The politics of digital branding: BJP, Cong have taken the explainer route

From being a television phenomenon at a time when stardom was a rare commodity for small screen stars, Pallavi Joshi has moved quite effortlessly into the world of YouTube and political campaigns. She is back under the spotlight. But this time around, as an endorser for the State, rather than just another scripted entertainer. 

Joshi has been speaking up in explainer videos, a new tool that is being used by both the national political parties to endorse or critique a policy initiative. The videos put forward a point of view and seek to control the flow of conversation on social media. Joshi is not the only new star on the political endorsement trail, though she is the most famous among the faces that are speaking up on issues ranging from demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST) to defence deals.

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) have taken the explainer route. And in this, Indian political parties are taking a leaf out of the books of their global counterparts. The recent videos by Joshi on the Rafale deal are modelled on a 2014 campaign by anti-Scottish independence lobby group ‘Better Together UK’. The video had a homemaker asking people to choose a united Britain, if they cared for their home and children. It drew flak for its patronising tone and simplistic examination of the issues at hand. And memes mocked the manner in which the video turned a serious discussion into a facile one.

Explainers are popular because they help political parties address the clutter of information on social media. They are also a unique branding opportunity, especially with the young who are avid consumers of videos. All political parties claim that the videos are independent productions. 

“It was actress Pallavi Joshi who came up with the video explaining GST. We (the government) thought that it is a powerful transparent tool to reach masses with right information and clear the air on various issues for which the government is targeted,” explained BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari. 

Digital is a risky bet, because it lets the brickbats in with the bouquets. Also just as there are no objective video explainers there are no dispassionate viewers either. Brand experts say that the medium encourages biased views and extreme reactions. YouTube viewers are called fans, Facebook has friends and Twitter has followers; there are no unbiased viewers in this media ecosystem, points out one. 

 “Once the medium opens the door for propaganda, it will also open potential counter arguments. The platform is available for both sides,” said Harish Bijoor, chief executive officer at Harish Bijoor Consults. As far as the current explainers go, the government has chosen a face which has reasonable degree of integrity, Bijoor added.

Pallavi Joshi is an Indian film and television actress. She was recently nominated as a member of Film and Television Institute of India society, but refused to take up the position after students protested against the then appointment of actor and BJP member Gajendra Chauhan as the chief of the institute's governing council. The BJP says she has no links with the party,  but trolls point out that the videos are published by the YouTube channel ‘I am Buddha’ that is owned by her husband and filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, who is known to be a supporter of the present government. 

Despite the aggressive and abusive nature of the digital medium, it is still the most effective, believe many. “Print has limited reach now. So it makes sense to have dialogue via such videos. But the government should be ready for counter arguments. One cannot expect explainers to be one-way,” said Ramesh Thomas, president at Equitor Value Advisory.