POPULISM AS A METHOD OF POLITICAL MARKETING
BY ANNA MEDVEDEVA
JUNE 4th, 2019
Populist promises often become part of a more complex process of political marketing. This article explores what politics appear from the point of view of the market, how marketing was involved in 2019 presidential elections in Ukraine, and whether the transformation of populism mottos into viable political decisions is possible.
Populism as a phenomenon is not a modern thing. Example of populist statements that set people against elites and offered simple ways out of complicated situations can be found in the 19th century history; both in the rhetoric of People’s Party in the USA and in the ideology of Narodniks (1) that was wide-spread in the territory of present-day Ukraine too. However, only in the latest decades (2) populism has become a part of larger phenomenon concerned with fast growth of professionalism in politics; i.e. in political marketing.
This term came to use after the researchers of business marketing Philip Kotler and Sidney Levy suggested viewing political process as an analog to the functioning of market: “Political contests remind us that candidates are marketed as well as soap” (3). According to this logic, buyers (voters) will buy (vote for) a product (a political program) that is offered by sellers (parties of other political actors) during the elections. The researcher Jennifer Lees-Marshment distinguishes between three types of behavior of a party in the context of political marketing; product-oriented, sales-oriented, or market-oriented (4).
Product-oriented political forces keep strictly to their ideology and will not let fluctuations of electoral attitudes essentially impact their strategic directions. Such politicians expect that voters will support their products (that is programs, reforms, and ideas) just because they are attractive for them (‘good things sell themselves’), and they don’t find it necessary to convince the voters of the benefits of their political vision. This is a class ideology (Labor and Conservative parties in the 20th century UK) or the party monopoly (the Communist Party in Soviet Union.) This type of behavior becomes less popular as the class structure of the society has changed and the boundaries between the classes have been blurred, monopolies have disappeared or modernized themselves (as with the Communist Party of China), and the development of communications have led to higher awareness of the society that has become more demanding to political products.
Parties that stake on sales keep to a certain doctrine too, but at the same time they pay special attention to communication with voters, trying to explain the benefits of their programs and convince voters to purchase their political product. The above-mentioned British political parties were quickly losing their supporters at the end of the 20th century so they initiated more active communication policies in order to strengthen their positions. In Ukrainian context, the signs of this type of marketing can be seen in the activities of Party of Regions that promoted its own political brand convincing their regional voters in the need of support, protection, and respect that can be provided only by that very party.
Market-oriented behavior is typical for parties and political leaders that act within a broad ideological range. They have certain political references but they can demonstrate flexibility and change their programs and electoral promises in line with the changes of social thought. These days most of parties in the world, including Ukraine, operate by the principle of adaptation of their political visions to the voters’ preferences. To understand electoral attitudes, political actors use the data of social thought obtained when holding focus groups and surveys. For instance, during the parliamentary elections campaign of 2006, the Fidesz party in Hungary designed its political program using the data gathered in the course of a tour around the country (5). These tours named ‘National Consulting’ got Hungarians together with the purpose to hear what changes they wanted. The talks with voters not only helped Hungarian populists shape a political program with an outspoken name ‘Three Million’s Program’ with which the party went to the parliamentary elections, but also allowed it to restore the bond with voters and demonstrate readiness to hear their needs.
The presented example of ‘market model’ of a political party resonates with the recent events organized within the framework of the campaign of Candidate President of Ukraine Mr Volodymyr Zelensky. He offered Ukrainians to sent the top five issues that they considered most essential for the country in order to integrate them into his election campaign. According to the response of the Ukrainians that took part in this ‘flash mob’, the hottest issues were the war in the east of Ukraine, corruption, and low income levels. A sociological survey (6) confirms that among the Ukrainians that consider the events in Ukraine going wrong way, 70% explain their opinion with the fact of the ongoing war in Donbas, 32% with high corruption level, and 50% criticize the growth of prices whereas wages and salaries staying unchanged. Zelensky’s election campaign takes these issue into consideration as well as many other essential problems that worry the Ukrainian society (7). It includes, in particular, the suggestion of holding a referendum on Ukraine’s joining NATO, thus responding to recent increase in the support of this membership among Ukrainians.
The majority of other candidates’ programs were also market-oriented and mirrored the voters’ attitudes rather than offering balanced strategies containing individual visions and broader long-term comprehension of the issues of the country’s development. However, during the drafting of the manifest, Zelensky’s team did not only use those survey data to elaborate their policies, but also demonstrated to the voters that they co-authored the product themselves. This method as well as the corresponding approach in business marketing, that is inviting consumers to get involved in the creation of goods and services, could have aided the candidate’s electoral victory, to some extent .
Yet, it was not only the interactive communication format that demonstrated the close bond between the candidates of 2019 presidential campaign and the people. Populist statements are typical for the manifests of many politicians that received more than 5 per cent votes in the first run (8). Unlike Western trends of populism that are focused on the issues of globalization, migration, and identity, Ukrainian version pays most attention to economic problems and greater responsibility of the state for the life standards of Ukrainians. The programs of Oleh Liashko and Volodymyr Zelensky clearly appeal to populist logics that divides the society into ‘us’ (common people) and ‘them’ (old elites, ‘political seniors’, ‘politicians that have nothing to do with the people’) (9). Besides, their manifests as well as other candidates’ programs contain simplistic formulas to solve complex political issues without clear vision of how to achieve it. The issues may be merely canceled as Yuri Boyko with his idea of ‘tariff genocide’ suggests (10); gas prices can be lowered twice in the first moth of President Yulia Tymoshenko’s office (11); Mr Liashko was basically ready to guarantee “perfect order” (9); and Petro Poroshenko (12) was even trying to secure “high life standards” due to NATO and EU membership of Ukraine to which he referred as already warranted.
It is the market model of political marketing that tends to be most populist (13), because populist politicians are most sensitive to demands and wishes of potential voters.
The efficiency of the market type of political behavior is measured by election cycles that can be structured into the stages of designing and testing of an election program with its consequent adaptation to the ideas and changes in social attitudes, pre-election campaign, voting, and delivery of the product to the customer, that is fulfillment of promises in case of winning (being elected President or PM or gaining the needed number of seats in the parliament.) The final stage of the cycle, realization of political statements, not only impacts the next electoral period and the voters’ decision to vote for or against the politicians depending on their being fully or partially satisfied by the delivered product. This stage also demonstrates to what extent the statements that were perceived as populist have remained empty promises or have been transformed into problem solutions and have become a part of marketing process in the meaning of politics and people’s real life no longer being torn apart.
After 2015 elections is Spain, the left-wing populist party Podemos took the third place by the number of seats in the parliament having gained 69 out of 350. This new political force emerged in the time when the country was shaken by corruption scandals and loss of faith in honest politicians; Spain needed new political visions badly. Notwithstanding its inner issues and accusations of going away from the people, within 4 years Podemos managed to organize the functioning of direct democracy via offline and online assemblies and discussions, to broaden the political agenda giving more weight to such issues as confronting the measures of strict economy, fighting social inequality, and conflict of interests in politics (14). The party’s partial loss of electoral support showed that not all of their populist visions have been brought to life or turned into efficient political decisions. Yet, the fact that in April 2019 Spanish voters chose Podemos again giving it a chance to gain 42 seats in the parliament speaks for their certain satisfaction with the received political product and the populist promises getting more realistic shape.
The phenomenon of political marketing is still considered controversial. Researchers say that using marketing models in politics is wrong and business thinking is bad for democracy (16). Economical approach to politics prioritizes the market principles, which may lead to depolitizaton of political process. In this case, political decisions are made not by way of democratic discussion and compromising; they depend on market conditions and politicians’ wish to please voters, instead, which will lead to a surge of populism. On the other hand, political marketing allows restoring connections with voters and gain their support for making important decisions. The cyclic nature of marketing and its focus on results will make political process more predictable and stable in its development.
These days political marketing and populism that often goes hand in hand with it are the reality of Ukrainian politics. The negative sides of this trend that have been mentioned above are not as bad for liberal representative democracies as they are for the countries with ‘hybrid regime’ (17) in which the parties, even without political marketing, may be deemed pure business projects by local tycoons. (18) At the same time, the very goals of marketing, that is to satisfy the customer so much that he would be urged to buy more goods and services, really may cause changes in political behavior. Then, the populist rhetoric designed to please voters before the elections only to make them “buy” the political program may transform into real viable decisions that will balance between social attitudes and broader political consensus. Ukrainians will have five years to assess the viability of the manifest of the newly-elected president and the efficiency of the programs of political parties that they will elect for the parliament in summer 2019.
- Taggart, Populism, pp 43-46 // Taggart, P.A. (2000). Buckingham; Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.
- Baines, P. R. (1999). Voter segmentation and candidate positioning. In B.I. Newman (Ed.). Handbook of political marketing. (403–420). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Kotler, P., & Levy, S.J. (1969). Broadening the concept of marketing. Journal of Marketing, 33(1), 10-15.
- Lees-Marshment, J. (2008). Political marketing and British political parties. Manchester University Press, 28-30.
- Kiss, B., & Mihalyffy, Z. (2011). Political salesmen in Hungary. In J. Lees-Marshment, J. Strömbäck & C. Rudd (Eds.). Global political marketing. (pp.143–156). London, England: Routledge.
- Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation sociological survey held jointly with Razumkov Center Sociological Service https://dif.org.ua/article/pidsumki-2018-gromadska-dumka
- Candidate President Volodymyr Zelensky election program https://program.ze2019.com/
- The poll results of the first run of 2019 presidential elections https://www.cvk.gov.ua/pls/vp2019/wp300pt001f01=719.html
- Candidate President Oleh Liashko election program http://liashko.ua/program
- Candidate President Yuri Boyko election program https://ukr.lb.ua/news/2019/02/11/419474_peredviborna_programa_yuriya_boyka.html
- Candidate President Yulia Tymoshenko election program https://ukr.lb.ua/news/2019/02/11/419453_peredviborna_programa_yulii.html
- Candidate President Petro Poroshenko election program https://lb.ua/news/2019/02/11/419445_peredviborcha_programa_petra.html
- Winder, G., & Tenscher, J. (2015). Populism as political marketing technique. In J. Lees-Marshment (Ed.) Routledge handbook of political marketing. (pp. 230–242). London, England: Routledge.
- . Sola, J., & Rendueles, C. (2018). Podemos, the upheaval of Spanish politics and the challenge of populism. Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 26(1), 99-116.
- Savigny, H. (2008). The problem of political marketing. London, England: Continuum.
- König, M., & König, W. (2015). Government public opinion research and consultation: experiences in deliberative marketing. In J. Lees-Marshment (Ed.) Routledge handbook of political marketing. (pp. 48–60). London, England: Routledge.
- Rating of transitional period countries, Freedom House, 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2018/ukraine
- Kuzio, T. (2019). Theoretical and comparative perspectives on populism in Ukraine and Europe. European Politics and Society. DOI: 10.1080/23745118.2019.1569344
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