May 2007
Elections 2007

Missing the message

(Or, why some big ad spenders lost.)

MONEY CAN’T buy you love — or votes, as some politicians who spent big on ads have found out.

Indeed, only four of the 12 biggest spenders on ads for the recently concluded midterm elections have made it so far in the Commission on Elections’ (Comelec) ‘Magic 12’ for the Senate. Two more from the list of those with deep pockets (as drawn up by the market research, information, and analysis company AC Nielsen) still have slim chances of sneaking into the Upper House at the last minute, but that means they spent a total of P242.9 million just to get to the bottom of the winners’ list.

Political and advertising experts say that’s because most of these candidates — or more accurately, their handlers — simply failed to come up with an effective campaign that would capture the imagination of voters. They forgot that the message, not money, is key to any campaign.

“You will see that many candidates did not study or plan their ads,” says Malou Tiquia, co-founder of Publicus, the only lobbying and political management firm in the country. “There was disconnect in communication framework and the product.” Tiquia handled the campaign of then senatorial candidate Mar Roxas in 2004. Roxas, who marketed himself via the popular ‘Mr. Palengke’ ads, topped the race.

Advertising producer Toto Espartero, who directed the ads of presidential candidate Eddie Villanueva in 2004, is more scathing in his review of the more recent batch of commercials for the 2007 candidates. He says of the ads, “Parang karnabal, walang laman, walang usapan tungkol sa mga isyu (They were carnivalesque. There was no content, no issues were discussed).”

Mercedes Abad, one of Pulse Asia’s analysts and head of TNS Global, a market information firm, says resonance, believability, and relevance should be the guiding principles in a political campaign. But these were not the only factors absent in most of the big spenders’ commercials. So, too, were, sound planning, accurate reading of voters’ aspirations, and respect for the intellect of the public at large, say experts.

Tiquia says that the lack of planning in particular was why several candidates dumped ads and changed slogans in the middle of the campaign. Tags and taglines that seemingly had no leg to stand on in terms of history and identification with the candidate were used liberally — and, it turns out, disastrously.

A STRIKING example of this was former Presidential Spokesperson and Chief of Staff Mike Defensor’s first ad salvo as senatorial candidate: he was suddenly being called “’Tol,” a contraction of the word “utol (brother)” in the commercials in what could have been an attempt to make him “reachable.” Unfortunately, the attempt backfired, and hecklers were soon calling him “’Lol,” from the word “ulol (fool).” Some green groups also came up with a counter-campaign that featured him as Mike ‘PuTOL’ Defensor, an obvious play on ‘Tol and the Tagalog word for “cut.” According to several environmentalists, Defensor had a dismal record during his short stint as head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, especially when it came to protecting the forests.

Oblivious to the heckling, Defensor’s handlers would even release ads that had the phrase “walking tall,” still an apparent reference to his new “’tol” label. But the connection between the English and Filipino words was lost to many. By the time Defensor’s camp began airing commercials that underscored his supposed achievements as head of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), many voters had already heard all the jokes about ‘Tol and may have been laughing too hard to listen anymore.

Tiquia says the “’tol” ads, which began with an introduction of the candidate followed by the endorsement of various people, were a waste of money. She points out that the people already knew who Defensor was, since he had been a congressman and had held various cabinet positions. Packaging Defensor as everyone’s friend as “’Tol,” she says, erased whatever achievements the candidate may lay a claim on from the many government posts he had held. When the HUDCC-related ads were finally shown, it was simply too late for the public to take him seriously.

Even Team Unity campaign manager and veteran political strategist Aurelio ‘Reli’ German concedes that there were “too many elements” in the Defensor ads that rendered them ineffective. One version featured him with comedienne Ai-ai de las Alas and sexy star Keanna Reeves. The others made use of common folk, but with showbiz talk show host Boy Abunda’s voicing the lines endorsing his candidacy. German says Abunda’s voice-over a la “The Buzz” only cluttered the ads, which were already confused in focus.

Since the counting of the ballots began, Defensor never made it near the winners’ circle. He gave up two weeks into the counting, saying it was “numerically impossible” for him to win. This despite AC Nielsen’s report that his camp poured in as much as P121.48 million in radio and TV ads.

Some observers say one crucial flaw of Defensor’s ads was that they failed to make the public forget his passionate defense of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo amid charges of widespread cheating in the 2004 elections. As one veteran analyst quips, “A strong association with a certain madame in the palace is the kiss of death for many candidates.”

Prospero Pichay’s political ad

BEING RABIDLY pro-administration may have also been a negative factor in the bid of Congressman Prospero Pichay for a Senate seat. So was the fact that for most of his nine years in Congress, he was known chiefly for his unwavering support of the moves to amend the charter.

But his ads were certainly no help either, say experts, and in the end their repeated showing only added to his placement bills.

To produce one version of a 30-second ad, German says, a candidate has to shell out from P.5 million to P2 million. Primetime slots cost as much as P252,000 per 30 seconds, or P500,000 per minute.

AC Nielsen says Pichay spent a total of P202.746 million in radio and television spots, making him the top ad spender among the senatorial candidates. But experts say his ad campaign was among the worst of the lot, and not only because it failed to land him in the top 12.

German begs to differ, saying Pichay’s pitch was an “arresting but simple ad, with a very catchy hand signal.”

For sure, the ads tickled the Pinoy funny bone. Its main feature was the play on Pichay’s surname to make it akin to pechay or Chinese cabbage, giving his name more recall. Experts say to some extent the tactic worked, adding that Pichay could have expected an even worse showing if not for that factor.

But although he started the joke at his own expense, Pichay soon lost control of it. “Pichay, itanim sa Senado (Pichay, plant in the Senate),” his main slogan, was transformed into “Pichay, ibaon sa Senado (Pichay, bury him in the Senate)” at corner stores. Others began calling him kinchay (Chinese celery). Still others came up with “Posporo Pichay, ibaon sa hukay (Posporo Pichay, bury him in a grave).” His line, “Pangarap kong tuparin ang pangarap ninyo (I dream of making your dreams come true)” became fodder for text jokes and spoofs. The video website shows various versions of the Pichay ads, mostly of the young making outrageous wishes. The most unkind text message made the rounds just days before the elections. It reported that Pichay died, burnt to a crisp by the summer sun.

One voter’s smart-aleck comment was also a typical reaction to the Pichay ads: “Bakit ko naman iboboto si Pichay, hindi naman siya humingi ng boto ko. Ang hiningi niya, itanim ko siya (Why would I vote for Pichay when he didn’t ask for my vote. He asked only I plant him in the Senate).”

“As a political strategist, I’ll say it (the ad) was foul,” says Tiquia. “The Senate is an institution, not a farm. Pechay has no connection to the Senate. There is dissonance there.” She also questions the Pichay ads’ “pro-Pinoy” tagline and the accompanying fist-on-chest gesture, noting, “Its meaning was not explained. It has no history with the candidate.”

Rico Laguinday, media director of Club Media, which handled the placement strategy of Pichay’s ads on TV and radio, admits the media campaign was flawed. He says, “The ads had problems with content and believability. It was just full of promises. The message to voters was not clear.”

In all the six versions of his ads, Pichay mentioned no strategy on how he will fulfill the wishes of his supporters. Voters, too, have had enough of pangako or promises during elections. But there was a saving grace in the Pichay ads, advertising and political veterans say: the candidate was with ordinary people, unlike other campaigns in the past where candidates banked on the drawing power of big-name stars.

INTERESTINGLY ENOUGH, the three former opposition candidates who joined Team Unity were also among AC Nielsen’s top 12 spenders: Edgardo Angara, Vicente ‘Tito’ Sotto III, and Tessie Aquino Oreta. But only reelectionist Angara, who spent P144 million for his ads, garnered enough votes to guarantee him a few more years at the Senate.

Like Sotto and Oreta, Angara used to be heavily identified with the camp of deposed President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada; he was even Estrada’s executive secretary up to the time the ex-president was forced out of the Palace and into a barge floating on Pasig River. When news about his, Sotto’s, and Oreta’s defection first surfaced, a derogatory jingle was issued by a faction in the Erap camp, prompting Angara to angrily consider filing a libel suit. Fortunately for him, his ads were more sober in approach.

Tiquia and German even hail Angara’s ads as the best among those that aired this year. “It’s the most effective and meaningful,” says German. The series of “Ang Gara ng Buhay” ads hammered on Angara’s accomplishments as lawmaker in the fields of education, agriculture, and social services. Angara was number two in the 1992 senatorial elections, a showing hugely powered by his perceived good performance in the Congressional Commission on Education, which set in place reforms in the country’s educational system. “It would be difficult to downplay his achievements,” says Tiquia. “He has a solid track record.”

By contrast, his co-defectors fared badly in this round of elections. Oreta spent P117 million while Sotto forked over P115.9 million. But apparently it wasn’t money well spent; the two former senators are so far behind that even political neophytes Sonia Roco and Cesar Montano are way ahead of them in both official and unofficial tallies. Oreta languishes below the 20th line, while Sotto is barely making it over the 20th. In 1992, when he first ran for the Senate, Sotto topped the race.

Sotto, however, does not have any recall among voters as a lawmaker, unlike Angara. The same is true of Oreta. Experts thus say that at the very least, they should have explained why they switched camps, which was what people were associating with them all throughout the campaign period. Instead, Sotto chose to bank on his “Eat Bulaga!” persona, which apparently did not click with voters who, after the Estrada debacle, seem to have become wary of showbiz personalities in politics. But Oreta made an even bigger mistake, say experts.

It would have been better if she stuck to her supposed accomplishments as a lawmaker, they say, noting that these were harped on in her early ads. But 40 days into the campaign, her “I’m Sorry” ads aired, shocking many. The apology was for her breaking into a jig when the impeachment case against then President Estrada was lost in a Senate vote.

In a television interview a day after the ads aired, Oreta defended her move saying it was meant to “close a chapter in her life,” and to “make a clear accounting” of past events. “I did it, eh,” she said. “I am owning up to it and I’m very sorry for it.”

But German says the “ill-advised apology” only reopened old wounds and past hurts that should have been left alone. “It should have been done at the very start of the campaign, if it was to be done at all,” he says. Besides, German says, many voters are young and may not be familiar with the 2001 impeachment case at all.

Antonio Trillanes’ political ad

IN FACT, in general, there was a misreading of the political landscape. Many politicians failed to study the shift in demographics of the current voters, say political observers. The young generation who grew up in the turbulent tailend of the Marcos dictatorship and who took part in Edsa 1 are now parents themselves. “These are the people who will ask their children to be a poll volunteer, while the grandparents, who are from a different generation, will say ‘no, don’t, elections are violent,’” says Tiquia. She adds that these critical-thinking parents, who base their judgment of candidates on performance, are also bound to influence the way their children vote.

Those who still remember Edsa 1 also cherish idealism, which is something youths look for as well. This partly explains why detained Navy Ltsg. Antonio Trillanes IV appears headed for victory, even though his was a practically penniless campaign propped up by a ragtag band of family, friends, and colleagues.

The candidate, who has been charged with rebellion for his part in the 2003 Oakwood mutiny, did come out with three grainy ads, but these rarely aired. The most forgettable one had him being endorsed by Senator Jamby Madrigal. But two carried messages that had resonance with voters: One reminded the people of the alleged under-the-table deals that marked the construction of the Macapagal Highway in Parañaque, the other about the fertilizer scam connected to the 2004 polls. Both ended with a picture of the candidate, asking for votes, and promising to rid the government of corruption.

“Trillanes’s message is that he was jailed because he spoke up about corruption in the military and government,” says Pulse Asia’s Abad. “He has become an icon for voters who are fed up with corruption, and he has shown voters that he will speak for them.” That, coupled with the Pinoys’ love for underdogs, bolstered the Senate chances of the young officer.

The “underdog” image may have also helped Senator Francis ‘Kiko’ Pangilinan, who shrewdly used a 30-second ad to explain why he ran as independent and scored with voters with his line “iyong pabago-bago ng pinapanigan, ‘di ko kayang gawin (switching sides is not something I can do).” The commercial was shot in his study, no rah-rah girls, no booming music. Observes Tiquia: “He was close to the camera, like he was intimate with the viewers.”

Pangilinan, says Tiquia, “is the story of this campaign.” A Liberal Party member who refused to be part of the Genuine Opposition team, which had invited him as “guest candidate,” Pangilinan opted for a 12-province bus tour with his family. Of course the support of his wife, ‘Megastar’ and top product endorser Sharon Cuneta, was a big boost to his campaign. But so was the presence of his two young daughters, who also appeared in at least two of his ads. They sealed his image as a principled family man. As a result, Pangilinan is now occupying the fifth slot in the counting, fueled by what he says was a mere P50 million for his whole campaign.

SURPRISINGLY, FELLOW ‘Wednesday Group’ member Ralph Recto did not do as well despite using similar ingredients in his campaign (movie-star wife, kids in the ads) and having an ad budget that was almost thrice that of Pangilinan’s (P137.4 million). Tagged by AC Nielsen as number six among the big spenders, Recto is now at the 14th slot in the official tally of votes for senatorial candidates.

According to veteran political strategist Peter Sing, Recto was unable to live down the Reformed Value-Added Tax Law, which he shepherded to passage as chairperson of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The law removed exemptions granted under the Expanded Value Added Tax (EVAT), and raised the tax base from 10 to 12 percent.

Recto had ads where he tried to explain why the new VAT law was necessary. He also sought to highlight other laws he authored and co-authored, such as the amendment to the Rent Control Law. But Sing says, “There was casual mention by radio commentators and text messages reminding people about Recto’s role in the VAT law.” He adds that the text campaign against Recto was widespread, and with the people staring at the 12-percent VAT in their receipts daily, it did not take much to convince them to cross out Recto from their list for the Senate.

Senator Joker Arroyo, another ‘Wednesday Group’ member, spent even more than Recto, even though he did not have similar baggage. According to AC Nielsen, he spent P172 million for his ads, although he is contesting the figure. But it looks like his investment paid off. A critic of the current government but who ran under the administration ticket anyway, Arroyo was able to assert his “independence” through ads that subtly hit government policies.

Senator Manuel Villar, the last member of the ‘Wednesday Group,’ sunk in the most money among them: 195.2 million, making him second in AC Nielsen’s list of big spenders. He also worked the hardest in his commercials, which had him dancing, cleaning fish, and even helping build a house. Yet while he jumped to the opposition’s camp, he kept his old campaign slogan, “sipag at tiyaga (hard work and patience),” and constantly reminded voters that he worked his way up from poverty.

But when Zambales Governor Vicente ‘Vic’ Magsaysay hijacked his popular late uncle’s campaign line, “Magsaysay Is My Guy,” it did little to help his bid for the Senate. Magsaysay spent P88 million for his ads, in which he failed to say anything about his advocacies. He did, however, don a straw hat and wear a flowery shirt in his ads, making him look like a pitchman for Dole pineapple.

Another provincial governor who seemed to have a bottomless wallet was Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson of Ilocos Sur. He spent P11 million more than Magsaysay, but did not do any better at the polls. At least he said he would be the voice of the provinces at the Senate, and touted some of what he said were his accomplishments as governor as well as a former congressman. But he was ultimately done in by his own antics at the campaign trail that included his allegedly giving away money.

Miguel Zubiri’s political ad

RAMON CASIPLE, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform (IPER), believes political ads were effective “to a certain extent” only in selling “good products.” He says, “It may have helped improve the standing of those who were lagging in the surveys, but it’s not enough to make one win.”

“Like a corporation, a politician should have a good reputation,” says Tiquia. “Imagery can only be enhanced by a good reputation.” And good reputations are not made in 90 days, no matter how frequently a 30-second ad airs.

But how to explain what happened to Bukidnon Congressman Juan Miguel ‘Migz’ Zubiri, who has not done as well as expected? Young and mediagenic, Zubiri was seen by many as a sure win, since he had no real negative issue working against him. He was also one of the few candidates who had a headstart in the ads, putting out a commercial on the biofuels law, which he authored, before he declared his candidacy. Plus he had one of the catchiest jingles based on the popular “Boom-tarat-tarat” ditty sung daily in a noontime show. Although he said he got the jingle for free, Zubiri nevertheless spent P105.5 million for his ads.

As of this writing, Zubiri is 13th in the official Comelec tally; he is hopeful the remaining uncounted votes would include some in his favor, and would push him in the winning 12. But Sing says Zubiri’s close association with the administration proved to be his Achilles heel. Later, even the “Boom” song worked to his disadvantage, with another version hitting the AM airwaves, going: “Boom corrupt corrupt, kurakot, kurakot, boom, boom, boom.”

Political strategists and experts say it would do politicians well to study the 2007 campaign. Abad, for one, says the results of the 2004 and 2007 campaigns show that voters are “getting more and more choosy,” and no longer rely on glamour, as can be gleaned from the repudiation of candidates from show business.

Ad producer Espartero, meanwhile, says gleefully, “Ang twist pala, natuto na ang mga tao. Intelihente na ang botante (The twist was, the people have learned their lesson. Voters are now intelligent).”

Tiquia, for her part, gives this sage advice to politicians who want to keep winning: “Start thinking of the legacy you will leave behind.”