May 25, 2008 · Posted in: 2007 Elections, Media

Political ads up close

This post was written by Pamela Ordoveza, a senior mass communication student who is earning her summer internship credits with the PCIJ.

IT’S still a good two years to the 2010 elections but the reported presidential frontrunners are already beginning to invade television, calling attention to themselves through product endorsements or public-service messages.

Of late, there is Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. appealing to the public to report to him (not to government agencies concerned) illegal recruiters who are victimizing Filipinos wanting to work abroad. Earlier, there was Senator Loren Legarda paying tribute to this year’s batch of graduates.

Meanwhile, Senator Mar Roxas II is the latest endorser of a leading laundry soap brand, probably following Senator Richard Gordon’s lead who had earlier appeared in another commercial, albeit for a brand of anti-bacterial soap. And then of course, thanks to government money, Vice President Noli de Castro is able to remind televiewers what he does as a public official courtesy of regular TV spots of Pag-IBIG, or the Home Development Mutual Fund, one of the housing agencies he oversees as chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council.

Since their revival in 2001 after being banned during the Marcos era, political advertisements have bombarded the airwaves every campaign period, aiming to “sell” candidates running for public office to the electorate. While the primary objective is name recall, political ads have however, in not a few instances, gone to the extent of creating an altogether different image for the candidates.

This image, if not myth, making power of political ads is among the issues dissected in the recently launched book “Selling Candidates: The Promise and Limits of Political Advertisements,” Newsbreak‘s follow-up to the equally critical “Spin and Sell: How Political Ads Shaped the 2004 Elections.” Authored by Ana Maria L. Tabunda, Carmela Fonbuena, and Aries Rufo, the book also probes what goes into the creation of political ads (with focus on the 2007 senatorial campaign) and their impact on the awareness and voting preferences of the public.

Read also the PCIJ report, Missing the Message.

At the launch last week at the Hyatt Hotel, representatives from the media, government, advertising sector, members of the academe, as well as winning and losing candidates engaged each other in a discussion of the book’s major findings.

In “Promise and Limits of Political Ads,” Tabunda, executive director of Pulse Asia, pointed to the primacy of television as electoral news and information source. Most Filipinos, or 84 percent of respondents the polling firm surveyed at the time, found the medium the most helpful source of information about candidates.

Ads not everything

But as the case of losing administration senatorial bets like Prospero Pichay illustrated, big-time spending on political ads, particularly on TV, does not necessarily bring successful outcomes.

Yolanda Ong, president and CEO of Campaigns and Grey, said that spending much on political ads doesn’t necessarily translate to winning. To win elections, she said, there should be “coherence between the private and public lives of the candidate.”

Charrie Villa, ABS-CBN vice president for news gathering, remarked that the ads, specifically those of Pichay, were a “novelty” but added that “the message (poverty) was gargantuan.”

During the panel discussion, Pichay, however, attributed his loss to the fact that he did not belong to an organization (despite being a stalwart of the ruling party, Lakas-CMD) and had no network of poll watchers all over the country.

Contrast Pichay’s fate with that of then Taguig-Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano, who did not have as many political ads on TV as the former Surigao del Sur congressman, but managed to land a Senate seat. Cayetano said that more than having political ads, what mattered was the strategic placing of these ads. The senator also credited his win to his involvement in the national issues that preceded the 2007 elections.

‘Free media’

Cayetano likewise pointed to “free media” as instrumental in his successful campaign. By this, he meant the free exposure candidates like him get when they are invited to talk shows, interviewed or asked to comment about certain issues. In this sense, Cayetano said that the media are able to help democratize politics in the country. He, however, advised the public to also be wary of what the media report.

Assessing the media’s performance during the 2007 elections, Rufo’s chapter “Hostaged by Spin and Gimmickry” concluded that “despite commendable efforts in improving coverage, the media by and large were held hostage by the gimmickry and spin that dominated the senatorial race.”

Moreover, it was observed that concrete steps to stem corruption were negated by numerous cases of reporters and newsroom chiefs still getting cash and perks from candidates in exchange for positive stories.

ABS-CBN’s Villa maintained that they don’t put candidates in the news just for the sake of exposure. “The only way candidates are seen on television,” she said, “is when something they did or something they’re involved in is actually newsworthy.”

Voters becoming more discerning

“People are not willing to be fooled anymore,” remarked Cecilia Lazaro of the Probe Production, pointing to a growing public discernment that shuns political gimmickry by candidates and the media. How widespread it is, Lazaro said, remains uncertain.

Still, the consensus was that people are becoming more discriminating now in terms of how they perceive political candidates.

But with its heavy emphasis on how candidates get elected into office by political ads, the book may have relegated voters to the role of “kibitzers, an audience on the sidelines,” commented Malou Mangahas, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

The book could have done better, she said, by portraying voters as informed and discriminating instead of unduly consigning them to the role of “consumers of spins and image.”

Mangahas also said that, though laudable, the study on political ads was “largely a post-mortem report built around the work of pollsters and image-handlers.” While surveys encapsulate public response to issues, she reminded journalists that these are “time-bound impressions…driven by events immediately preceding the date of polling.”

To improve on the study, as well as journalists’ coverage of elections, Mangahas suggested taking the analysis further by looking into voters’ behavior in future elections and probing deeper into the sources of candidates’ campaign funds.

Nonetheless, by giving readers an inside peek into what really happens in the creation of political advertisements and the workings of the media during elections, Selling Candidates can only serve to empower the voting public as it challenges them to see through the “images” that political candidates try to project and to see them for who and what they really are.

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