Filipino politicians use the latest campaign techniques, but still look upon voters as mendicants.
ADVERTISING guru Reli German tells the story of the time he was tapped to produce commercials and jingles for then candidate Ferdinand Marcos’s 1965 presidential bid. The campaign was more of a family venture with no less than Marcos’s wife Imelda herself directing the troops. She would drop by German’s office to look over campaign materials and listen to the jingles being prepared for her husband’s campaign. “It was more of Imelda that we were dealing with directly for the campaign in 1965,” German recalls.
One night Imelda summoned German and his production team to the Marcos home in San Juan, where they were led to her bedroom, which had a closet full of shoeboxes. The group, a team of professional advertising people, did not know exactly what they were doing in Imelda’s boudoir, but the mystery was soon revealed. German remembers that “she took three shoeboxes and the boxes were offered to us, and they were full of money!” With that, the campaign production team was paid, and paid handsomely.
German’s story does not only provide insights on the other uses Imelda made of her shoes (or, more precisely, the boxes they had come in). It also tells us that advertising professionals had been involved in Philippine election campaigns as far back as 1965, when radio was reaching its peak and television, just beginning to make a dent in Filipinos’ consciousness. Then and now, however, professionals like German are relegated to the background, hidden members of the campaign team who are traditionally composed of the candidate’s trusted family members.
Campaign professionals, though, have actually been around longer than that. Soon after the United States introduced elections in the Philippines, the country’s former colonizer also exported to the islands U.S.-style campaigning. This included the use of the mass media to create and manipulate public images, the hiring of public relations and advertising professionals, and later, the employment of sophisticated tools like campaign research and polling. Candidates like Manuel Quezon, Ramon Magsaysay, and Ferdinand Marcos were sold to voters partly through images crafted by experts and peddled to the public through newspapers, radio, and later, television. At least in terms of elections, the Philippines is not the laggard of Asia, but perhaps the first country in the region that has mastered the use of first-world election techniques.
The first national-level Philippine elections were held in 1907. Photo shows voters reading campaign posters issued for that election.
But it isn’t easy applying first-world election know-how to a third-world political setting. Despite what appear to be advanced campaign methods, the Philippines is still basically a feudal society where the family lords over political life. And with the weakening of political parties — alongside the weakening of other institutions in society — the family has remained the country’s basic political organization. This feudal, family-oriented base is one of the factors that stunts the growth of political-campaign professionals.
Four decades after Imelda Marcos successfully steered her husband to power, Philippine campaigns are still far from being well-oiled political projects run by professionals. In the Philippine setting, a political campaign machine — especially one designed for a presidential candidate — can be a complex structure with various compartmentalized sub-groupings. The professionals would be embedded somewhere within, a silent and unknown minority who bow to tacticians and campaign operators. These tacticians and operators, in turn, are usually members and friends of a political clan. It isn’t altogether surprising that a campaign can still look like a mom-and-pop affair with the candidate’s wife as campaign manager, the husband a fundraiser, and all sorts of hangers-on filling the backroom.
There is a difference in this year’s election, however. It is the first presidential election in decades in which political advertisements will be allowed. It is the first time that the power of media in general — and television in particular — may determine who wins. At no other time in the nation’s history will candidates be sold like soap and toothpaste because 40 million voters will be relying on little more than visibility and image to make their choices. More than ever before, candidates and their campaign machineries will now need to use the media specialists, campaign managers, and assorted professionals to make themselves known to the public, and through whatever means available.
By passing the law lifting the ban on political advertisements, “Congress was in fact saying there’s another way of winning,” says political consultant Malou Tiquia. And part of the message to candidates may be that there could be more room for the pros.
For some candidates, this may be a welcome development, since it may mean more effective campaigns, i.e. more votes. But it may not necessarily be good news for the public. As U.S. political scientist Dan Nimmo points out in his book, The Political Persuaders, hiring professionals may just mean more sophisticated manipulation. “Without question,” says Nimmo, “the new technology introduces not only the possibility but indeed the likelihood of systematic deception in electoral politics.” More and more, candidates will be seen in images and settings that do not really reflect who they really are and what they are going to do once elected to office. With more professional sleight of hand at work, the public may have a harder time distinguishing fact from fiction, especially when they remain unaware that experts now have more say in the show.
IN THE so-called mature democracies of the West, there are experts for every task in a campaign. In the United States, the election industry is huge, manned by a wide range of specialists including campaign managers, political consultants, public relations people, speechwriters, audio-visual experts, and fundraisers. They operate by a set of rules and design campaign strategies based on scientifically obtained data provided by another component of that growing industry: the profession of campaign research that includes not only pollsters but also psychologists and behavioral experts.
That is not the case in the Philippines. For starters, there are very few such professionals in the country. For example, there are only two or three reputable independent polling agencies in the Philippines. Image specialists, political consultants, and campaign managers are also hard to find. Two years ago, an organization called the Association of Political Consultants of Asia was formed, bringing together political technicians aiming to transform political consultancy and campaigning from craft to science. Still, quips one political consultant: “It’s easier to find a cardiologist who can do open heart surgery than to find a good spin master.”
That is partly why families and friends remain the captains of Philippine political campaigns. Fernando Poe Jr.’s campaign machinery, for instance, is packed with his siblings and supporters in the entertainment world. Brother Conrad Poe handles logistics, sister Elizabeth Poe is the official scheduler, while erstwhile comedian and Senator Tito Sotto is the campaign manager. Even actors Rez Cortes and Richard Gomez have been assigned parts to play in the campaign, as has Poe’s swarm of stuntmen-friends who dabble as spokespersons, rallyists, and even act as Poe’s security cordon.
On that point, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo isn’t far behind. Her brother Diosdado ‘Buboy’ Macapagal Jr. is her campaign manager and fundraiser. First Gentleman Mike Arroyo is in the thick of her campaign, too, even if just last year, he had gotten embroiled in a scandal that portrayed him as using an alias to stash away millions of pesos of surplus campaign funds from his wife’s 1998 vice-presidential bid.
Of course, a family-run campaign does not necessarily translate into an inefficient and ineffective venture. The most politically experienced clans have even elevated political campaigning to an art, and have over time mastered how to best maximize manpower, resources, and connections. Elite families are especially skilled at this, putting the charismatic and media-savvy members at the frontlines, assigning the crafty and the cunning to the management side, and mobilizing the clan and its network for other tasks in the campaign, including recruiting campaigners, poll watchers, goons, bodyguards — even hitmen, if need be.
But with this election promising more pros, campaigns are bound to be slicker than ever. There is, for instance, the advertising agency Campaigns and Grey and its stable of image specialists working for presidential candidate Raul Roco. There will also be groups like Tiquia’s Publicus Ltd., a political consultancy firm that provides campaign services to senatorial and local candidates. There is even the television production team TAPE Productions — which puts out programs like the noontime variety show “Eat Bulaga!” — acting as image makers for Fernando Poe Jr.
Most of these professionals, though, remain in the background. “It’s an underground industry-most of these people don’t carry calling cards, don’t introduce themselves, don’t appear at press conferences, don’t advertise their services,” says a political consultant. “They get hired by referral and by word of mouth. The really good ones are overloaded with clients and forced to turn down others.”
For this article, they refused to be identified. “You let the spotlight fall only on your principal,” this political consultant adds. Another one says, “The pros are often relegated to the backroom, or they don’t have the stature to face the public.” “Undocumented experts,” is how yet another political consultant describes himself and his peers.
The secrecy is understandable. Most of them have day jobs, either as reporters, columnists, businessmen, advertising executives, legislative staff, or civil servants. Elections and political campaigns don’t come that often and cannot be a stable source of livelihood, which is why most political professionals consider themselves “political sacadas” or sharecroppers whose work is seasonal.
Besides, in the professions where they officially belong, moonlighting for politicians is an ethical taboo. Journalists working as public relations practitioners or political consultants would be violating the rules on independence, impartiality, and conflict of interest.
Some advertising agencies even insist that they have no history or record of involvement in political campaigns. Yet as far back as 1965, the presidential campaign was already a battle of the ad agency executives.
For that particular campaign, adman Billy Esposo writes in a recent column, Marcos hired Proctor and Gamble’s creative team, which was composed of, among others, Miniong Ordoñez, now of Jimenez Basic Advertising. Reli German was part of that team. On the other side of the fence, says Esposo, Diosdado Macapagal’s “image team was headed by the late Fenny Hechanova, himself a former adman from a pioneering agency called Philprom.”
When Marcos ran for reelection four years later, Esposo continues, he got Greg Garcia, who eventually headed the prominent ad agency Hemisphere-Leo Burnett. Greg Garcia, now retired but still part owner of Leo Burnett, is the chief image handler of Senator Panfilo Lacson.
The reticence of many professionals in admitting their political work stems from the stigma it apparently carries. Political campaigning is often viewed as an illicit undertaking. Players are perceived to ink deals and engage in dirty tricks and special operations that can go from wooing special interest groups and thinking up a candidate’s position on issues, to peddling propaganda, buying the media, and negotiating for votes with local party leaders.
But much of the bad name suffered by political professionals has also been blamed on Marcos. After he declared martial law in 1972 and abolished elections, the political pros’ skills and talents were put to use only to promote his Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (the only active political party at that time) or push his New Society.
It was a situation that didn’t allow skilled political organizers to thrive and develop a profession called campaign management or political consultancy. Although the Development Academy of the Philippines and the Department of Interior and Local Government became training grounds where political managers could hone their skills managing political organizations, all their work was still for Marcos’s benefit. The only other option was to escape the system and cross over to activist organizations or the underground Left, such as the National Democratic Front (NDF) or the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Today’s top party and campaign people, in fact, trace their roots to these diverse beginnings: Lakas’s Gabriel Claudio and Ronaldo Puno were products of the DILG, while Horacio ‘Boy’ Morales and Rigoberto Tiglao, came from the leftist movement.
PERHAPS the unsuspecting public should be thankful that the country still has a relatively tiny community of campaign management experts, resulting in often-chaotic campaigns that either reveal more than the candidate wants the public to know, or reveal so little that the voters are left annoyed. In truth, present Philippine campaigns are quite like those in the United States were more than 100 years ago. In The Political Persuaders, which was published in 1970, Nimmo writes, “A century ago, candidates relied on their wits, their friends, and a few trusted allies to mount a campaign for office. Few men specialized in selling political advice. The campaign specialists of that day were primarily party politicians.”
According to Nimmo, the campaign management industry is a “direct descendant of the public-relations profession” that became popular in the 1920s. That was when U.S. capitalists were under attack by consumers who were reading in newspapers about unsavory business practices. Countering such criticism required a specialist who could proclaim the good side of U.S. industry. Thus was born the PR agent. “In the process,” Nimmo continues, these PR people “made increasingly adroit use of the means of mass communication; the result was the burgeoning field of mass advertising.” It would not be long before public relations and mass advertising would cross over to the world of politics, especially with the rise of television, and give birth to a profession that proclaims the good side of political candidates.
Nimmo recounts that election campaigns soon became a battle for public exposure. That battle, however, hasn’t been easily fought and won. Many other things compete for the voters’ attention, and candidates need people who are masters not only at constructing the candidate’s message and image, but also at sending these in the most effective way that will make full use of manpower, time, and limited resources. In short, campaigns need strategies.
The U.S.-trained Tiquia, formerly a legislative staff member in the Philippine and U.S. Congresses, defines the ingredients that make for a good campaign strategy. These are listed in a book entitled Campaign Politics: defining the voting population being targeted, creating the message to be communicated, managing resources, timing, and tactics.
Tactics include direct voter contact such as campaign events, rallies, and even door-to-door campaigning, and indirect tactics like media advertisements, billboards, and campaign paraphernalia.
Having a professional campaign team to implement the strategy is another necessity. The team is supposed to put order into the traditionally topsy-turvy exercises called campaigns. In this country, however, third-world realities can get in the way.
For instance, Tiquia says, there are times when a candidate hires a professional campaign team that may find itself clashing with family members, or with yet another professional team working for the same politician. Problems like these only slow down the campaign.
Campaign Politics also advises politicians to plot their moves way in advance, get their hands on the best people before the competition beats them to it, and plan carefully how resources are to be spent. But there’s that mañana habit of the Filipino-his penchant for not planning ahead and waiting till the last minute-which can wreak havoc on the campaign in many ways. As examples, Tiquia cites candidates who are buying TV spots only now, and are finding out that there are none available because an enterprising agency had purchased all that was left months ago. It is now selling these “on the secondary market” at much higher rates.
There were, however, a few who bought spots early, and at rates that were far, far cheaper. Among the more visible swift-footed ones are presidential candidate Raul Roco and Panfilo Lacson, whose ads had been airing regularly since the campaign started, and senatorial candidate Mar Roxas.
As if operating in such a third-world conditions weren’t enough, political professionals in the Philippines also have to deal with obsessive-compulsive candidates who try to control the campaign every step of the way. Among the cardinal rules for campaigns, says one of the political consultants interviewed for this piece, is that “a candidate cannot think and campaign at the same time; a candidate shouldn’t handle his or her own campaign.”
But most candidates refuse to leave things to the experts. Despite the enormity of her duties as president and candidate, Gloria Arroyo still decides where her campaigns sorties will go, political consultants say. Even members of her campaign still cannot fathom why she chose to launch her presidential bid in the hills of Cavinti, Laguna. Observers could only guess that feng shui might have had something to do with it; taking the team to high ground probably bodes good luck, they said. But after Cavinti, the president went north, leaving observers still trying to discern a pattern in her campaigning — if there was really any at all. One consultant, though, says, “Look at the route she has taken, and you’ll see that it’s like she’s drawing the number eight on the map-she goes up, she goes down, forward, then backward.”
Poe is said to be no different, at least as far as his political rallies are concerned. “Remember that he’s a movie director, so he wants to have a say in how his rallies are produced,” says a political professional. But the king of Philippine movies is also a political neophyte, which has unfortunately resulted in Poe being kept in an artificial world where everything is stage-managed. Hence, every interview, every appearance has to be scripted. And having written lines for scripts, Poe tends to have a say in how his campaign is managed.
“The best candidate surrenders himself to his handlers,” says another political consultant. And if there was one who embodied this, it was Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada in 1998.
“Erap was a good follower in the sense that when you said the schedule was like this, even if it was so hot or he was already dead tired, he would still follow the schedule to the letter,” says Lito Banayo, who was on Estrada’s 1998 campaign team, and is now on Lacson’s. “That’s why he was a joy to handle. Perhaps because he was an actor, he was used to having a call time, he had to be on the set at this certain time. He (carried that) discipline in the campaign.”
But another plus factor in the Estrada campaign was its near-perfect machinery, which was due to a generous influx of funds. Ample funds and resources make a large part of a successful campaign. Reli German even says, “The three most important things (in a campaign) are money, money, and money.”
The Estrada campaign in 1998 had that in huge quantities. Recalls Banayo: “There were really a lot of people who helped in that campaign by way of cash as well as material donations.” A feature of Estrada’s campaign sorties, for instance, were the motorcades and caravans where Estrada would appear beside his showbiz friends Poe and Nora Aunor, and they would then toss candies to the crowd. Banayo says they never ran out of candies because the supplies just kept coming.
Banayo explains the “symbiotic relationship” of campaign elements: “Once the perception or image of a candidate improves, the survey results become stacked in his or her favor, the numbers go up, the resources will pour in accordingly.”
Making the candidate more visible, his image more winnable, translates into more campaign contributors. Traditionally, political consultants say, donors such as Filipino-Chinese businesspeople who put in large sums of money into election campaign, initially give equal amounts to all candidates. The money reportedly starts getting bigger only by April, when donors have a clearer idea who among the candidates is pulling away from the pack, and likely to lead the race.
But Tiquia laments how fundraising, like the other aspects, remains a hidden but very important facet of Philippine campaigns. Candidates do not, in the course of the campaign, reveal who their funders are, and methods for raising funds are not always above board. In the United States, Tiquia notes, fundraising is a profession. Professional fundraisers’ methods include organizing events or dinners, or sending out mail asking supporters to contribute to the campaign kitty. There are limits to the amounts supporters can donate. In this country, it is the field of contributors that is limited. The money comes mostly from Filipino-Chinese businesspeople; the bigger players are the likes of Lucio Tan and Eduardo Cojuangco, whose hearts, minds, and pocket the candidates have to compete for. In exchange, candidates promise them the moon, the stars, and even a piece of the economy.
And now to lure them — and the voters — candidates are tapping political professionals. The irony is that takes a lot of money as well. Nimmo notes, “The professionals are for hire, but at very high prices. Fewer and fewer politicians can afford the costs of candidacy…. In an age when less affluent members of society are already disillusioned with a political arrangement which they perceive are shutting them out, it will hardly produce harmony to request that they play by the rules of an electoral game they cannot afford to enter.”