Jair Bolsonaro Ignores His Campaign Advisors as He Trails in Polls

Calls for more attention to TV advertising as well as guidance on topics that should be addressed or avoided in public are usually ignored by the president and even mocked by his inner circle

Bolsonaro’s reluctance to heed the advice of experienced marketing professionals, coupled with a tendency to constantly rally his radical base, risks alienating key centrist and female voters.
By Daniel Carvalho and Simone Iglesias
July 19, 2022 | 10:03 AM
Reading time: 4 min.

Bloomberg — Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro’s political allies and marketing advisers are struggling to convince him to run a more conventional re-election campaign, as he seeks to emulate his success with social media in the 2018 vote.

Calls for more attention to TV advertising as well as guidance on topics that should be addressed or avoided in public are usually ignored by the president and even mocked by his inner circle, according to a political ally and people working on his campaign.

Bolsonaro’s reluctance to heed the advice of experienced marketing professionals, coupled with a tendency to constantly rally his radical base, risks alienating key centrist and female voters he desperately needs to win the election. Given his deficit in the polls ahead of October’s election, that unwillingness to listen and moderate his views may burn one of the few bridges he has left to winning a second term.

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“He has always had a logic of ‘us against them’ and wants to use it again in this election, which gives him 30% of the votes but not the 50% needed to win,” said Josue Medeiros, a political scientist with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil’s presidential election is shaping up to be a bitter contest to control Latin America’s largest economy, one that will set the tone for a volatile region beset by inequalities that have been worsened by inflation. It’s also increasingly personal, with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former president whose jail term helped bring Bolsonaro to power, having emerged as the main challenger after his conviction was quashed.

Bolsonaro won with nearly 58 million votes in 2018 after a relatively cheap social media campaign coordinated by his son Carlos Bolsonaro. Memes and rallying cries against “communists” dominated the online discussion, which was short on policy proposals. It worked well for the conservative politician who, despite having spent 28 years of his career as a lawmaker, was able to present himself as an outsider who would rid the country of corruption.

Yet things are very different for Bolsonaro now.

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He nears the end of his first term battered by a pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Brazilians, inflation that’s running close to 12% a year, resurgent poverty and hunger, and with his international image tarnished by Amazon deforestation. Moreover, he faces a much stronger candidate, Lula, who’s been consistently leading opinion polls ahead of the October vote.

After making alliances with centrist parties he lambasted before being elected, Bolsonaro can no longer claim to be a political outsider. Instead, he is being advised to defend his legacy, according to two advisers, who asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive campaign issues.

Bolsonaro’s press office declined to comment on the story.

Professional Advice

Taking advantage of TV and moderating his rhetoric are among the chief recommendations offered by Bolsonaro’s marketing professionals, the people said.

Unlike in 2018, when he had just 16 seconds per day on national TV, the president will now have more than six minutes during mandatory daily ads that run for a month ahead of the vote, according to calculations from XP Inc. A Quaest survey published July 6 showed that 47% of Brazilian voters still learn about politics on TV, while social media is the main source of information for 24%.

In a bid to run a more professional campaign, Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party hired Duda Lima, a marketing expert who helped elect 28 of the 34 he advised throughout his career.

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Yet the slogan Lima created for the first batch of TV ads that ran last month -- “Without pandemic, without corruption, with God in our heart” -- was publicly mocked by Carlos Bolsonaro, who continues to lead the president’s social media strategy. In a Twitter post, Bolsonaro’s son said: “I’ll keep doing my thing here, screw this talk by marketing professionals.”

Bolsonaro has also been advised to pay special attention to female voters, who in their majority reject his government, by giving a prominent campaign role to First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro, according to the people. But his wife hasn’t participated in TV ads yet and has missed key campaign events, including one with fellow evangelical women in Brazil’s northeast, Lula’s stronghold.

“My wife regrets not being present,” Bolsonaro said during his speech at the event Thursday, adding that she doesn’t usually accompany him on long trips. Michelle’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Bolsonaro has also insisted on talking about the possibility of fraud in the election, a topic that costs him votes as many Brazilians interpret such remarks as anticipating a defeat, his advisers said, citing internal surveys carried out by his campaign.

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On Monday, he told foreign ambassadors that Brazil’s electronic voting machines are subject to fraud, rehashing old and debunked theories about the security of the system the country has been using for more than two decades.

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Baby Steps

Still, campaign managers are hopeful the president can be persuaded to moderate his ways.

Last week, they celebrated a speech he gave when congress enacted a law that will allow the government to spend 41.3 billion reais ($7.7 billion) to help Brazilians suffering with inflation. His remarks were restrained, with nods to women and residents of Northeastern states.

Crucial for the success of that strategy is access to the president, whose inner circle includes his three oldest sons and a few trusted advisers. In a bid to develop a more efficient communication channel, his campaign enlisted Fabio Wajngarten, Bolsonaro’s former communication secretary, and General Walter Braga Netto, his likely running mate, to help.