The leader of the Democratic Party of Japan is fleetingly portrayed in a recent TV commercial as the stern-faced chairman of a fictitious Cabinet meeting, the scene accompanied by upbeat rock music.
The commercial is apparently designed to convince voters of the DPJ’s governing potential, along with that of Naoto Kan himself.
The ad aired by the Liberal Democratic Party is meanwhile a much simpler affair, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi making a lone, direct appeal to viewers.
“The LDP has now changed and become the reformist party. Let’s move Japan,” he says.
Campaigning for Sunday’s House of Representatives election is heating up — and so is the media war. The battle between the LDP and the DPJ, the largest opposition party, is becoming especially fierce.
In June, the DPJ took the unprecedented step of hiring the Japan unit of U.S. public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard Inc. to streamline its campaign strategies for this election. The firm was tasked with working alongside the party’s usual favorite in this respect, Hakuhodo Inc.
The party conducted various surveys with the help of the U.S. media consultant.
One report released in September revealed the DPJ’s shocking support rate among women — just 4.7 percent on average since 2000.
“We can’t interview everyone on the street to assess people’s needs, and that’s the area where the knowhow of the professionals is required,” said Masato Akimoto, who is in charge of campaigns at the DPJ secretariat.
“The U.S. firm has expertise that Japanese firms don’t have — which is to take polls and analyze the policy needs of voters.”
The party even dispatched members to Britain to study how Prime Minister Tony Blair grasped the reins of power in 1997.
Another survey revealed that unaffiliated voters span a demographic mix — including housewives, businessmen and store owners — and that the party must adopt different ways of sending its message to each group.
In this respect, Akimoto admitted that the DPJ’s strategy was flawed.
“In the past, we focused on briefing political reporters, hoping to send our message to the public via newspapers and TV news programs,” he said. “But we neglected other TV programs, such as morning shows that are favored by housewives.”
The TV commercials are thus aimed at ordinary people who are otherwise disengaged from the political process.
The DPJ aims to foster an image as a strong party by focusing on Kan, following Fleishman-Hillard’s advice that the party leader makes a favorable impression when speaking earnestly on political matters.
The DPJ has also distributed to its candidates 20,000 copies of a specially commissioned guide on how to appeal to women. The guide features some very basic tips, stating for example that bad breath, dandruff and sweating tend to repel female voters.
The LDP is meanwhile counting on the popularity of Koizumi and the party’s 49-year-old secretary general, Shinzo Abe, in an effort to lure voters with a young and dynamic image.
According to the LDP, the party has created two election posters featuring the image of Koizumi by himself and two bearing the images of both Koizumi and Abe. It is the first time the party has placed the president and secretary general together on posters.
Eita Yashiro, an LDP candidate seeking re-election to the Lower House who also heads the party’s public relations section, said the LDP has also made five different TV commercials, all featuring Koizumi.
While two of the commercials do not delve into specific policy issues, the other three focus on pension, public safety and economic recovery.
The policy-specific ads are targeted at different demographic groups, including housewives and salaried workers.
“The election will be a judgment on whether Prime Minister Koizumi can lead the government and the nation,” Yashiro said. “So we asked the president himself to appear on the commercial and appeal to the Japanese people.”
Using the party president to try to create a positive image of the LDP marks a big shift from the 2000 Lower House election, when the party was led by the extremely unpopular Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.
During the gaffe-prone Mori administration, the Cabinet’s support rating had plummeted to its lowest level in recent memory — around 18 percent — by the time of the election.
The LDP accordingly refrained from using Mori in its TV commercials, instead choosing to focus on policy messages.
With the mass media having become a vital campaign tool for politicians, observers have pointed out that the growing presence of unaffiliated voters has compounded the significance of this process.
It is impossible to win an election without attracting the swing vote, they say.
Until recently, the LDP placed greater emphasis on reaching out to special interest groups, specifically farmers, medical associations and construction firms.
But Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at Meiji Gakuin University, believes organizational support of this kind has weakened over the years.
“The organizational power of labor unions, which had traditionally supported the DPJ and the Social Democratic Party, has also abated,” he said.
The presence of unaffiliated voters has a profound influence on the political equation.
For example, in a constituency with a population of 400,000, 1 percent means 4,000 votes; in Tokyo, many candidates lost to their opponents by just a few thousand votes in the last election.
If voter turnout had been higher and more unaffiliated voters had cast ballots, it is highly likely the election outcome would have been very different.
Kawakami added that political parties started to attach greater importance to TV ads in their campaigns for the 1996 Lower House election.
He attributed this shift to changes in the electoral system and to the fact that parties started to receive government subsidies.
The current system, which combines single-seat constituencies with a proportional representation segment, was introduced in the 1996 election. Under a political reform package that took effect in 1995, parties also began to receive state subsidies on the basis of their size.
Unlike the old multiseat constituency system, under which more than one candidate could win in an electoral district, the new system only allows one winner per constituency, thus creating a harsher environment in which parties fight head-on in each district, Kawakami said.
“Through this process, parties began to realize the importance of using the media to attract voters, while use of the media became more affordable for them due to the state subsidies,” he said.
Still, a sophisticated media strategy requires huge amounts of money.
The exact sum being spent by each party on public relations exercises this time has not been disclosed. Political insiders claim the DPJ is spending about 2 billion yen while the LDP is reportedly using nearly 10 billion yen.
In the U.S., where use of PR firms is more common, presidential candidates spend incredible sums on their campaigns. It is often said that a presidential race can be determined by how much money a candidate can rake in, and campaign funds are known as the “mother’s milk” of the political process.
“I think TV ads are an important tool to get people acquainted with political parties, but there is also a danger of such media politics,” said Meiji Gakuin’s Kawakami. “It would be strange if the winner was determined by how creative a party’s ad was.”