Political campaigning ahead of next year’s elections has begun, and the site of the first skirmishes are taking place in billboard territory. The African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance have erected billboards in urban areas that have the parties having a go at each other, particularly in the media.
The DA fired the first salvo with its initially mysterious ‘E-tolls. Brought to you by the ANC’ campaign that got Gauteng talking, not least over who was responsible for the campaign. The ANC was outraged, with spokesman Keith Khoza labeling the party “unethical” and threatening to report them to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
The ANC followed in the Western Cape, its most vulnerable province,with a series of billboards trumpeting the party’s achievements since taking power in 1994. The problem was the facts and figures they used were debunked by Africa Check, which said, “The ANC’s claim exaggerates its achievements over the past 19 years and is not supported by the available data.”
Now the DA in Gauteng is using e-tolls and the public’s deep antipathy to having to pay for e-tags to use the province’s highways as its main election message. ‘A vote for the DA is a vote against e-tolls’ is the message. “These billboards along highways mark the start of an intensive campaign to mobilise Gauteng voters against the government that brought us e-tolls,” says the party’s candidate for premier, Mmusi Maimane,
Chris Vick, spin doctor and media strategist who has worked extensively in the political arena, says the DA’s choice of channel “is a good one” as billboards in urban areas reach the party’s target audience. “…but that doesn’t address the core issues, which are the positioning of the DA’s campaign, and its key messages,” he says.
“So far, the DA’s pre-election messaging has been anti-ANC rather than pro-DA and unlikely to resonate beyond those who already believe the party’s spin. So although some of the DA billboards are clever they are not necessarily smart, as they are preaching to the converted and unlikely to make much impact, if any, on people outside the party. They are still stuck on negative campaigning rather than highlighting the successes they have had in areas where they are in power, or positive aspects which they may see in their policies,” he says.
Gordon Muller, media planner and author of Advertising in the OOH Zone, says billboards are directed at building awareness for consumers in vehicles. “E-tolls are directed at people in cars. Billboards are the perfect medium to talk to the potential victims of e-tolls,” he says.
The ANC is livid. Again. Transport minister Dipuo Peters earlier called the billboards the “work of cowards” and Gauteng spokesman Dumisa Ntuli said the DA was “just pulling wool over people’s eyes that the e-tolls are bad” and that the party fully supported the e-tolling system because it would improve road infrastructure.
Muller says there’s little the party can do except bluster. “From an advertising perspective there is nothing left to be said. The ANC has told consumers it’s a fait accompli whether they like it or not, so why bother trying to persuade us. In political advertising the opposition will always direct consumer attention to popularist issues,” he says.
“The dominant party should not allow themselves to be drawn into a mudslinging match. They should stick to articulating their policies that are for the betterment of everybody. Hang on? The ANC doesn’t have any policies (other than getting their snout in the trough so perhaps this is bad advice in this instance). Much easier to get dirty and tell voters that nasty white people who won’t pay their e-tolls are just trying to bring back apartheid. Classic deflection activity,” he says.
Vick says the DA has also “suffered from some major policy and communication wonks” over the past few months, particularly in terms of its attempts to win black votes. “The campaign to claim Mandela and distance the DA from apartheid backfired completely; the DA’s BEE campaign was open to so much distortion and ridicule that it’s best forgotten; and even its ‘Rubicon moment’ around affirmative action, where it finally acknowledged that race is an issue in the South African economy, has opened up more questions than answers, with the party on the defensive again. Clearly, there’s a broader problem — a battle for the soul of the DA, between those driven by a sense of the future and those clinging to nostalgia — which makes it even more difficult for the DA to develop and project a coherent election strategy,” he says.
Muller says billboards are effective platforms for political campaigns. “The 1992 referendum was driven heavily off billboards. But it’s got to be a simple message and it’s got to be consistent,” he says. Billboards have been “hugely successful in highlighting the key areas of debate but then the parties have to deliver the content for the debate in other media. In 1992 we plastered every single OOH site we could find with one simple message, Vote YES. Because we wanted to create an irresistible ‘Yes’ mentality. But we had to use the full range of other media options to explain why,” he says.
Vick says the “Obama-lite” campaign created by the DA to push Maimane as the Gauteng premier candidate “seems to have had little impact beyond the current DA youth membership. This is not America”.
Back in the Western Cape, the billboard battle took on another hue. This time, the ANC was forced to remove billboards from various school sites as it is illegal to campaign, conduct a rally or hold a march, distribute party political literature and hang posters (erect billboards). Spokeswoman for education MEC Donald Grant, Bronagh Casey, said all the affected schools were contacted and alerted to the contents of the billboards on their properties. “The schools asked the relevant advertising agencies to remove the posters as soon as possible,” she said.
Most of the sites are owned by Primedia Outdoor. The company’s CEO, Dave Roberts, said it had “run campaigns for a number of political parties over the many elections held in the last 19 years and this was the first time that we became aware of this Act and have put measures in place to prevent this happening in future”.
Roberts said Primedia Outdoor proposed certain sites to media agency Mindshare and the ANC for their campaign. “Some of those sites happened to be located on school property. We were not aware of the legislation prohibiting adverts of a political nature on school property and went ahead and flighted the posters. Once we became aware of our error we removed the posters and have arranged alternative sites for the campaign,” he said.
Another of the sites was owned by Tractor Outdoor. Director Simon Wall told The Media Online he received a brief from media agency, Mindshare. “They wanted high traffic sites on key arterials across the city,” he said. One of those sites was at Trafalgar High School in Zonnebloem. Roberts says the school principal contacted him about the billboard. “We removed the billboard with an hour or two of being informed by the principal,” he said.
Mindshare preferred not to comment, directing The Media Online to the ANC’s communications team in Johannesburg. Spokesman Jackson Mthembu didn’t respond to questions, but the party posted a statement on its website.
“The African National Congress has noted reports about the illegality of party political billboards on school premises in Cape Town. The African National Congress is committed to complying fully with the regulations of Western Cape Schools Educations Act and the Basic Education Laws Amendment Act and hence we ensured that all such billboards are removed speedily,” he said.
Mthembu also pointed out in the statement that, “It is interesting to note however that the issue was pointed out by the members of the Democratic Alliance, the same DA which has itself previously placed such billboards on school premises in the Cape Town area, without consideration for the Acts governing the placement of party political advertisement material on school premises”.
The Media Online also found a Google Street View image of a DA billboard on the site of the Oaklands school along the city’s M5. Casey pointed out that the photo was years out of date, as is often the case of Google Street View images. The school in the photograph was demolished years ago and a new school built. The image shows the old school.
Political campaigning being what it is, the billboards and advertising wars are likely to intensify in the lead up to the elections.
“At least the DA billboards been accurate, though, unlike some of the ANC billboards which have been misleading or even dishonest,” says Vick. “For example, there’s an ANC billboard in the Johannesburg CBD which states that in 1994, 1.2-million people were homeless and by 2012 3.2-million houses had been provided to the poor. It omits to mention that the homeless waiting list has grown to 2.1-million because of urbanisation and other reasons. That’s slippery advertising. And we can probably expect more of it.”