Politics, Writing

The Banality of Government Advertising

A few weeks back, major newspapers carried a two page ad for the Ministry of Tourism that was really a brochure for its Minister, Dr K Chiranjeevi. It contained 11 photographs of the megastar, doing various things. A couple of weeks of ago, we saw another two page advertising salvo, ostensibly to express solidarity with the victims of Uttarakhand. In keeping with the sombre context, this time there only 9 photographs of the star. Over the 20 photographs we saw picture of the star cutting ribbons, holding aloft trophies, graciously accompanying dancers and meeting sundry foreign dignitaries. Of course, advertising oneself at a time of natural calamity might seem insensitive to some, but brand building can be an unforgiving mistress.

Dr Chiranjeevi is by no means alone in his zeal to be noticed. The Bharat Nirman campaign uses public funds for an overtly political cause as did the India Shining effort a few years ago. A lot of money that the government spends on advertising has less to do with public welfare than aggrandisement of a few individuals. If it’s not politicians advertising their own actions, it is some public sector organisation releasing ads featuring politicians, or ads for social welfare schemes named after politicians, featuring photographs of more politicians. And then of course, there are the ads that commemorate any birth/death anniversary of any past member of the Nehru- Gandhi family. The fondness for self-congratulation cuts across virtually every political formation- from a Jayalalitha, who now condescends to shrink to full page newspaper size after having graced our streets in 30-foot avatars to a Mayawati who builds theme parks in her own honour, the story is similar.

A large proportion of these ads serve a mysterious purpose, in part because they seemed designed not to be noticed. Proof of this lies in the hoardings that dot the country- in UP in particular both in Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav’s time, we see hoardings that are so full of lettering in such small fonts that they could not be read even with a ladder and a microscope. Similarly, most standard issue government ads seem reconciled to their own pointlessness; essentially as long as the right photographs have been placed in the appropriate hierarchy, the rest of the effort is irrelevant. Even ads that carry information relevant for the public must necessarily carry photographs of ministers- for instance, last week ,ads for Dengue prevention carried ads of 3 ministers while another one released on the occasion of World Population Day had no less than 5 photographs, including that of Mrs Sonia Gandhi. The eagerness to appear in print is matched by a complete unwillingness to provide material of any interest to the reader, begging the question as to why do these ads exist at all.

At the first level, it would appear that the issue is one of ability-unlike the private sector, the government uses advertising in a more primitive way and hence produces statist propaganda instead of persuasive copy. But there is a deeper issue involved. It would appear that the government and the political establishment think of advertising not as a means of communicating, but as a prop that is part of the assorted trappings of power. The car must have a siren, the entourage at least a dozen cars, the security needs automatic weapons and leaders need full page ads to be released periodically in their honour. Advertising is a tribute paid to a potentate, a bugle blast that reminds us of their importance. In normal circumstances, advertising puts the reader first, as it attempts to find a way to inveigle itself into his affections, and persuading him to act per the wishes of the advertiser. In the case of government ads, the reader is of no consequence, the significant act is in the release of the advertisement, not in the effect it produces. For if advertising were to be evaluated from the standpoint of its impact, the practice of releasing ads on Rajiv Gandhi’s birthday for instance would be stopped forthwith. It should be glaringly obvious to anyone that the empty act of remembering a leader by various government departments carried out in a transparently desultory manner with great visibility but no feeling can only produce a negative backlash. It does nothing but signal that the leaders of the party appreciate explicit acts of sycophancy, decoding these as signs of loyalty. Similarly, anyone even slightly acquainted with the public antipathy towards politicians at large would know that ads that carry their photographs evoke ridicule far more easily than evoking awe.

But that is the whole point. When the government advertises, what it is advertising is its power. Not taking possible public reactions to one’s actions and statements on board becomes a mark of the powerful. Advertising is converted from being a means of persuasive seduction to one that is a broadcast vehicle for the aura of the powerful. Media is imagined as a stage on which the state makes public pronouncements- the public is thus seen as the passive recipients of messages that the state sees fit to transmit.

The inability of state and the political establishment to imagine itself in any other terms save that of power is starkly underlined through the nature of these advertisements. The appropriation of state power by the individuals wielding it drains power of any meaning as an instrument of change. The value of power gets defined exclusively through its use, in how it is expended rather than in the change it helps usher in. Nothing communicates the banality of power as graphically as does government advertising as it lazily offers pronouncement after another without any interest in the outcomes generated by its actions. Government advertising is action without consequence, expense without outcome, investment without interest. It is no small irony that an instrument of communication ends up being one that highlights the distance between the state and the citizen.