The World: How Indonesian politics pushes out the adman

With desperate election campaigns jamming ad channels, is there any room left for non-political work?

On the outskirts of the small provincial town of Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, lies a row of jagged cliffs formed from a recent landslide.

Dangling from a cliff-edge is a poster advertising the PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) - one of the 34 parties in Indonesia that has been contesting a general election whose results will be known later this month.

A guide says that whoever put the poster up must be gila (crazy). It was a dangerous stunt to pull in an area where landslides are not uncommon. But then this is Indonesia, he says, a democracy only ten years old where candidates will go to desperate lengths to get noticed.

Like any Indonesian town, on any of the 6,000 inhabited Indonesian islands that span the width of the US, Bukittinggi is transformed at election time. Every corner of the town is plastered with stickers, flags, flyers and banners.

Electioneering was intense for last month's parliamentary elections, and will reach fever pitch in July, when the president's seat is contested. Campaigning started seven months earlier than it did for the last elections in 2004.

There are now more parties, up from 24 to 34 (more than anywhere in the world), and political adspend has already eclipsed 2004 levels ($85 million). The communications bottleneck creates obvious problems for brand owners eager to reach Indonesia's vast population (238 million), the world's fourth largest.

TV, Indonesia's dominant medium with more than 70 per cent of adspend, is still the only sure way to reach the fragmented masses (advertisers must use 54 newspapers to get the same reach using print). But suitcases full of cash produced at TV stations mean that political messaging has the habit of drowning out regular advertising.

Renuka Jaypal, the chairman of Ogilvy Indonesia, says that for a two-week period in April and July, her clients couldn't advertise even if they wanted to. "The airwaves are jammed with chaotic levels of clutter," she says.

Bob McBrain, the managing director of Ogilvy's WPP sibling Bates141, says some of his clients are opting to "keep their powder dry" in the run-up to the elections - but not enough of them to slow overall growth in the market.

According to the most pessimistic predictions, Indonesia's ad market will grow by 4.5 per cent this year. McBrain says that clutter on TV is persuading more advertisers to try non-traditional channels, although with internet penetration in single digits, the shift won't be dramatic.

But clutter is not really the issue, Ram Subramaniam, the managing director of Initiative Indonesia, thinks: "There is already so much clutter on TV. Even another 20 per cent is like adding salt to the ocean. Launch campaigns are not a good idea, but we're not advising our clients to stay away. We're saying book early to avoid being pushed out of the market."

The bigger problem, Subramaniam says, is inflation. The elections have pushed up the cost of media by 6 to 10 per cent.

The rules of engagement for political advertisers are driving inflation. Parties are obliged to pay before their ads go on air, and they are not entitled to any discounts. There is a cap on how much airtime parties are allowed to buy (five minutes of advertising per day and ads cannot be longer than 60 seconds), but, even so, it clearly pays to have a candidate on your client list.

Most parties prefer to work with local agencies, and most international agencies are advised against working for political parties by their holding companies.

Some do so anyway, but keep it quiet. Parties are a tempting source of revenue, particularly in (relatively) hard times. Others prefer to steer clear of Indonesian politics. "Bags full of cash are hard to resist," one agency head says. "But I'd rather not dance with the Devil."

The shadier side of Indonesia's elections has proved a source of creative inspiration for some brands. The "election" spot by Bates141, for the cigarette brand A Mild, has a playful dig at methods used by political parties with a tale about a man trying to get a taxi at an airport, rarely an uncomplicated experience in Indonesia.

A scrum of cab drivers attempt to win the man's fare with varying methods of seduction. One waves money at him. One yells: "I'm famous, choose me!" Another shouts: "He's part of the old guard, choose him!" The narrator says: "The more options there are, the more confused we get." Then the endline reads: "Bukan Basa Basi (no bullshit)."

"A Mild is one of the few brands to ask questions of Indonesian society," McBrain says. "The 'election' ad captures the sentiment of the population as regards the electoral process here."

Hyped though they may be, these elections will do well to generate the same level of interest as those in the US in November. Barack Obama's Indonesian connection has been a hot topic in the cafes and bars of Jakarta, the city where the US president spent four childhood years. The recent visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was another diversion, as were the university lectures from Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, on campaigning online.

Voter turn-out has been high (in 2004, it reached 90 per cent), but Indonesia's politicians still have a big rebranding exercise to do. Yanti Yakub, a 25-year-old woman from Bukittinggi, didn't vote this year. "It's not that I don't want to vote. I do," she says. "But I don't want what any of them are selling."