The Rise of Political Consumerism

Updated: Feb 18 2014, 10:51am hrs
Admittedly, there is a huge amount of political messages that we are consuming these days. From mass media to social networks, from movie halls to open stadiums, from mass transit to personal meetings, there is one topic that all of us have been discussing: Political messages. They are all around us as ads from a host of parties, as claims from a gaggle of leaders, as a call to participate from parties, they even ask for donation of metal scraps to build a monument. Thats a classic crowdsourcing tactic. Classically, this is anything but politics.

Politics is about influencing citizens over civic issues, policies, organising control over human societies, of future and of governance. Politics is not about broadcasting a set of messages to a wide bunch of mass audiences to create a sense of mass following based on a few features. Usually, it is consumerist brands that would be acting in this manner.

That begs the questions Have we become consumers of politics Have we become passive recipients of messages and are expected to act on the messages

Consumerism is an economic order that is all about choices, excesses, unwanted desires and of too many goods and services that the society can often do without. Brands in every category urge the consumers to consume more of them, at the expense of competing brands. While they do satisfy some basic needs, the consumption of brands most often is driven by a slightly higher order emotional need. Maslows hierarchy of needs theory is the best way to explain why we consume what we consume.

In a perfect world, politics and consumerism should be two poles that cannot come together. There is hardly anything that is common between the two except that both are about influencing, helping the public choose one over another and almost always help alter current behaviour patterns.

At the core is freedom of choice. This freedom to choose one and discard many is at the heart of the consumerist movement, and today it is also powering the political landscape.

This can truly be called Political Consumerism. As usual, there are some good things and some bad things that are a function of the rise of consumerism in politics.

First, the common thing that is both good and bad. The action that a brand seeks is transaction. This transaction happens at a fairly regular interval, the brand messages are interventions at those intervals to keep the audience loyal. Consumers have figured this game of brands and have made loyalty a very difficult trait. This has become an epidemic for political parties too. People used to be committed followers of a political entity; they remained committed for a fairly long period of time. Now in the transaction era, consumption, acceptance, loyalty or rejection is a constant cycle that political entities have just started to learn and live by.

While loyalty is a challenge, the changing fortunes of political brands is a different challenge. Brands build a common feeling, traits, benefits, by which they live and die. Political brands live and die not by the benefits and features, but by the appeal of its leader. That is like saying a brand lives and dies by its brand ambassador. This is a serious issue for political consumerism. This promotes the cult of personality, makes every issue subservient to the leaders image, the agenda of the brand merges with the ambassador, and one single failure is enough to banish the face permanently. The reconstruction after the debacles, post that banishment is slow, painful and is often time consuming.

The good thing about political consumerism is about active engagement. Political consumption by a large mass of audience has largely been about being actively watching but otherwise disengaged from the process. The new breed of consumers has started to change this to active engaged conversations. Engaged conversations changed the fortunes of many brands, today they are changing fortunes of old established political systems.

Where political consumerism is completely different from brands is in the area of organised activism. Brands are about consumption; unwanted, passively. Political appeals are about driving an active change every day in thought, belief and values. To me, that is the most powerful impact of the political system acquiring a branded edge. The political system is always about the future, it is about the nation and the real positive benefit that is good for the whole nation.

The branding of political process will have a lasting impact on the consumerist movement. Consumers will learn the benefit of political boycott and can turn this into buycott. Buycott is one action that brands have not learnt to deal with, every brand will have to prepared for it in the future. The threat can come from a rogue brand ambassador to a organised consumer movement.

Perhaps the most important change that this new political consumerism has brought about is unconventional participation of the consumers in the political process through volunteerism. Volunteerism makes the political process more participative, less centralised and to a certain extent consumer controlled. Volunteerism is enriching for the political system as it keeps them true to charter and connected with their constituents. One effect that I see politics gifting to consumerism is this not-for-profit participation by the consumers. Fundamentally, this has the power to alter the course of every brand.

With the rise of consumer power and consumer awareness of this power, what the political process has to content with is the power of voters. Brands have learnt it at a huge cost; political players are now learning it at an equally huge cost.

After all, as the famous pop song said, today the subway walls are where the words of the prophet are written, subway walls are where the true power of the people can be felt. Politics and consumerism are two mass movements and both are learning from the power of the people.

Naresh Gupta

The author is chief strategy officer and managing partner,

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