TV spins of top bets ‘not Bible truth’

Credible message, not volume
or value, makes good ‘pol ads’

Last of Two Parts

HE has racked up nearly a billion pesos worth of TV ad spots, by network rate cards, in the last three months alone, but indications are that Nacionalista Party standard bearer Senator Manuel ‘Manny’ Villar Jr. can comfort himself that so far every centavo of that has been money well spent.

Indeed, campaign strategists and public-relations experts point to Villar’s ads as the major reason why he has been able to catch up with the frontrunner in the presidential race, Senator Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III, who has now challenged him to a one-on-one public debate.

Just a few months ago, the Liberal Party’s Aquino was leading the pack by a big margin. But a Pulse Asia survey conducted in January showed Villar and Aquino practically neck and neck, while most of the other candidates failed to register any significant change in their ranking.

Political strategists say that Villar’s stellar showing in the January survey can be traced partly to his bombardment of the airwaves with ads that made him top of mind when Pulse Asia took the poll. Yet more importantly, they say, Villar’s ads have been effective in communicating a message that resonates with people: that as someone who rose from poverty, Villar knows not only the hardships of the poor, but also how to help them out of their rut.

No core message

Pulse Asia chief research fellow Dr. Ana Maria L. Tabunda notes, “Frequency by itself does not work. You have to have a message that appeals and is credible.”

By comparison, the five other presidential candidates who placed TV ads from November 1, 2009 to January 31, 2010 either had no core message or delivered this poorly. This is even as each of them also plunked down millions – some in the hundreds of millions – of pesos for TV ad placements.

Data gathered by the media monitoring agency Nielsen Media show that among the presidential candidates, Villar placed the most number of TV ads in the three months prior to the start of the official campaign period. The Villar campaign bought 2,565 spots, which based on the networks’ published rate cards had a total value of P950.86 million. (The actual amount paid, however, could be lower due to possible discounts.)

Administration candidate Gilberto ‘Gibo’ Teodoro Jr. was a far second with P368.77 million for a total of 1,153 spots. Aquino, meanwhile, was third with over P254.14 million for a total of 520 spots, including half of the ads placed by Team Aquino-Roxas.

Presumably, Aquino had more of the expensive primetime ad spots than Senator Richard ‘Dick’ Gordon (Bagumbayan Party), who had twice Aquino’s number of TV placements (1,136), but which Nielsen said were valued at only a total of P238.67 million.

Placing fifth in terms of total TV ad value was Brother Eduardo ‘Eddie’ Villanueva of Bangon Pilipinas, with 464 spots worth P88.29 million. Former President Joseph Estrada of the Pwersa  ng Masang Pilipino was in sixth place, with 281 ad placements valued at P83.1 million.

One weapon in arsenal

Political ads, of course, are only one of the weapons in the arsenal of candidate who is determined to win. At the minimum, however, ads motivate people to find out more about the candidate.

Ronald F. Jabal, chief strategist and senior partner at the AD & R Strategic Communications, Training and Research says that ultimately, this can lead to behavior change, which is expressed during election time.

Although the sheer volume of Villar’s TV ad placements dwarfs those of Aquino and company, PR experts and strategists say what is helping or making these really count is the consistent message in all of them — that Villar is “tunay na mahirap, para sa mahirap (the real poor, for the poor).

This includes his most recent ones, and especially the most successful so far: the “Dagat ng Basura (Sea of Garbage)” ad, which aired 815 times on various TV networks in December 2009 and January 2010 (more than 40 percent of the total number of spots Villar bought during those months). Nielsen says the “Dagat ng Basura” spots are worth more than P319 million.

“Naging Mahirap” featuring Sen. Manuel Villar

The “Dagat ng Basura” commercial contained many elements of an effective ad. Foremost of this was its catchy song that was not only easy to sing, but also had imaginative and memorable lyrics. It asked, for instance, if one had ever taken a bath in a sea of garbage or if one had spent Christmas in the streets. It was implied that Villar had gone through such experiences – and then it segued into the candidate’s staple message of being “tunay na mahirap, may tunay na malasakit (the real poor, with real empathy).”

A serenade?

Just days after the ad first aired, PR and ad industry insiders were already taking notice of it and discussing its merits, particularly its accompanying tune. More importantly for Villar, though, potential voters like Imelda and Ronaldo Linson were being serenaded with the song even when their TV was off.

The Linsons, who have a small home-based cassava cake business in Cavite, have two young sons. As Imelda recounts, the boys had quickly picked up on the Villar ad jingle while watching TV during their Christmas break and were soon singing it, along with their playmates.

The Linson boys may have probably been inspired by the fact that children also sing the jingle in the ad. For strategist Jabal, what the ad is conveying through this element is that future Filipinos will be able to benefit if this particular candidate wins. In marketing, he says, there is such a term as “pestering power” — that when children talk about things, people listen.

‘Kurot sa puso’

Having children deliver the candidate’s message also made the ad very appealing, says veteran campaign strategist Lito Banayo. It could have been just another political ad without the children, he says.

“You know, no matter how poor the little children are, little children are always nice to look at,” says Banayo. “So, may kurot sa puso. (It pulls at the heartstrings).”

Then there was the ad’s shrewd timing, which made the song sung by children all the more poignant. Comments Malou Tiquia, co-founder of Publicus Asia, a lobbying and political management firm: “It resonated because it was Christmas and there was one line there “Nakapagpasko ka na ba sa kalye (Have you ever spent Christmas in the streets)?”

“Hindi Natutulog ang Pasko” featuring Sen. Richard Gordon

In comparison, timing seems to have been one of the problems with an ad put out by Gordon’s camp. The ad, “Hindi Natutulog Ang Pasko (Christmas Doesn’t Sleep),” aimed to tell people how and where Gordon the Philippine Red Cross chairman had spent the recent holidays – out on field, helping people in times of need. It even featured a familiar Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” which practically everyone, young and old alike, knows how to sing.

Unfortunately, the ad aired in January 2010, when Christmas was already over. According to Jabal, the music made the ad “a bit laughable.” To others, it also made the “feel” of the commercial too “melancholic,” which was quite in contrast with Gordon’s gung-ho public persona.

If not for these, 47-year-old housewife Jeanette Pangilinan would have found the commercial a perfect fit for Gordon. At the very least, Pangilinan says, she can vouch for Gordon as being “helpful,” having been living in Olongapo City when he was still its mayor. Pangilinan says that Gordon helped people find employment when the U.S. naval base in Subic closed down and many lost their jobs. She also recalls how he would get mad at market vendors who would raise prices whenever a typhoon struck the city.

“Hindi Ka Nag-iisa” featuring Sen. Benigno Aquino III

In shadow of Kris, Cory

Ironically, that degree of familiarity with the public is sorely lacking with frontrunner Aquino, who has spent much of his life in the shadow of the more famous members of his family, notably his parents and his youngest sister, starlet-TV host Kris Aquino.

His was a surprise candidacy as well, apparently having no plans to stand in the 2010 presidential election had not his mother, former President Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino, passed away last August and he was subsequently pushed by her supporters into the race.

In many ways, thus, the very first ad run by the Aquino campaign was meant to introduce him to the public not only as the worthy successor of his parents in leading the country, but also a candidate already enjoying popular support.

The commercial was actually a music video, featuring an original song that was a nod to a popular slogan used by supporters of his father Benigno Jr. or Ninoy during the last years of the Marcos era. The commercial, which had a chockfull of celebrities in all shapes and sizes, was shot at night and had Aquino being passed a torch at the end.

Nielsen data show that Aquino’s “Hindi Ka Nag-iisa (You Are Not Alone)” ad and its seven other versions were shown 185 times in various TV networks in November 2009, with their total worth reaching over P100 million.

Stars made mark

But whatever message the ad was trying to convey was lost to much of the public. And instead of noticing Aquino, some people made a game out of identifying the many celebrities who participated in the commercial.

“It looked as if it was a unity video for television networks,” Jabal says on the actors and actresses from rival networks ABS-CBN and GMA-7 who appeared in the ad.

Even the soaring original song penned by singer-songwriter Ogie Alcasid and sung by Regine Velasquez failed to save the commercial. It was simply not “jingly,” says Jabal. “You can’t sing it yourself unless you’re a really good singer like Regine Velasquez.”

Tiquia, meanwhile, thought that the ad was “really a downer.” She quips, “It’s like you are saying that your parents led the country for nine years and yet we are still in the dark.”

Early this year, though, the Aquino camp released another commercial. In the entire 60 seconds of “Covenant with the Nation,” Aquino enumerated his “fight” for several issues. In the end, he said that he would do his best to serve the country and promised that he would not steal.

This is considered to be the first ad where Aquino tried to concretely say something: that he is not corrupt. To Jabal, however, Aquino was simply making yet another promise, but “it’s not backed by a track record.”

Jabal clarifies that he is not saying Aquino is lying, only that the Aquino campaign should have included proof to back the candidate’s claim: “‘Heto ako ngayon at heto ako bukas,’ which means that whatever I will do in the future I can do that because I’ve already done that.”

Tiquia, for her part, says Aquino’s message that he is not corrupt could be working, but he cannot just stop at saying that he is not corrupt. “What does that mean?” she asks. “Are you for bank secrecy law? There’s got to be more details.”

Municipal office clerk Hazel del Rosario, for one, says she has the impression that should Aquino become president, he would just follow whatever he is told to do by those around him. The 27-year-old mother of three also says she is unsure of Aquino’s I-will-not-steal promise, commenting, “Isn’t it in politics, it’s always me first before anyone else? That’s how things really are, right?”

A liability

Fittingly enough, Aquino’s cousin Gibo Teodoro is himself struggling to introduce himself to the public even as he tries to emerge from the shadow of someone else – in his case President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. But political strategists say he has already been packaged as an administration candidate, which has become a liability since the current government is an unpopular one.

“Lipad” featuring former Defense Sec. Gilberto Teodoro

“His refusal to dissociate himself from that administration and his refusal to even comment on the things that have been done by the administration is pulling him down,” Jabal explains. “So regardless how good (his) ad is, yes, it might help, but the biggest stumbling block will always be there.”

As Banayo sees it, Teodoro cannot be packaged on either trust because of President Arroyo, or on poverty because he has never been poor. Teodoro’s team therefore had to think in terms of his personal competence and came up with the tagline “Galing at Talino (Competence and Intelligence),” a play on his initials.

First, though, Teodoro, who quit as defense secretary late last year to run as president,   came up with a series of ads called “Dapat (Should).” Nielsen data show that from November 2009 to January 2010, the “Dapat” ads were released 511 times in various TV networks, with a total value of more than P140.8 million.

Each ad had a particular focus: education, health, or employment. Each version opened with several people talking about what should be done and what should not be practiced concerning that issue. Toward its end, Teodoro himself talked about what should have been done concerning a particular issue.

Jabal points out that the “Dapat” series identified what should have been done by a government that Teodoro was part of. So why, he asks, wasn’t Teodoro able to do all that when he was still in government?

Elitist concept

Jabal has problems as well with a more recent Teodoro ad, which features the candidate about to fly a plane. Teodoro is a licensed pilot, and his team may have thought showing him flying an airplane would be a good way to communicate his take-charge skills and ability to lead the country.

Jabal, however, sees the concept as “elitist,” adding, “We wouldn’t be able to identify with an image of a candidate as pilot. Erap was very brilliant when he thought of being a jeepney driver – ‘sakay na sa jeep ni Erap (board Erap’s jeep)’.”

Political strategist Banayo agrees. He says he understands that Teodoro is talking of an “economic take-off,” but wonders if the candidate is talking over people’s heads, or about matters that are not of their immediate concern.

“(T)he problem there is 80 percent of the Filipino people are always worried about food on the table, being sick because we cannot afford… or giving their children a future through good education,” says Banayo. “So you’re not addressing them when you talk of things like an economic take-off in a macroeconomic sense.”

He also asks, “If you haven’t taken a plane, would you be able to appreciate this ‘take-off, take-off’ thing?”

It seems the Linson couple can’t. Asked to comment about this particular Teodoro ad, Imelda Linson says, “Eh wala naman kaming pambili ng tiket. Paano naman ‘yun? (But we don’t even have the money to buy a plane ticket. How would that be?)”

But husband Ronaldo wants to know what Teodoro was fussing over while sitting in the pilot’s seat in the ad: “Ano ba ‘yung  pinipindot-pindot niya doon (What was he switching on and off there)?”

“Eddie Ako” by Gloc 9 featuring Bro. Eddie Villanueva

More down to earth was the yellow ‘Bus ni Bro’ driven by Jesus Is Lord Church leader Eddie Villanueva in one of his ads. The commercial, which came out last December, also featured ordinary people – most of them young – from various sectors who danced while singing an upbeat tune. The song enumerated Villanueva’s plus points, with one line saying, “Sino ba ang may malasakit at pag-ibig sa bansa? Eddie ako. (Who cares and loves the country? I’m for Eddie.)”

The ad ran 204 times from December 2009 to January 2010 according to Nielsen, with a total value of more than P58 million. Jabal, however, says Villanueva’s commercials, including this one, lack asim or kick that would be potent enough to attract the attention of those who are not among his most devoted followers.

Too much history

Yet while being relative unknowns has become worrisome for the Teodoro, Aquino, and Villanueva camps, having too much of his history known to the public is not exactly working to the advantage of one of the presidential candidates.

Former President Estrada, after all, was ousted in 2001 under a cloud of corruption and plunder charges. He was convicted of plunder in 2007 and would have served a life sentence had not President Arroyo pardoned him.

“Erap Babalik Na” featuring former Pres. Joseph Estrada

Estrada comes from a well-off clan but played impoverished heroes in his popular action movies. He projects himself as a man of the masses. Last November, his camp released the “Erap Babalik Na (Erap Will Return)” ad that talked about how power used to be in the hands of the masses. Then, it said, the “unexpected happened,” and the words “injustice,” “poverty” and “hunger” were flashed. The ad wrapped up by saying Estrada would be back to claim what had been taken away from the Filipino people.

This particular ad ran for 87 times in November to December 2009. In Pulse Asia’s January 2010 survey, Estrada’s ratings went down to 12 percent from 19 percent the previous month.

Jabal describes what may have happened as a “boomerang effect.” “There are people who believe ‘Erap Babalik Na’ and their reaction would be ‘Yehey!’” he explains.  “But there are also people who say, ‘Naku po (Oh, no)!’ if the former president is going to be in office again.”

Mel Linson, who says she has not even seen any of Estrada’s ads, herself remarks, “Ay, tama na naman (Oh, enough)!” – With additional reporting by Ed Lingao and Che de los Reyes, PCIJ, February 2010