When Tony Leon left, the DA had a golden opportunity to re-position itself as an African party, or at the very least the kind of party that recognises the importance of an African identity. But they chose Helen Zille. Now some people love Helen, but to me she is the living embodiment of the dangers of a short-term brand strategy.
By choosing Zille as its leader the DA decided to focus on short-term approval from its existing fan base, eschewing the opportunity to start again and shoot for a more authentic African brand identity able to deliver long-term growth. So in 2009, even though the ANC has never been this divided and weak, South Africa remains groping for a viable opposition party with real momentum behind it. The door has opened, but there’s no one around to step over the threshold.
You can argue the finer points and subtleties all you want, but the DA’s 2009 election ad reveals all.
The ad is shot to what sounds like the falsetto voice of the four hundred pound Hawaiian crooner, Israel Kamakawiwo, singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Even though it offers an easy “message prop” the choice of song is unfortunately symbolic. Do you really want to associate your party with out-of-control obesity?
Nonetheless, the ad’s message is that if we vote DA we’ll find, somewhere over the new South African rainbow, our promised land. And what does that promised land look like?
Like life at a retirement village. On a golf resort.
The DA give us repeat shots of happy couples of various ages hugging and in varying stages of advanced relaxation and happiness. Juxtaposed with an image or two of highly generic township / tsotsi-style violence, the stars of the DA cast all look like they’re in the throes of a leafy lawn picnic, to be swiftly followed, surely, by an afternoon nap.
Has the DA creative team ever been out of Cape Town? Based on the ad evidence one would have to say possibly not.
Given South Africa’s currently highly fraught political state, you can’t quibble with the DA’s core “let us lead you to a better place” positioning, but the party’s depiction of what that place looks like reflects an uncomfortably dislocated brand identity. It reflects, also, a missed political opportunity of major proportions. How many South Africans are there out there who neither want to vote ANC nor retire to golf estate paradise? Plenty. I count myself in this segment. I’m someone who, given the Mafia-like state of current politics (which is eerily in keeping with the Mafia-like precedents set by the Broederbond and the Randlords before them) feels the urge to vote, but is stranded without an option save for Cope, a party made up mostly of people who got us here in the first place.
So, even with the nauseatingly self-righteous Zille at the helm, I might have considered voting DA this time around, if only to punish the ANC for running the country like their own game of monopoly. But one can’t vote entirely in the negative sense. Or, put another way, if you are only going to vote in opposition to the ANC, you may as well go all the way and give it to the Soccer Party.
How did it come to this? Why is the DA humming this bizarre tune? And, do they really believe having so many news clips of Zille gyrating on stage in a deeply embarrassing parody of election excitement is positioning the party well in the long term?
Like Leon, Zille fulfils many of the aspirations of the DA’s existing audience of upper LSM South African suburbanites. She comes across as tough on everything and willing to adopt a principled stand at five paces with anyone, at any time. She is the voice of angry reason many existing DA voters want to hear. But sadly for the DA (and for the many people desperate for a party to vote for), she and her party fail spectacularly in demonstrating historical empathy and in putting a clearly African identity forward to voters. And this time round the opportunity cost could be massive. Had the DA been better positioned — with a black leader and an African identity — and had the party made a real attempt to expand its constituency beyond its roots, it would be picking up the votes of disaffected ANC voters hand over fist.
The ANC, conversely shows far more strategic intelligence with its advertising, which on the one hand pulls history, age, legacy, respect for elders and all the other levers of popular political emotion, and on the other goes straight for the politically conscious youth market jugular. You can read as much as you want into the messaging, the way the party has tried to contextualise crime and corruption, the formal introduction of JZ as our leader etc etc, but on a far more basic level the ANC ads win because they use images of the country the majority of people can identify with.
The DA creative think-tank could take a long hard look at the ANC approach and learn some lessons. There are ways to create strong political campaigns, and most of them start with identity. Ask Barack Obama.
So, on we go. I’ve been having the “should I vote” debate with people a lot lately and many of the young adults (18-34 years) I talk to give me the ideological finger. “They’re all the same,” they say, “and we’re not voting for any of them”.
It would be great to have a comeback but all I’ve got is a vote for the Soccer Party.