of winning an election; it reinforces exposure to the messages that consolidate the platform defended by the candidate for whom the voter has decided to vote. “In short, the voter, based on skimpy cognitive resources, faces the problem of the high cost of the vote, because, even though the voter is skeptical, he seeks to be informed in order to “err less,” the result being that campaign commercials are the core issue of any discussions on the elections,” says Luciana.  The free access to electronic media also prevents economic power abuse. “Free access reduces the influence of money, because it partially disconnects media access from the ownership of economic power.”

“In other countries, such as the USA, media air time for political parties and candidates to show themselves to the public has to be purchased, just like for regular commercials,” says political scientist Luis Felipe Miguel, a professor at the Center for Research and Post Graduation on the Americas/CEPPAC, of the University of Brasília. “The decoupling is only partial, because political advertising opens up a free window in the media. This, however, does not guarantee the means to produce the programs, and generates a serious imbalance in terms of the quality of the messages, to the benefit of the wealthier campaigns,” he points out.

BUENOThis is when the marketing specialists come on stage. This new feature created deep roots in the 1989 campaign. “Beginning with the election of Collor, attention started being paid to three new aspects:  the show business performance of the front runner, the influence of election platforms on voting intention and decision, and the interference of the media in the election process,” analyzes political scientist Marcus Figueiredo, of the Universitário Research Institute at Rio de Janeiro/Iuperj. “No other democracy in the world devotes so much time to free political party advertising as Brazil. In the USA, Finland and Italy, political party commercials are paid for. In Denmark, France and Israel, there is only public access. In Germany, Holland and England, paid political party advertising goes together with public access. In Brazil, the compulsory nature of the HGPE resides in the understanding that radio and TV are the best means to divulge information, because of their popularity and scope,” states political scientist Maria Helena Weber, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul/ UFRGS. This is the reason for the wide advantage obtained by Collor during his election campaign, considered by researchers as being the dividing wall in terms of free campaign time on TV. “This was the first time that a professional election campaign was run; it mobilized qualitative and quantitative opinion polls intensely, as well as political marketing techniques and high-level advertising techniques for this free air time on TV. Nowadays, any campaign that seeks to be competitive requires a team of marketing professionals, advertising professionals, etc. As a result, election campaigns have become very expensive and demand heavy funding,” says Fernando Azevedo.

According to the professor, each election is a rhetorical competition and the marketing professional’s job is to sell his candidate to voters. To this end, the professional resorts to arguments and persuasion in the TV campaign.  In the first case, he uses a strategy that is close to the ideal situation for a public debate, “the public exchange of reasons,” that Habernas referred to. In the second case, he uses advertising techniques in which emotions and feelings predominate. “This is why critics say that the candidates are being sold as merchandise and that our election campaigns have become ‘Americanized.’ The fact is that the form of the campaigns has become modernized, because of the centralizing nature of television. In Brazil, the political debate is less influential than the HGPE, which has a lot more influence. This is a specifically Brazilian characteristic, as are the free political campaign commercials,” Azevedo explains. But do the “attractively packaged” candidates on TV programs really win elections? “I’m not so sure. Many of these campaigns seem to have been prepared for the A and B classes. Does this win an election? I don’t know. The true effect of the marketing professionals? actions is that campaigns have become prohibitively expensive when they should be inexpensive – after all, access to a TV channel is the most expensive aspect, and this access is subsidized by the State,” says Albuquerque. In his opinion, the Brazilian model, in spite of everything, is a much better alternative than the American model. “If our model were better managed, it would result in less expensive campaigns and better quality information for voters.”

A promising new feature surfaced in 1996. In addition to the ban on election campaign billboards and other such resources, Brazil became acquainted with a new political advertising product:  the spots, 30 to 60-second programs aired on TV during commercial breaks and the stations’ regular shows. This idea had already been tested in the 1993 plebiscite on the form and system of government. “Short spots are a resource that has been commonly resorted to in the USA since the 1970’s. As advertising in the USA is not closely regulated, the candidates buy the commercial slots from the TV stations, which are required to provide equal opportunities in this respect to all the candidates.  In addition, there are no legal limits on the content of the advertisements,” explains political scientist Alessandra Aldé, from Doxa-Iuperj. The researcher mentions data provided by Ibope, which revealed that the TV audience of a campaign program takes the form of an inverted bell, that is, there are more viewers at the beginning, the number of viewers drops progressively until it hits a low level, and then goes back up again towards the end of the program, when viewers, waiting for the next attraction, go back to their TV sets.

Nonetheless, the free campaign time on TV has become a core element in Brazil’s election arena; it is greatly valued in the calculations made by political agents, when they plan their next political career steps or seek alliances. “In the current circumstances of our political scenario, this free time is the most important mechanism in the enhancement of political party hierarchies,” says Miguel. However, free TV time seems to go against common sense, and the question is whether a political campaign on TV might provoke a “personalization” of the elections to the detriment of the political parties, in view of the fact that his Excellency, the candidate for political office, and ready to be “sold,” is at the center of the media apparatus. “This is not true. The use of electronic communication means is in fact a factor that strengthens political parties, and not the contrary. The point is that the law grants free time on TV to the political parties and not to the individual candidates. As a result, the political parties are the indispensable mediators of the candidates’ access to the media,” says Albuquerque. “More than reflecting the political parties’ consistent and unified election strategy, the allocation of proportional time to the candidates is the result of an arrangement that seeks to conciliate the interests of the political parties’ political factions and leaders. The main objective of this time allocation is to ensure the “intra-party” arrangement, and is as important as attracting votes.”

In his opinion, the national model is a reinforcement of the political parties, which is based on the subsidy of the State, and is more than just a link within sectors of society. “Likewise, even though they are not a paragon of virtue, the bargains that the political parties make among themselves in relation to  air time are one more piece of evidence of how important this free TV time is in the game of politics,” he points out. This, he emphasizes, reinforces the idea that the viewers of the HGPE include not only the voters, but also the press, opponents’ campaigns, and the political parties themselves. “The objective isn’t always to win the election. Sometimes, the objective is to gain influence to negotiate government positions or to keep peace within the political party, to show your face.” There is an important issue in this respect:  the free election campaign, says Miguel, possibly reduces the influence of the communication media companies on the result of the elections. “This is the main mechanism that offsets the power of the electronic media, as it guarantees slots in the TV network’s regular programs, and this space is controlled directly by the political parties,” he explains. And this fact, the researcher points out, allows political parties to free themselves from the constraints imposed by the communication media. “Campaign advertising releases political communication from the dictatorship of a sound bite of a few seconds, and gives candidates a chance to give longer, more complex and more profound speeches; above all, it allows political parties and candidates to focus on their issues of choice.” This eases one of the current constraints of the free campaign time, which is the powerlessness to make any changes in the media’s agenda.

“The fact that the free campaign time is relatively unable to affect the media’s agenda does not mean it is not important in terms of building up the public agenda. This occurred extensively in the 1989 campaign, when Collor was able to push through his efforts to do away with the marajás (overpaid government officials). The media’s receptivity to the HGPE’s agenda was restricted to that election campaign. In the following campaign, the media had gotten wiser, was better prepared to restrain the influences on the agenda of the news shows and was able to impose its own superiority,” states Miguel. “However, the failure to touch the emotions of the media is a strong indication that free campaign time is not accomplishing its mission in a satisfactory way. In the eyes of the public, there is a major difference, in terms of legitimacy, between political advertising and TV news broadcasts. A TV news program is characterized by impartiality, which are typical to journalism. Political advertising, on the other hand, cannot deny the nature of its “interested discourse””, he states. However, in the researcher’s opinion, understanding the limits of the TV campaign does not imply discarding it as being unnecessary. “In spite of many imperfections, and in spite of the fact that this free campaign time is unable to give Brazilian democracy everything that was expected of it, the HGPE is a unique instrument focused on generating more equitable conditions in an election. In view of the problems that the HGPE is unable to solve, however, it becomes imperative to search for new measures that will offset the power of money and the media in the field of politics.” This becomes even more important and urgent in view of recent surveys which reflect the new nature of the so-called C class in economic and political terms.

BUENO“The rise of new social segments has altered the election-related configuration in Brazil. This does not mean that the C class has become the new opinion maker; but the C class has uncoupled from the influence exerted by the traditional middle class, and this happened because its political agenda is different in some points from the agenda of the A and B classes,” says Azevedo. “In the last elections, in 2006, for example, ethics was a major issue among the A and B classes, but it had only relative weight among the C and D classes. The main points on the agendas of the latter were economic stability, increases in income and jobs and social welfare programs.” Moreover, says the researcher, the election results also attested to the influence of newspapers and magazines, all of which had strongly criticized the mensalão and the dossiê, two major corruption scandals in the federal government, information which was restricted to readers – essentially comprised of the A and B classes – of these newspapers and magazines. “TV news shows were also strongly critical of these episodes, but the free campaign time gave the Workers’ Party/PT, the government and President Lula the opportunity to offset the criticism and speak directly to the voters. In short, we are a segmented and socially heterogeneous society, and this is good for the strengthening of our democracy and for political pluralism. It also attests to the usefulness and power of the free campaign time.” But the question is whether free campaign time is able to deal with these changes.

“In my opinion, free campaign time is not capitalizing enough on this. The idea that a political campaign is a technical matter, and that only super-specialized professionals know how to deal with it seems to me to be essentially undemocratic, a kind of “technical aristocracy” that is unable to take these changes into consideration with the necessary speed and efficiency,” says Albuquerque. “In short, most of the time this technical bias implies building up a campaign in line with deeply elitist standards of taste and discourse. In the case of Rio de Janeiro, where I live, this is reflected, for example, in a campaign speech on TV which described the city only in terms of the wealthy South Zone region, referred to as “marvelous,” to the detriment of all of the city’s other neighborhoods.”

No matter what social class the voter is from, researchers state that political propaganda starts the actual beginning of  the “political hour,” making the population more aware of politics, elections and the fact that voters need to look for alternative candidates. At a later stage, political propaganda acts like a catalyst to strengthen choices during the period in which political propaganda is aired. “Some people might ask whether the compulsory vote is an institutional tool that automatically ensures the reinforcement and strengthening of specific candidates, regardless of campaign propaganda. The logical answer is no,” says political scientist Luiz Claudio Lourenço, a researcher at Doxa-Iuperj. “Its compulsory nature does not indicate the voting decision. The compulsory nature might emphasize the requirement that a choice has to be made, but it does not influence what kind of choice should be made. Campaign propaganda activates and reinforces the decision-making process, and above all, shows the options that are available and seeks to influence the voter’s decision.”