January-June 2004
Special Election Issue
The Campaign

Half-truths in advertising

Selling candidates is like selling soap or toothpaste: A little truth goes a long way.

AT LEAST Panfilo Lacson tells it like it is — or how it could be. Elect him as president and we could probably expect someone like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, or Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra at the helm. All three are known for being, as the TV ad says, “buo ang loob, walang takot (determined, without fear),” traits that supposedly enabled them to steer their countries into becoming economic powerhouses. According to the ad, Lacson has the same traits as well, and its logic argues that these would enable him to do wonders for the Philippine economy, too.

Lee and Mahathir, however, headed autocratic regimes, which means the payoff for their countries’ political stability and economic strength included the absence of freedom of speech and of the press, as well as questionable human rights records. And while Thailand remains a democratic country, Thaksin himself has not exactly been the darling of rights advocates, especially after his anti-drug campaign last year resulted in the deaths of at least 1,100 suspected drug dealers, including a nine-year-old boy and a woman who was eight months pregnant. It’s also still uncertain if Thaksinomics is really the success it appears to be, or whether it is guaranteeing Thailand a place in household-debt hell, where it would be sweating out its economic woes right beside South Korea.

But that’s how it is in the abbreviated world of ads, especially political ones, and particularly with TV spots: Given the few seconds allotted to each ad, what is left out is almost always more interesting than what is said (or shown). In fact, by the looks of the commercials placed by candidates for national posts so far, Lacson’s already says a mouthful. Most of the rest give even less information about the candidates and what they are offering to the electorate — begging the question why President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo even bothered to lift the ban on political ads at all. This may well be the New Media age, but judging from the commercials now running on the tube, tired old campaign ploys still reign, and voters are advised to look elsewhere if they want to make informed decisions by May 10.

Certainly part of the reason for that is the fact that ads are supposed to sell the product, whether it be pork and beans or a politician. That obviously means leaving the nasty stuff out and following Ella Fitgerald’s advice to accentuate the positive. The bigger reason, however, seems to be that the primary objective of those placing political ads these days is simple name recall. The thinking is, to put across to the public matters such as competence, years in public service, and vision, a candidate would get more bang for his buck with PR and plain romancing the media. Only when such attempts fail would the candidate consider — and even then only possibly (in part because they are expensive) — having commercials with more substantial information for voters to use in making their decisions.

So in the meantime the electorate is mmade to endure ads like that of heiress Jamby Madrigal, who wants to become senator but doesn’t say why in her commercial, and much less why she deserves to be one. Instead, there is a rap group singing her name, which is spelled out in individual placards held up by dancing teenagers. She also gets an endorsement from soap princess Judy Ann Santos, although the young actress does little more than display a hairdo similar to Madrigal’s and saying something about a need for change.

There is, of course, a message being telegraphed here, and it seems to be this: Madrigal will work on issues regarding the youth. But what those issues are and how she would deal with them are left unsaid. If one remembers that Madrigal did hold the title as presidential adviser on children’s issues during the Estrada administration, perhaps the omission could be forgiven (even if no one can recall exactly what she did then). But if all one knows about her is that she is obscenely rich and cannot sleep on sheets that are anything less than 100-percent Egyptian cotton (as she confessed in an interview a few years ago), then the ad does nothing but annoy and invite uncharitable thoughts about the candidate.

Luckily for Madrigal, many people probably know absolutely nothing about her-or most of the other candidates, for that matter-and may well write down her name on their ballots, just because they heard her name, saw it in big letters on TV, and were reassured by dear Juday’s presence in the commercial that Madrigal is probably an okay person.

Filipinos, after all, are notorious for their inability to leave any space empty for too long, and would therefore be unable to resist filling up every blank space on the ballot with whatever names come to mind. They may even write down the name of Parouk Hussin, but not because of his accomplishments as the governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao or because of the numerous people he has helped as a medical doctor. Hussin, who is in the administration’s senatorial slate, is silent about these in his commercial; the only hints the 15-second TV spot gives about his background in fact is the mention of ‘Doc’ as his supposed nickname, and a stethoscope around the drawn version of the candidate in the ad’s animated portion. Hussin’s commercial may get extra points for creativity for its comic-book format, but it is zero in content, wasting a chance of telling the public about a Muslim politico’s plans as a senator of the land.

CANDIDATES belonging to political clans are fortunate, since they bear names that already have recall among older voters. Former trade secretary Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas II is one such candidate, but just in case younger voters are unfamiliar with the nation’s history, one of his ads reminds viewers that his grandfather was once president and his father was a legislator. As senator, he will therefore be carrying on what they had started. But the ad fails to say exactly what ideals his elders had espoused. Then again, it may not help his cause any if voters knew that his lolo and namesake had pardoned those who had collaborated with the Japanese during the war and also pushed for parity rights for Americans, who would then be able to enjoy equal rights as Filipinos in business and own property here.

His commercials do try to assert Roxas’s very own identity as “Mr. Palengke,” but it is a label that leaves viewers with only the vaguest notion that he may be focusing on trade. Indeed, instead of helping voters understand what he means when he says the market should be revitalized, this Wharton graduate resorts to the old politico trick of entertaining the masses by dancing a jig with actors pretending to be vendors.

Osmeña is another family name with resonance among Filipino voters. There has been at least one Osmeña active in politics in each generation since the Commonwealth, when Sergio Osmeña Sr. made it all the way to Malacañang. Senator John ‘Sonny’ Osmeña, though, has been in politics longer than Mar Roxas, and no longer needs to harp on his political lineage in his commercial as the younger politician has done. Mercifully enough, Osmeña also restrains himself from indulging any terpsichorean frustration he may have in his commercial. Rather, he presents himself as a legislator with a good track record — good enough, it is implied, to merit him another shot at the Senate. As proof, he offers R.A. 7962, which, he tells a fawning audience in the ad, made it possible for Filipinos to enjoy the conveniences offered by cell phones.

The commercial therefore presents Sonny Osmeña as nothing less than a hero of the telecommunications industry and of the cell phone-crazy public. Osmeña’s past, however, also includes two provisions he pushed for in an earlier bill, R.A. 7925 — provisions that prolonged the monopoly of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. in the telecommunications industry. In short, had it not been for him, more efficient phone service could have been available to more people sooner. But because of the delay caused by those insertions to R.A. 7925, millions of Filipinos are still without a landline service — which explains why many consider the cell phone as a necessity, rather than a luxury.

Opposition senatorial bet Jinggoy Estrada, meanwhile, evokes his father’s image in his TV spot, down to the former President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada’s barako costume of plaid shirt, denims, wristband, and sneakers. The ad even tries to push once more the Erap para sa mahirap myth, which helped clinch the presidency for his father in 1998, by showing footage of the poor before a segue to Jinggoy lifting up a child in ragged clothes. It is a storyline that has not only been overused by politicians, but also one that has become rather tattered in the hands of the Estrada-Ejercito clan. Erap Estrada was ousted in a people power reprise 2001, and has been in detention for almost three years, facing charges of plunder. Up until last year, his son Jinggoy had been keeping him company there, and is now only out on bail. There was no visible improvement in the lives of the millions of Filipino poor while Estrada was in Malacañang, and even the middle class had many reasons to grumble. There was, however, a vast improvement in Estrada’s personal finances — which enabled him to build mansions for his mistresses — as well as those of his friends, many of whom were already millionaires to start with.

Then there is Ernesto Maceda, who may not come from a political family, but has been in Philippine politics for so long he has become one of its artifacts. Maceda, however, does not dwell on his being a political veteran in his ad, choosing instead to style himself as ‘Mr. Expose,’ because of what he says was his role in uncovering many cases of corruption in government, including the infamous Public Estates Authority (PEA)-Amari deal that he calls the “grandmother of all scams.”

It is the latest incarnation of Maceda, who has switched sides so many times in his long political career that no one remembers (or cares) anymore which party he now belongs to. (He is currently part of the opposition’s senatorial slate.) What many remember, though, is that when Maceda was still in his 20s and a city councilor of Manila, the late Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson made a telling observation about him that he has never lived down: “so young, and yet so corrupt.”

Mr. Exposé, therefore, should perhaps been the subject of exposés. Take the PEA-Amari deal, which Maceda takes the credit for exposing in 1995. He even called it the “grandmother of all scams,” in 1995, but later kept mum on the anomalous transaction, supposedly for hundreds of millions of reasons.

TO BE fair, the presidential hopefuls who have ads running on TV at present make better presentations than those who want a Senate seat. This is the first presidential campaign to have political ads since 1986, after all, and with the incumbent, a movie star, and a televangelist among the candidates, there seems to be a madder scramble for media exposure in whatever form. At the same time, unlike the senatorial bets, the candidates for president are fighting over just one blank in each voter’s ballot, meaning the ads would have to go beyond reminding people of the candidates’ names. But as Lacson’s strong leaders ad shows, scrutinizing a candidate’s assertions can be an interesting, if not crucial, task for any voter.

The president herself has three TV ads at the moment, even if almost every move she makes is covered by the media, and even if her critics say she has been campaigning for the last three years. But that may be why her new commercials do not say much; her administration’s projects are already being touted by many ads paid for by the government, and they always make it a point that they were products of her efforts and her policies.

Still, her handlers are leaving nothing to chance, and they proceed to remind voters in at least two of her commercials about all the things the president is supposed to have accomplished. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is even made to rattle them off herself — and she is made to admit as well that there may have been some things she could “have done better.” Then comes the clincher: According to her ads, she is the nation’s “last, best hope,” which can only make one wonder what such a claim is based on. At the very least, it seems to negate all that Arroyo had said earlier, because if she really had achieved so much, then the Philippines would truly be a “strong republic” that could be run even by someone other than herself. But the president’s handlers seems to be so uncertain of that and of her chances at getting reelected that they also resort to the requisite celebrity endorsement, hiring controversial TV host Kris Aquino for yet another Arroyo commercial.

Lacson, for his part, has been quick to the draw in challenging the administration’s claims. Shortly after the administration presented its senatorial ticket, which it dubbed ‘K4’ (for Koalisyon ng Katapatan at Karanasan sa Kinabukasan or Coalition for Truthfulness, Experience, and Hope), Lacson hit back with an ad that declared him as anti-K4. The ad says K4 actually stands for “krimen, kurakot, katiwalian, at kahirapan (crime, extortion, corruption, and poverty),” which may well be how viewers now remember the acronym, considering the commercial’s heavy rotation on TV.

The ad promises peace and order under a Lacson presidency. It is a believable promise, given the public perception of Lacson — a former police general, just like Thaksin — as being very tough on crime. And while the ad doesn’t say so explicitly, viewers are encouraged to believe that once the crime problem is crushed, the other big worries such as corruption and poverty will be solved as well.

Yet while he establishes that fighting crime is his number one priority, Lacson does not say in his commercial how he would go about ridding the country of criminals. But then his handlers probably thought it best just to leave it at that, since Lacson, again like Thaksin, is considered by human rights advocates as too trigger-happy. His stint as the commander of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission under the Ramos government in particular left him with a reputation for shooting first and not even asking questions later, and the memory of that could conjure, rightly or wrongly, the image of a potentially berdugo president.

A SHARP contrast to Lacson, at least in image, is former senator and education secretary Raul Roco, who comes off as a bureaucrat and not at all a macho man of action like Lacson. The rotund Roco, who also ran in the 1998 presidential race, sheds his signature floral shirt in favor of a plain, off-white barong Tagalog in his two current commercials, in which the tone is still light yet undeniably no-nonsense. Roco makes it clear right away that education will be among his priorities, as well as transparency in government transactions. In one ad, he says that as education secretary, he was able to achieve a true implementation of the government’s free education policy (covering elementary and high school); he also increased the number of free textbooks from 15 million to 44 million. In the other ad, Roco declares that in the “new Philippines” corruption would not be tolerated and that public biddings would be “public talaga (really out in the open).”

Roco has been talking about having a “sunshine policy” for years now, and the Department of Education’s public approval rating did increase during his watch. It is also true that under his leadership, the DepEd banned the collection of various fees (such as those for the Girl and Boy Scouts, as well as for anti-TB campaigns) public schools collected from students during enrollment. But the increase in the number of textbooks cannot be attributed to his efforts alone, since the department began undertaking reforms in textbook procurement in 1999 or almost two years before he became its chief. The DepEd may not even have been able to pull off those reforms without the generous infusion of funds from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. And although the textbook to pupil ratio in three core subjects now stands at 1:1, there are still hundreds of schools without textbooks, while others have the wrong ones.

The DepEd’s experience in fighting corruption may also douse water on those who think this pervasive social ill is that easy to get rid off, as the Roco ad seems to imply. As one PCIJ report noted last year, while strict monitoring has led to a cleaner DepEd central office, money is still being exchanged under the table, and at a fast clip, in the field offices.

Roco himself left the department in less than favorable circumstances. After only eight months in office, he resigned abruptly, claiming that the president had done him a discourtesy by not informing him first regarding an official investigation about to be conducted on him. It turned out that the DepEd central office’s employees’ union had filed some 20 cases against him before the Presidential Commission on Anti-Graft and Corruption. Among other things, they accused Roco of letting his wife use a government vehicle for her personal errands, as well as failing to deposit a service fee totaling at least P15 million, and allowing a P70-million tax exemption on equipment imported by the University of Sto. Tomas Hospital. Roco would deny most of these charges, admitting only his wife’s use of an official car with a government-paid driver at its wheel.

Lastly there is the ad of action film king and current presidential frontrunner, Fernando Poe Jr. A self-described man of few words, Poe as of this writing has yet to present a platform of government and has refused to join a debate among the other presidential contenders. His ad therefore is in character, since it barely says anything except make a promise that “a new morning is coming.” He is also seen surrounded by members of the masa, who have always been his most ardent movie fans, and they listen in awe as he states in his patent gravelly voice that any problem can be surpassed if everyone worked together “sa pagpapanday ng bagong umaga (forging a new morning),” a nod to one of Poe’s most famous movie characters, who was a panday (blacksmith). About the only thing that is somewhat un-FPJ in the commercial is the fact that the action movie king is portrayed sitting.

But that doesn’t seem to matter to those sitting around the table with him, and their faces light up and there are smiles all around after Poe utters his only line in the commercial. Running mate Loren Legarda then turns to a seatmate and declares that with FPJ, “bayan ang bida (the country is the hero).” The allusions to Poe’s status as monarch of the movies cannot be missed, and the scenario is completed by the burst of applause after a toothless old woman in duster tells Poe that she will vote for him. These, however, can only increase the creases in the foreheads of those who have been waiting for some sign that Poe understands there would be no retakes should he become president, and that being the leader of the nation means more than playing up to the masses. Cryptic one-liners may have worked in his films, but anyone aiming for the presidency should be able to articulate his plans for the country as early as the first day of the campaign.

As the election nears, more campaign commercials are bound to be aired, some of them by candidates who are already running ads at present. There is still some hope that the coming ads would provide more enlightening information about the candidates, their focuses, and their proposed plans of action. But we would probably have more luck in hoping that more than a tiny piece of fat can be found in a can of pork and beans.