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?

social marketing, strategy

Three fundamental mistakes in planning communication and mobilisation for social causes

A few days ago, I found a very enthusiastic tweet on my timeline:

English translation: Booyah! “@ulinyusron: they will always try to weaken @KPK_RI (Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Committee) but we have people as the fortress. People’s energy will never deplete, while The Parliament can lose its power”.

Lately, KPK has been furiously attacked from all directions: The Parliament (DPR) is still refusing to approve budget for KPK’s new office, Police (Polri) has been passive-aggressively defying KPK’s authority to investigate a corruption allegation in Police Traffic Department, and The Parliament (again) tries to incapacitate KPK with a new legislation.

From the above tweet, the phrase “People’s energy will never deplete” makes me wonder. Is it wise, will it help, if we hold on to that assumption that people will never tire to defend KPK?

From Roy Morgan Single Source Survey, 4th Quarter 2011. Interviewing 24,000 respondents aged 14+ , randomly sampled in 17 provinces, urban and rural Indonesia.

Yes, 90% of Indonesians agree that corruption is one of major problems this country is facing. In other words, nearly all Indonesians want corruptions to be eradicated. But does it automatically mean that people of Indonesia will always tirelessly support or defend KPK?

I don’t think so.

Assuming that “people will indefatigably support KPK” (or any other agendas, for that matter) is an example of the fundamental mistakes that often happen when we develop communication or mobilisation programs for social cause. These mistakes will lead us to ineffective communication or mobilisation campaigns, and eventually to failure to make real changes.

I often observe those mistakes in many social cause campaigns in both Indonesia and abroad. I will elaborate the three most common ones, so we all can learn from them. We can’t afford to waste our limited resource unnecessarily in our fight to make Indonesia cleaner and more just.

Mistake #1: Start from the assumption that others care as much as you do

If you’re trying to write communication or mobilisation programs to advance a social or political agenda, it’s very possible that you are an “activist”. As an activist, it goes without saying that you deeply and personally care about issues related to that cause. It’s understandable that you think those issues are important or urgent, and not resolving them will lead this nation (or even the human race) to the brink of disaster.

Nevertheless, if you want your communication or mobilisation programs to succeed, you should assume that nobody gives a damn.

I agree with this opinion that the task of communicators is to overcome indifference. Yes, it’s quite easy to accept that people are rarely occupied by brands of consumer goods. But what about important issues like poverty? Climate change? Human trafficking? Quality of public education? That people still eat shark fins? Wouldn’t people care about them?

Firstly, we have to be careful not to be too generous with the word “care”. Rationally acknowledging that a situation is not ideal (“there are still many poor people in Indonesia”) is not the same with being agitated about it, and wanting to sacrifice money, time, and energy to change it. So yes, 90% of Indonesians think corruption is a major corruption, but it does not mean they are as agitated or as committed as the KPK-defenders or anti-corruption activists.

Secondly, everybody on this planet has limited cognitive and emotional capacities. It’s only normal that they pay attention and be concerned about issues that directly matter to the their well-being and of those closest to them. It’s not a sign of selfishness or weakness of characters that they will prioritize their limited mental and intellectual resources to situations at hand, those that for them entailing imminent risks or promising immediate rewards.

Thirdly, the assumption that people don’t care will compel you to plan smarter and work harder to capture their attention, incite their emotional responses, and get them to participate in your cause.

Even though the default is people’s indifference, there is an antidote to that. That antidote is brilliant communication ideas. Brilliant ideas capture people’s attention. Brilliant ideas stir people’s emotions. Brilliant ideas make people see things that are usually taken for granted in a new light. Brilliant ideas make people believe they are part of the solution.

Mistake #2: Not specify who the communication target is

(Do you notice that I avoid using the term “target audience”? This is because imagining there is an audience leads you to failure)

Mass communication for social cause falls into the category of public service announcement (“iklan layanan masyarakat“) in advertising-speak. Interpreting the term uncritically, one can conclude that the communication target for the social cause campaign is “general public”. This is misleading.

Even if you think that your communication target is the general public, it does not mean you address “just everybody”. You still need to specify who they are, but not in terms of demographics like gender, age group, domicile, socio-economic status, etc. You have to specify who they are in terms of their mindset. Try to answer the following questions, as specific as you can:

The baseline (now)

  • What exactly do they know about the issue related to your cause?
  • What precisely are their opinions about it?
  • How do they really feel about it?
  • Who do they listen to, to get informed about the issue?
  • What have they been doing (or not doing) related to the issue?

The desired state (after being exposed with the communication)

  • What will they know about the issue?
  • What will be their opinions about it?
  • What will they feel about it?
  • Who will they listen to, to know more about the issue?
  • What will they do?
  • What will they tell their friends or families about the issue?

If you answer those questions thoroughly, you will get one step closer to a solid strategy. There is no solid strategy without clear and decisive targeting, and without solid strategy, it’s practically impossible to expect we can achieve the intended result.

You can read here if you want to continue developing the strategy for communication or mobilisation effort.

Mistake #3: Not plan thoroughly the link between public participation and expected real-life change

A lot of communication efforts in social cause are trying to invite the target to participate in mass mobilisation events, like signing up petitions, giving to charities, showing supports via symbolic actions (like using avatars in social media), or even taking it to the streets. Some campaigns in Indonesia have been quite successful in marshalling public participation, e.g. “coins for Prita” and “Cicak vs. Buaya “(KPK vs. Polri Part 1, 2009). But if we think more critically, we will wonder how the public participation in the above campaigns linked to changes in real-life. We eventually learn that Prita won her case in The Supreme Court, yet we can never tell if this has anything to do with her gaining massive public support. We also know the saga between KPK vs. Polri still continues.

If you are really serious to advance your cause, you will want to make real changes. Your communication or mobilisation efforts should not stop at getting other people show they support your cause, otherwise it’s just an expensive exercise in ego-stroking. Therefore, the question you should ask is not “How should I plan to be able to show how the public supports us?”. The right question is, “How should I plan to make changes that I want via communication or mobilisation?”

To illustrate, let’s discuss a bit more on KPK. Let’s say these are the changes we want to happen:

  1. The Parliament will approve the budget for KPK’s new office
  2. Police will drop their effort to investigate the corruption case in the body and defer to KPK’s authority
  3. The Parliament will discard the plan for new legislation that will incapacitate KPK.

For Change #1 to happen, let’s say some highly influential law-makers should start voicing out their dissenting opinions. Then we get back to targeting exercise. I believe the same principle goes for Change #3, although the key persons will of course be different.

For Change #2 to happen, I guess the key lies in The President as he is the boss of both institutions (KPK and Polri). He should instruct Polri to play by KPK’s rules, as that’s the legal and right thing to do. Then we get back to targeting exercise, but to single communication target: Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. We ask those questions I’ve listed above. We then analyse what stands in between his baseline and the desired state. Given accurate information about his psychology and his circle of influence, I believe it’s not impossible we can stop Polri defying KPK in this case.


Getting familiar with these fundamental mistakes really helps in planning communication for social cause, but it will not make executing the plan easier. There are so many other things we need to consider, considering that for social cause financial and human resource are often scarce.

Specifically for KPK and its activists-defenders, I recommend that they start with a better assumption: that people of Indonesia have limited energy and mental resource, so we can’t take for granted that they will always fight for KPK. I will also recommend them to select just one issue where it is essential for them to rally public support, and to plan more wisely on how to make use of that support to incite real changes.

Of course it will be hard to choose on one issue when the attacks are almost endless. But then again, strategy is the discipline of exclusion, not inclusion. Otherwise we are just making a long and unrealistic to-do list.