"It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting." Tom Stoppard (1937-)
Coca Cola (Coke) was invented in 1885 and catered for the market for soft drinks when alcohol prohibition was introduced to Atlanta GA the same year. Pepsi Cola was invented a little later in North Carolina but the trademark was only registered in 1903. After a few chequered years, Pepsi initiated a competitive battle in response to Coke's refusal to sell its syrup ingredient at a discount to Pepsi's eventual owner. He decided to go it alone with his newly-acquired brand name. The real battle started in 1924. Pepsi doubled the size of its bottle, while continuing to sell at the same price as Coke, supporting its discounting action with a successful radio advertising campaign.
The Ku Klux Klan
In the 1940s, Pepsi made progress by recognising that African Americans were an untapped market. The company used targeted advertising and hired an African American sales force. After a pause during World War II, it continued the campaign using African American role models to promote the product while facing down racist hostility and threats from Ku Klux Klan.
Deal with the old Soviet Union
The battle for dominance in the cola market continues to this day, with Pepsi forever in second place to Coke but definitely holding its own. Competition between the two companies has been fierce in the US market and throughout the world. For political reasons, Pepsi has held pole position in a few countries, e.g. Saudi Arabia (because of Coke's marketing in Israel), francophone Canada, and the old Soviet Union where it negotiated a monopoly. Both companies use a raft of modern marketing and market research techniques to hold their own.
The companies use surveys to calculate their market share in different regions and identify the demographic profile of their customers in different parts of the market. They conduct taste tests and, crucially, focus groups. These bring together a representative selection of participants who are asked about their attitude to the product, its packaging, and any advertising campaign under consideration. The conversation is guided but participants are encouraged to discuss ideas with each other. The results of such research has proved helpful in designing products, in the broadest sense, and in preparing effective advertising and marketing campaigns.
A key way in which focus groups are used is to identify the ideals and aspirations of individuals in the target market. This information is used to generate a "personality" for the product. You can understand why. Coke and Pepsi are sweet, brown, flavoured fizzy drinks with little to distinguish one from the other (and some might say very little merit). So the marketing departments project an image onto the products through advertising and packaging, in the hope that consumers will identify their aspirations with them. If the marketing is successful, consumers will, in turn, buy the products in the hope that by consuming them their aspirations will be fulfilled. "I'd like to teach the World to sing" and "I'd like to buy the World a Coke" provided a warm fuzzy image of world peace and harmony. Coca Cola used Father Christmas in its winter promotions to evoke an image of joy in the ideal family. It was so effective that it's widely believed that the instantly-recognisable figure of Santa, with his Coke-brand coloured outfit and foaming beard, was invented by Coca Cola advertising.
In the 1950s, Pepsi began to fear that its product would be stuck in the ghetto. It abandoned its flirtation with an ethnic image, dumped the old management, and moved on to associate itself with young people. It identified itself with the "the Pepsi Generation" – and all the thrust and vigour of youth – at a time when teenagers were making their mark on the world.
A sort of "New Labour" project.
Loans for honours
But what has this to do with politics? Well, the techniques of market research, especially focus groups and advertising, are now used extensively by the major political parties. This costs a lot of money and the loans for honours fiasco has resulted from the main political parties having to match each other's spending. The job is made easier for them by two factors.
Firstly it is estimated that only 21% of electors who are likely to vote will actually make a choice. These are known as floating voters. The rest, for one reason or another, have already made up their minds. Some have convictions which predispose them to one party or another, some see themselves as members of a group or tribe that is naturally Conservative or Labour (I don't know whether this is the case with the Liberal Democrats), some are stuck in a groove and can't be bothered to change their minds. This is a natural phenomenon and represents a reality about the nature of the electorate. Still, it means that political parties can concentrate their resources and focus their attention on the relatively small group of people who remain to be persuaded that one party or another will provide them with a better government.
The other factor is anything but natural and relates to marginal constituencies. In the UK, the USA, and some other countries, elections are organised on a first-past-the-post-system – the candidate who has more votes than any other in his or her constituency wins. There is a deep unfairness when governments are elected in this manner and power is placed in the hands of political parties by a system which is manifestly unjust. The almost 80% of voters who do not change their minds are (conveniently) grouped by voting preferences. Let's not beat about the bush here: rich people live in wealthy areas and mostly vote Conservative; poorer people tend to live on council or housing association estates and mostly vote Labour. As a result, in most constituencies, the majority is large enough to swamp the effect of the floating voter. Seats where the winning majority is less than 10% (i.e. susceptible to change on a 5% voting swing) are considered marginal. In the last election, 131 seats were marginal. That is – by coincidence – 21% of the total. So 21% of floating voters in 21% of seats actually determined the outcome of the typical election. That is just 4.5% of the people who voted.
Project an image onto the party
This is a very exciting figure for the majority parties. They can focus all their attention on attracting just 4.5% of voters. If they get it right, they will win the election and have the power to introduce whatever policies they like for a period of five years.
They do not try to convince this group of the value of their policy or their competence in government. Their favoured technique is the focus group. If they can successfully identify the ideals and aspirations of the tiny group of people who make a difference, if they can then project that image onto their party, they will have achieved their aim. And the image they project has little to do with the brown, unpalatable (?) contents of the cola bottle (no pun intended).
The views of 95% of us count for nothing
The magnitude of the unfairness is shown by the following figures. Since 1935, no government has had the support of the majority of voters. In three elections since then, the party with the greatest number of votes lost. In 1997, Labour won a seat for every 32,340 votes, the Conservatives won a seat for every 58,187 votes, and the Liberal Democrats won a seat for every 113,977 votes. The Labour Party won 63% of the seats with just 42% of the votes. In 2001 and 2005, the votes per seats were, respectively, as follows:
- Labour: 26,031 and 26,860 per seat
- Conservative: 50,347 and 44,306
- Liberal Democrats: 92,485 and 96,482
Perhaps this throws some light on why only 61% of electors can be bothered to vote at all. Since both parties are focusing on the same group of voters, it is hardly surprising that they end up projecting the same image. And so we have Coca Cola politics and the views of 95% of us count for nothing.