As a marketer advertising fascinates me. Political campaigns are no different, they are just advertisements on a larger scale, designed to drive life-changing decisions.
In tiny Israel, politicians make decisions that swiftly impact our day to day lives. War and peace, life and death are literally in their hands – particularly those of the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. That gives voting for the right person / party critical significance.
Israeli elections are crucial to me as an Israeli, as a Jew, as a person who loves freedom. As a marketer, Israeli elections set my mind buzzing. This is an extraordinary opportunity to delve into advertisements, analyze their effectiveness, the psychology behind the campaigns and the gap between the marketing material and the “product” being marketed – the candidates, their ideas and the reality they promise to create.
So how does it work?
Israel’s Parliamentary system combined with the inherent Jewish trait of “one person, three opinions” means that we have a multitude of parties, representing every sector in society. The system seems like an insane mess but there is a method to the madness and it’s a fairly good reflection of Israeli society – complicated, varied, opinionated, frustrating to the point of making you want to scream – that somehow works out pretty well in the end.
The most important thing to understand is that a coalition needs to be formed in order to create a government and the number 1 in the party that won the most mandates in the election AND succeeded in forming a coalition becomes the Prime Minister.
And yes, it is possible to win more mandates and fail at creating a coalition. That’s what happened to Tzipi Livni in 2008 which led to Benjamin Netanyahu forming the government.
So, basically voting is a choice between two strategies:
- Voting for one of the major parties headed by the leader you want to become Prime Minister
- Voting for a party that deals with societal issues that matter to you, hoping that by strengthening them, the party will have more clout within the coalition or opposition
In Israel, it’s not enough to be strong. Candidates and parties have to know how to collaborate.
Lesson 2: Content over style
Israelis seem to have an inherent aversion to style.
For years one of the main complaints about Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu has been: “He’s too sleek, he’s like an American politician, speaking excellently but when it comes to action not necessarily doing what he was elected to do.”
Israelis have traditionally voted on ideas they approved of with little or no regard to external characteristics. Israel has elected short, fat, untactful, uncharismatic, old and female (the world’s 4th female Prime Minister, long before America imagined a female President).
Israelis expect their candidates to present ideas, to be ideologically motivated and/or come with a track record of success in getting things done.
This is why Israeli IDF generals, both left and right leaning, are given a lot of credit when they enter the political arena – they have already proven, through their service, that they are willing to dedicate themselves to the country and have gained the experience of command.
Lesson 3: Military ranks bring with them a high credibility score but they do not guaranty success in politics.
The two systems are very different and just because someone was successful in one, does not mean they will be successful in the other. Ehud Barak, for example, is the most highly decorated living IDF soldier and was considered a brilliant strategist. He is also considered one of the worst Prime Minister’s Israel ever had.
Lesson 4: Be careful what slogan you choose
The way you present yourself is always important. This is true for individual interactions but even more so when you are trying to present to the entire nation a convincing image of yourself in the position to which you wish to be elected.
How do you sell Pepsi Cola when Coca Cola has dominated the market for decades?
Benjamin Netanyahu has dominated Israel’s political market for decades, developing “brand power” unlike that of any other candidate in the country.
Marketing the candidates competing for his position is no easy task.
The Labor Party, the party of Ben Gurion and Rabin has sunk so far in public opinion that they are expected to attain less than 10 mandates in the upcoming elections. The current Labor leader Avi Gabbay seems to be delusional in his declarations that he will be the next Prime Minister.
Sometimes it’s better to go with a slogan like Avis’s: “We try harder.” Knowing that they were not number one, Avis chose a slogan that evokes sympathy, offers differentiation from the competition (more enthusiastic service) and displays a realistic view of the world. This is a smart way to gain credibility and fans.
In the previous elections “the Zionist Union,” a coalition of the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s “Tnuah”, was created specifically for the purpose of unseating Netanyahu. Their campaign was basically “anyone but Bibi.”
“I’m Pepsi, buy me because I’m not Coca Cola!” Does that sound like a winning strategy to you?
Lesson 5: The media and social elites are not the same as the people
Israel’s elite, the media, artists and academia generally lean to the left and as such provide vocal, active opposition to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud Party. The way news is reported (or not reported), the focus in the public arena has, for years, shown obvious bias against Israel’s democratically elected government.
The country’s elites seem dumbfounded and frustrated that the public keeps electing Netanyahu over and over. The public, flooded with obvious and more subtle messaging against the government, still draws its own conclusions.
As a nation we watched Netanyahu stand against all odds and win – over and over and over.
He vocally opposed Obama’s decisions regarding Israel and Iran, despite all the advice from the elites that annoying the American President would lead to disaster. Netanyahu warned against Iran, putting emphasis on the pending danger although others abroad and even in Israel mocked him, pointing out the more immediate short-term threats. He spoke up in the UN, against the UN. He managed the threats on our borders and within our country. Terrible things happened, including Operation Protective Edge, soldiers kidnapped and not yet returned and ongoing riots and arson terrorism from Gaza and yet we survived and are currently celebrating the annual “Darom Adom” festival in southern Israel where all the Anemones bloom and the fields turn into carpets of red flowers.
While antisemitism is on the rise around the world and Israel lives under the constant threat of terrorism, our country is one of the safest places in the world – especially if you are a Jew.
When economies around the world collapsed, Israel’s economy gained in strength and unemployment levels went down. Travel became easier and Israelis are taking multiple vacations abroad a year.
We watched the tide turn, President Trump declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, open the embassy and a stream of world leaders waiting in line to meet, discuss and plan a new future with Israel.
Just this last week Netanyahu attended the US-led Warsaw conference with delegations from most of the Arab counties in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Tunisia to see how the Arab world can ALLY WITH ISRAEL in defense against Iran.
Lesson 6: If you can dream it, you can make it real.
Just a few years ago none of this would have been considered possible. Now Israelis are left to complain that things aren’t better than they are (and yes, complaining is a national pastime).
Of course, there are many things that need to be improved. Many decisions were upsetting and still are. And yet, the public always comes back to the same question: who could do the job better?
The “not Bibi” candidate
During Netanyahu’s previous term in office, even those who desperately wanted to replace him were forced to admit that no candidate on the horizon could challenge him.
The Labor party tried and failed to challenge Netanyahu. For a while, many thought Yair Lapid could be a contender for Netanyahu’s position. He’s good looking, charismatic and says things everyone can agree with. Of course, when one has to move from speeches to decisions and actions it’s impossible to please everyone, mistakes are made and failures occur. After a strong political start, Lapid swiftly lost his “not Bibi” appeal because that’s exactly what he is – not Bibi.
Now we have Benny Gantz, the new “not Bibi”. Although less charismatic than Lapid, he’s much taller and carries with him the automatic respect given a man with his military rank. He seems like a nice guy and is free from the aura of corruption that surrounds Netanyahu after years of being told that Netanyahu is under investigation and “where there is smoke there must be fire.” Due to the multitude of investigations many are convinced that Netanyahu will be indicted and will not be able to remain Prime Minister. At the same time, the law says that he can remain in office until convicted because the principle of innocent until proven guilty is a right due to all citizens, even a Prime Minister that the elites do not like.
Gantz’s election campaign is the opposite of Israeli elections 101 lesson 2 (content over style). His is a highly stylized campaign, meant to make him look like a Prime Minister.
Anticipation was built up first by him not articulating his platform. This enabled the disillusioned on the left and on the right (mostly on the left) to place their hopes and dreams on his shoulders, believing that “he could be the one.”
Then his prolonged silence began to annoy people, the regular folks and the media elites.
His first off-the-cuff statement against Israel’s Nation-State Law annoyed many people. And then he backpedaled. A little. There has been a lot of confusion with other members of his party making contradictory policy statements as if they too are not sure what exactly the party platform is.
Then his people put out campaign videos that many Israelis, on the right and the left found repugnant. Featuring a running toll, the video seems to be bragging about how many Arabs were killed under Gantz’s watch. Another video focuses on the amount of destruction left in Gaza following the last war with the slogan: “Parts of Gaza were bombed back into the stone age.” The assumption seems to be that the people of Israel (particularly those on the right) are bloodthirsty and violent and these videos would convince the nation that Gantz could lead the country.
I’m not sure who thought this messaging was a good idea. It goes against the fundamental values held by Israeli society – war is bad, killing is bad and only done when necessary, in defense. Neither Israelis on the left or the right wish death and destruction on our enemies. In fact, we’d prefer that they led prosperous, peaceful and happy lives and let us do the same.
It seems that the people who created this campaign neither understand nor like the average Israeli. Their views are similar to the antisemitic tropes we have to counter from Israel’s enemies. Why would anyone choose a leader who believes the worst about the public?
Then came the speech. Each sentence was carefully crafted to appeal to the widest audience possible without upsetting anyone. Put together it sounded like a lot of bumper sticker slogans read one after the other. In fact, it reminded me of a song that is exactly that, lyrics built from political bumper stickers
Gantz had obviously been taught to stand and move his hands the way politicians are supposed to do to attain maximum likeability and project a convincing and powerful image – the way Netanyahu learned to do years ago. Watching this, I felt sorry for Gantz. He was trying to make the gestures and say the things he was told would make the best impression but his body language expressed louder than words just how uncomfortable and unsure of himself he was.
Lesson 7: It’s not over till it’s over (and even then, it might not be over)
As Gantz’s party rises in the polls, the other parties on the left sink. Obviously, the Israeli public has understood that this new “not Bibi” candidate is not presenting a right-wing alternative, even if he is being marketed as one.
The incumbent always has an advantage in a campaign. The original product with a strong brand image always has an advantage although a new product can take over a market – if they provide value that the original does not.
This again goes back to the issue of content and value.
Android’s utilitarian ease is creeping up and taking over the market iPhone created but can Pepsi ever really beat Coke? Sometimes the public can be convinced that they need a change, that they should try something new. But in just a few short weeks, when Israelis stand alone at the ballot box, will trying “something new” seem as tempting as it does to many now, during the campaign? To me, as an Israeli and as a marketer, it seems like a hard sell, particularly when the only difference is that the new offering isn’t the original.