social marketing, strategy

The propaganda against fuel subsidy in Indonesia: a hypothetical strategy

Is it absurd to imagine the possible existence of benevolent incarnations of Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany?

I have been wanting to write a post on Nazi propaganda for a while. My intent is to show what the rules from its playbook are, and how a presidential candidate for 2014 in Indonesia can make use of them. But this has to wait, because the current news about fuel subsidy in Indonesia shifts my attention.

Indonesian Parliament (DPR) has agreed to add IDR 23 trillion to the national budget for fuel subsidy in Indonesia (read the news in Indonesian here). This means, in total the government of Indonesia allocates IDR 305 trillion to subsidise fuel for 2012. This is a huge number, especially if we put it in the following context (data from this official statistics from Ministry of Finance, here):

  • The allocated budget for social assistance is IDR 64 trillion
  • The allocated budget for education is IDR 95.6 trillion
  • The allocated budget for capital expenditure on infrastructure development is 168 trillion.

It’s hard for me to accept that this country spends less on giving aid for the less fortunate, or on educating prople, or on building much-needed infrastructure, than on allowing motor-vehicle owners to pay an artificially low price for fuel.

It has been frequently argued that fuel subsidy is a bad policy (for example here in Indonesian, and here in English) and I fully support this position. This is why I was vexed when President Yudhoyono failed to cut off the fuel subsidy on April 1, 2012.

Now that the budget for fuel subsidy hits IDR 305 trillion, exceeding the original allocation by IDR 23 trillion, it is high time for the government to reconsider this policy again.

Obviously the government knows they can’t do anything about the fuel subsidy without DPR’s approval. I am also sure that they still remember DPR rejected this proposal in March this year. Assuming the government is sane enough to be committed to significantly reducing the fuel subsidy, I wonder if the government has started a communication campaign to gain public support for this proposal. I suspect they haven’t put serious effort for it. They did release this booklet, but if they think this alone will suffice, they are grossly mistaken.

But let’s imagine that the government has started to realize the importance of gaining public support for this proposal. Let’s imagine an even wilder scenario, that they commission me to develop the strategy for that campaign. What would I do? What would be my advice to them?

My main advice will be to find a simple and emotional narrative to back up the proposal of cutting-off fuel subsidy.

The proposal for cutting-off fuel subsidy is based on a very solid logical argument, supported with robust data from reliable sources. This argument also asserts we will reap more benefit in the future if we cut the fuel subsidy now. This is good, but this is not enough.

When it comes to change people’s opinions, we have learned that emotions are much stronger than logic (see here in the context of advertising, here in the context of information processing, and here in the context of moral reasoning). In other words, it’s futile to expect that we can gain massive public support for revoking fuel subsidy solely by giving them logical reasoning.

Considering that feelings are stronger than reasoning, the proposal to wipe out fuel subsidy needs to be backed up with a simple and emotional narrative. This is what has been missing.

Meanwhile, the argument against cutting off fuel subsidy is supported with faulty premises or weak arguments, but it is built upon a very strong, simple, and emotional narrative. This photo aptly summarizes that narrative:

Student demonstration against revoking the fuel subsidy, Yogyakarta, March 26, 2102. Image from Pemikir Ideologis.

The narrative against revoking the fuel subsidy can be expressed in this simple and colorful way:

If the fuel subsidy is revoked, fuel price will go up. People who have been facing hardships will be even more miserable. The government is cruel, unfair, and is betraying the people.

The power of this narrative goes beyond its simplicity. It paints a very concrete mental picture of who the victim is: those poor people who have been living hand to mouth, and who will become even more destitute after the fuel price goes up. It also paints a clear picture of who the culprit is: the despotic and uncaring government.

Thanks to its being simple and concrete, the narrative can provoke strong emotional reactions, like anger or contempt.

Lastly, the narrative enables people to easily imagine an immediate unpleasant situation: “After fuel price goes up, everything else goes up but my income. I will have to cut down on food, recreation, or even education. Life will be worse.” This beats the logical argument against fuel subsidy that offers long term future benefits. In behavioral economics, it is recognized that “now is stronger than the future” (see it here).

To sum up: the call for continuing fuel subsidy has a simple, concrete, emotional narrative describing immediate predicament that trumps over the abstract and logical argument predicting future benefits of revoking fuel subsidy. Of course the latter can’t win.

What we need to do is replacing the logical reasoning with a narrative as powerful as the opposing party’s. Since the central theme of the opposing party’s narrative is about injustice, let’s use the same theme for ours. So what could be the narrative we can use?

Few months ago, Haryo Aswicahyono (he tweets as @Aswicahyono and I recommend you to follow him) shared an infographic he made based on data from LPEM UI. This infographic has a strong message, and it gives me inspiration for cooking up the narrative.

How fuel subsidy is distributed to people in Indonesia

The bars in horizontal axis refer to the decile of Indonesians based on their household consumption, which is a proxy for wealth (the wealthier someone is, the more money she spends for household expenses). Thus, bar labelled ’10’ stands for Indonesia’s richest 10%, while bar labelled ‘1’ represents Indonesia’s poorest 10%. Meanwhile, the vertical axis refers to percentage of fuel subsidy received by each decile. You can see here that almost 50% of fuel subsidy in Indonesia is enjoyed by Indonesia’s richest, and only around 2% goes to Indonesia’s poorest. In other words, more than 90% of fuel subsidy does not go to the poorest or the very poor Indonesians.

Definitely this is not a picture of fairness.

Things can get spicier: Aswicahyono has made another infographic —I have forgiven him for using Comic Sans— to make us understand about the opportunity cost of fuel subsidy. When the fuel subsidy was still IDR 233 trillion, it could have bought us 80,000 Puskesmas (community health center), or 40,000km-long road, or 1,300 seaports, or 6,000 corridors for public transportations. Of course the picture gets more dramatic now that fuel subsidy has hit IDR 305 trillion.

Instead of spending all those money on fuel subsidy, what can we get?

So where does it lead us, in the narrative to support revoking fuel subsidy?

I think we end up having a story about injustice, or more precisely, how the rich is robbing the poor. Yes, dear readers, this is your classic class-warfare narrative. It goes on like this:

The poor in remote rural area in Indonesia will stay poor, uneducated, and backward because all the money that can build schools, Puskesmas, rice fields, and roads for them is used so rich people in the cities can continuously enjoy cheap and comfortable rides on their expensive vehicles. Imagine how life will be much better for the poor if we stop spoiling those rich people!

This narrative is relatively simple. It is relatable because the theme, i.e. the rich stealing from the poor, is very common. It paints a concrete mental picture of the victim and the culprit. It triggers raw and fierce emotions, like envy, disgust, contempt, and anger. It refers strongly to today’s predicament, and offers a “what could have been” alternative.

With this narrative, it’s not difficult to imagine the kind of propaganda material we can use to rally public support to revoke the fuel subsidy.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that I feel nauseated with this narrative. Instinctively I detest class-warfare narratives. In my book it’s bad taste, not that different from using sex or stereotypes. Class warfare tactics remind me a lot to communism, an ideology I’ve declared as bankrupt. I hate painting a one-dimensional, stereotypical, envy-inducing picture of wealthy people. Maybe because I’m quite well-off too.

Yet I have this strong suspicion that this narrative will work effectively.

Seeing myself coming up with this narrative not only makes me feel sick. It opens up a lot of questions in me. Can the narrative of “the rich robbing the poor” be justified, considering its end for our greater good (that is of course, if you believe fuel subsidy is a bad policy)? How far can a supposedly-noble goal justify “bad” or “questionable” strategy or tactics for propaganda? Is “a benevolent incarnation of Joseph Goebbels” an oxymoron?

What do you think, my dear readers?

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9 thoughts on “The propaganda against fuel subsidy in Indonesia: a hypothetical strategy

  1. roby muhamad says:

    I totally agree that to persuade people for actions you need to engage mostly their hearts (through narratives), not their minds (rational arguments make people understand, not act). But, I think you’re still using practically the same narrative, i.e. rich vs poor. It’s just that you flip the argument that the fuel subsidy is bad for the poor. We could use different narrative altogether.

    To think about narrative, I think it is useful to think of it as a journey: a journey of escaping an evil and move to a promised land. (the aphorism is that god doesn’t always exist in social campaigns but there are always evil in all social campaigns). In you narrative, CMIIW, the implicit assumption is that injustice is the evil. This may be true or not. It doesn’t matter, but we can try different evils and narratives.

    One I can pick off the top of my head is that we can use a narrative of sacrifice. The evil is price hike; both the poor and the rich are afraid of price hike that can lead to inflation. This is fear, and fear can’t be alleviated by rational arguments. You need to offer hope to conquer fear. So, for example, the narrative is about each Indonesian making a sacrifice for a better future (of course, we need a good picture of what the future promised land – where there is no fuel subsidies – look like). Narrative is also about familiarity, so historical context might be helpful here. Thus, for example, we can connect the sacrifice narrative to the 1945 nationalistic movement when every Indonesian made sacrifice of something, even their lives, for a dream of a nation called Indonesia. Again, we need to work out the details. But my point is that the rich vs poor may not be the only narrative in this case.

  2. Roby says:

    I totally agree that to persuade people for actions you need to engage mostly their hearts (through narratives), not their minds (rational arguments make people understand, not act). But, I think you’re still using practically the same narrative, i.e. rich vs poor. It’s just that you flip the argument that the fuel subsidy is bad for the poor. We could use different narrative altogether.

    To think about narrative, I think it is useful to think of it as a journey: a journey of escaping an evil and move to a promised land. (the aphorism is that god doesn’t always exist in social campaigns but there are always evil in all social campaigns). In you narrative, CMIIW, the implicit assumption is that injustice is the evil. This may be true or not. It doesn’t matter, but we can try different evils and narratives.

    One I can pick off the top of my head is that we can use a narrative of sacrifice. The evil is price hike; both the poor and the rich are afraid of price hike that can lead to inflation. This is fear, and fear can’t be alleviated by rational arguments. You need to offer hope to conquer fear. So, for example, the narrative is about each Indonesian making a sacrifice for a better future (of course, we need a good picture of what the future promised land – where there is no fuel subsidies – look like). Narrative is also about familiarity, so historical context might be helpful here. Thus, for example, we can connect the sacrifice narrative to the 1945 nationalistic movement when every Indonesian made sacrifice of something, even their lives, for a dream of a nation called Indonesia. Again, we need to work out the details. But my point is that the rich vs poor may not be the only narrative in this case.

    • Of course there are other possible alternatives for the narrative. My nausea has compelled me to try other possible narratives, but I don’t find anything that is as strong as the pro-subsidy one.

      It has been said that all the stories in the world can be boiled down into just a handful of basic plots. Some say 7 (from Christopher Booker, the more popular theory):
      1)Overcoming the monster
      2)Rebirth
      3)Quest
      4)Journey and return
      5)Rags to riches
      6)Tragedy
      7)Comedy (a good article that illustrates how these plots are used to tell brand story is here).

      Another say 8 (attributed to Dennis Johnston, a theory that inspires me more yet less popular. Read more here):
      1)Cinderella, i.e. unrecognised virtue at last recognised
      2)Achilles, i.e. the fatal flaw. This can be turned either into tragedy or comedy
      3)Faust, i.e. the debt that must be paid, the fate that catches up with all of us sooner or later
      4)Tristan, ie. the standard love triangle
      5)Circe, i.e. the classic chase between two opponents.
      6)Romeo and Juliet, i.e. how a love relationship starts and ends.
      7)Orpheus, i.e. the gift that is taken away. This can be the tragedy of the loss itself, or the journey to retrieve it.
      8)Hercules, i.e. the hero that ca’t be kept down.

      When it comes to choosing which narrative, I go with what Heath Brothers recommend: wrap the core message in a story that is simple, has an unexpected twist, concrete, credible, and trigger emotional responses.

      In my post I have shown that the pro-subsidy narrative is simple, concrete, somehow credible, emotional, and most importantly refers to near-future predicament if fuel price hikes up.

      My doubt with the narrative you propose (“sacrifice”) is that it refers to far-future benefit. We learn from behavioural economics that now is much stronger than future (that’s why diet doesn’t work to most people). Also, the narrative is asking for sacrifice and this requires massive trust of the people (this narrative reminds me how Tutut asked people to convert their USD to IDR in 1998 crises, and it worked only with ‘pakewuh’). I am not sure people trust the government that much to make this sacrifice.

      Maybe one can think of “rebirth” or “Orpheus” kind of narrative, but then again, this can’t tackle the “now is stronger than future” problem. So yes, when it comes to effectiveness, I have to choose the narrative Goebbels would approve.

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  5. “How far can a supposedly-noble goal justify “bad” or “questionable” strategy or tactics for propaganda?” Well good causes in reality don’t always feel heroic and most often they’re thankless roles, no? 🙂 It’s similar with when we have to be this fake bureaucrat to get a project going and somebody has to take that position which is unflattering but necessary. But for the greater good, well..

    Anyways I think your strategy is justified, sometimes the rule “if you can beat them, join them” is the most effective and I guess it applies here.

    My sympathy to your nausea by the way.

    But what about the very common notion: “Fuel price up, then the price of anything else will go up too – and we poor people will all suffer in hell on earth”? Because I think that’s the logic that the general public somehow perceives. How to convince them that prices of other things won’t go up, or they’ll go up but everything will be ok?

    • You’re right in pointing that: a lot of times fuel price goes up, and everything else goes up (my economists friends convince me it’s more psychological rather than real economics consideration), and the destitute will suffer even more. But that’s why the government has the unconditional cash transfer. Plus, another economist friend has told me that the last time fuel price went up, the inflation effect subsided by the six month after. So if we think rationally, the blow of fuel price hike is deep, but it can be mitigated.

  6. Pingback: The propaganda against fuel subsidy in Indonesia: a hypothetical strategy | A Traveler's Notes

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