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What ‘truth in advertising’? Pol ads a free-for-all game

PCIJ 4

Second of Three Parts

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AS CANDIDATES in the upcoming elections continue to pour considerable amounts of money into political-ad campaigns, officials from state agencies such as the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) have expressed interest – and concern – over where their funds are coming from.

Voters themselves have yet to be asked if they care about where all that money financing the ads is coming from. But surveys conducted by the public opinion polling group PulseAsia Research Inc. indicate that voters welcome even pre-campaign political ads, apparently seeing these as aids in getting to know the candidates ahead of making decisions inside the polling booth.

Data from surveys conducted from July 2008 to December 2015 by PulseAsia Research Inc. also showed a growing acceptance among voters of pre-campaign ads.

Asked “whether or not it is right for a politician who might be a candidate to appear in an advertisement before the official election period,” more and more respondents answered in the positive as the 2016 elections came closer: 48 percent in July 2008; 55 percent in September 2015; and 65 percent in December 2015.

Asked in a December 2015 PulseAsia nationwide survey how much the candidates’ advertisements would help them in their selection of those whom they would vote for in the coming May 2016 elections, 38 percent said the ads “will be very helpful”; another 42 percent said the ads “will be somewhat helpful”; and 15 percent said they were undecided.

Of the respondents who rated ads to be “very helpful” and “somewhat helpful,”38 percent said that through ads, they “get to know the issues or advocacies of the candidates” and 27 percent said that they “get to know the track record, capability or experience of the candidates.”

‘Products, not people’

Unfortunately, unlike claims in commercials for shampoo and toothpaste that could be validated by science or by consumers to be true or false, what candidates say or do in ads seem to deflate the principle of “truth in advertising” that industry practitioners are made to swear by.

One ad industry insider even voices concern that political ads in general mock and deny the citizen’s right to full, fair, and unvarnished information about those who wish to lead the nation and manage the public purse.

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Quite interestingly, some of those who now weave myth and magic in public about those seeking election this May speak of the candidates and their campaign in the most cynical and condescending manner, in private conversations.

According to these political spinmeisters, this year’s elections have turned into a buyer’s market where money talks to mute or muffle “truth in advertising” and in its stead, give way to “political branding for the win.”

“It’s paid media, paid service, mercenary service,” a senior PR agent tells PCIJ. “Meron ka bang napupusuan sa mga kandidato (Is there anyone among the candidates you would support)? Most of the people I talk to in the industry, (the answer is) none of the above. ‘Hindi ako magpapakamatay sa iyo (I’m not willing to die for you)’.”

“To us,” the agent adds, “they are products, not people. The goal is to sell, to secure winnability. You want me, you pay me, pera-pera lang ito (this is just about money).”

In truth, elections are hugely lucrative for media agents, PRs, and creative teams that candidates contract and deploy for overt and covert operations across print, broadcast, and online platforms, or across traditional and social media.

From March 2015 to January 2016, Nielsen Media reports showed that the top candidates for president, vice president, and senators had bought political-ad placements mostly on TV and some for radio and print (newspapers and magazines) media worth a combined total of P6.7 billion, by media rate cards.

But ad buys are just the front-end of a candidate’s cost. The sundry back-end costs include producing the ad materials. Two elections ago, the creative and production cost of a single ad material alone — from storyboard to shoot to post-production for video and digital copy — went for about P5 million. Today the same service fetches from P8 million to P10 million, according to industry insiders.

The services of ad and PR agents do no come cheap, either, with their fees ranging from several hundred thousand to several million pesos. Those who do the candidates’ ad placements also typically get a guaranteed 10 to 15 percent commission, on the rate card of media agencies.

No SRP, no SPG

Asked to comment on the mercenary nature of those crafting political ad campaigns, one PR veteran says, “Guilty conscience? If you’re a lawyer and you are called to defend a criminal, should you feel any guilt, for defending people who killed others? If doctor had to treat a rapist, in the throes of death, is that wrong? That is the same for the ad agent and PR (in a political ad campaign) — it’s a job, and one we happen to be good at.”

Still, there are those who express unease in putting candidates in the best possible light – while leaving voters unaware of potential dangers. Says an old PR industry hand: “Politicians are not just soap or shampoo. They are not ordinary products. The lives of people are at stake here.”

One ad agent also notes that unlike any other products, candidates do not come with an SRP (suggested retail price) notice, or an FDA (Food and Drugs Administration) stamp of approval, or even an SPG (Striktong Patnubay at Gabay ng Magulang) alert. They don’t even come with a warning from the surgeon general that they could be bad for health and kill, literally and figuratively, says the agent.

Still another ad industry insider worries that by their product expiry date on poll day, a “no return, no exchange” policy applies to these candidates should they get voted.

Negative is positive?

There is, of course, far too little that one can say in 30 seconds, a minute, or even 90 seconds, the run times of TV spots, and ad makers cannot really be faulted for trying to sell their candidate, however flawed, at all cost.

Some observers have thus suggested that with such a situation, negative ads or those pointing out faults or controversies surrounding a candidate would actually be welcome, at least in balancing the kind of information available to voters. In general, however, negative ads tend to backfire in this country, with voters seeing them as bully tactics employed by a rival against the target candidate.

It has come to a point, however, that even PR practitioners are wondering which agency should call out untruths in political ads. Just last January some PR industry members posted this question at a meeting with Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista. Perhaps, it was suggested, the Comelec should be reviewing pol ads for content. But Bautista said the poll body had neither time nor personnel or resources to do so.

To Ronald Holmes, PulseAsia’s executive director and a professor in political science at De La Salle University, the ads-centric campaign that nearly all the current candidates have mounted persist because of the absence of what he called “a structural variable” in elections: true, dyed-in-the-wool parties.

Said Holmes: “You don’t have bonafide parties because even the electoral system does not really require it… It’s a first-past-the-post, you don’t need a pol party to win as mayor, but an alliance only of politicians.”

Voters, though, can perhaps comfort that it is not only by ads that candidates can win elections — not even by all the ads that all the billions of pesos in these parts can buy.

When ads don’t work

In recent elections, a few mishaps had occurred for some of the biggest ad spenders in Philippine elections.

In 2007, then Surigao del Sur 1st District Rep. Prospero Pichay Jr. failed in his Senate bid even after investing hugely on TV ads for his “Itanim sa Senado” campaign. Ranked as the No.1 ad spender at the time, he reportedly spent over P171 million on ads, by the rate card of media agencies.

In 2010, former Senate president Manuel ‘Manny’ Villar flooded the airwaves with his “Naligo ka na ba sa dagat ng basura?” ads to help him in his presidential run. By Nielsen Media’s monitoring reports, Villar spent about P1.2 billion in combined political ads for himself, his running mate Loren Legarda, and tandem ads for him and his candidates for senator. In the end, Benigno S. Aquino III of the Liberal Party (LP) trounced Villar.

Nielsen Media, in a recent study titled “The Ballot Box: The Perfect Media Mix for Your Campaign,” looked at how or whether or not ad spending could drive a candidate’s survey ratings and chance at victory, based on year-on-year ad spend from 2009 to 2015 vis-a-vis the candidates’ ranking in public opinion polls.

Nielsen used its Advertising Information Service to derive the value on political ads and social concerns from January 2009 to May 8, 2010, net of “instances that were clearly not used as a campaign tool.”

From 2009 to 2015 during election years and even non-election years, Nielsen said total ad spend has increased steadily. The start of the official campaign period, it added, typically triggers spending spikes.

In 2015, the Philippines total advertising budget was a hefty P456.9 billion, by the rate card of media agencies. Deflated for up to 40-percent agency commissions, the net total comes up to P274 billion, across all ad categories. Political ads, in Nielsen’s monitoring reports, fall under the “social concerns” subcategory of ad placements by “government agencies & public utilities.”

Strategy, not value

“The Ballot Box” study analyzed the monthly ad spend — across TV, radio, and print platforms and by placement areas — of the 2010 candidates for president (Villar, Aquino, Joseph Estrada, and Gilbert Teodoro) and their running mates (Loren Legarda, Manuel ‘Mar ‘Roxas II, Jejomar Binay, and Bayani Fernando). The study did not cover outdoor ad spend and digital ad ratings, however.

According to “The Ballot Box,” having more ads does not automatically translate to victory. Nielsen noted that Manny Villar lost even as he accounted for the majority (55 percent) of total ads during the election period, compared to 21 percent for Aquino, 15 percent for Estrada, and nine percent for Teodoro.

The study also found that the timing of ads is important. Aquino, Nielsen noted, “utilized the winning strategy amongst presidentiables” — his ads peaked from February to April, the first two months of the campaign proper. It also pointed out that “Aquino’s increased ad spend in January and February arrested his ratings decline.”

In contrast, while Villar’s ad spend reached its zenith in December 2009, he “deliberately decreased spending when scandals against him started to come out in January (2010).” As his ratings declined, so did Villar’s ad spend, the study said.

Aquino, Nielsen said, also “used a good mix of primetime, longer materials & consistent TV presence daily.”

In 2010, by the rate card of the networks, Nielsen said the four candidates for president invested huge amounts on ads from November 2009 to May 2010:

Villar, P2,506,982,400 total for all media platforms, including P1,898,643,014 for TV ads;

Aquino, P950,209,419 total, including P718,356,941 for TV ads;

Teodoro, P683,430,623 total, including P585,551,373 for TV ads; and

Estrada, P424,391,453 total, including P343,940,149 for TV ads.

Between Binay and Aquino, a few distinctions emerged, however.

Binay, like Aquino, spent more on FM radio ads. Their losing rivals placed more ads on AM radio.

In addition, said the study, Binay “used shorter materials and maximized weekday and primetime reach,” and “placed more emphasis on Cebu and Davao than his competitors did.”

And even as “Legarda dominated print,” Nielsen said, “Binay was across all newspaper types, while Roxas only utilized tabloids.”

Ad peso per vote

In sum, Nielsen said, “Binay’s media spend was more efficient than Roxas’s – half the money for the same number of votes.”

By the rate card of media agencies, Nielsen’s study said Binay spent P581,770,539 on ads but got 14,645,574 votes, or an average of P40 ad spend per vote. He won.

Roxas, meanwhile, spent P1,183,568,943 on ads but got only 13,918,490 votes, or an average of P85 ad spend per vote. He lost.

Legarda, for her part, spent P651,979,052 and got 4,294,664 votes, for an average of P151 ad spend per vote.

Finally, Fernando spent P241,885,635 and got 1,017,631 votes, for an average of P238 ad spend per vote.

Some factors, too, may have influenced the candidates’ ratings in surveys, however.

Nielsen said these include “the boost Noynoy Aquino received from the passing of his mother Cory”; Chiz Escudero’s endorsement of Binay; Villar’s “several struggles” with the C5 scandal and “accusations that his message (being poor) was untrue”; the mass appeal of Joseph Estrada, “regardless of controversial history,” and “already existing value for the candidates based on name, track record, and popularity, as in the case of Tito Sotto, Pia Cayetano, Jinggoy Estrada, and Lito Lapid.” Malou Mangahas, PCIJ

READ: Pre-campaign ads hit P6.7B: Bribery, tax evasion, impunity?

SIDEBAR

Inside spin central

THE WAR for votes must be won on two fronts: from the air and from the ground, according to veteran political strategists who have seen action in past elections.

This is especially true for candidates for national office who must have — more than just oodles of cash — the right message and image to communicate well, and thus sell, to voters, on television, radio, print, and online media, and at the hustings.

For the first battlefront, political ads and media relations are a candidate’s handy weapons. For the second, pit-stop rallies across the nation to press palm with, kiss, hug, sing, and dance for voters, and the machine and network to do all his or her bidding.

About 20 media agencies offering full service and specific line service – creative and production work, media planning and placement, public relations, digital marketing, social-media listening, and special operations, among others – are now working with the campaign teams of the top candidates for president, vice president, and senator for the May 2016 elections.

For sure, they are just one of the many groups that all together make up a candidate’s campaign team, which includes the candidate’s family members, top donors, campaign managers, lawyers, political allies, and ward leaders.

But it is this cluster of creatives, PRs, ad agents, and media managers — also called the “Comms Team” of the candidate — that is defining the public discourse about a candidate and his or her rival to voters and the news media. And they do so in a manner largely secret and sneaky, by methods overt and covert, and always for a lot of money.

One senior ad and PR industry hand even remarks, “During election season, you bend the rules. If you stick to the rules, you will get nowhere.”

The political campaign veteran also says there are almost “no limits” on how far one should bend the rules, “even for special operations.” It is, says the source, “a free-for-all game.”

Some agencies have been hired for overt and “above ground” activities. They include the creatives who craft, write, and produce the “messaging,” concept, copy, and materials for political ads; the agents or agencies assigned to media planning and media placement (for ad buys on TV, radio, print, outdoor billboards) for the candidates; and PRs coordinating the candidate’s guesting on TV or radio programs, meet-greet visits to newsrooms, groups, and other public events.

Still others perform combined overt and covert or “underground” tasks. One candidate’s team even has a unit dedicated to “special operations,” whose recent activities included the mass distribution across the nation of leaflets bearing the image of Pope Francis warning against thievery of public funds, and a rival candidate’s photo printed on one corner.

Some “media coordinators” or PRs, meanwhile, deal with the delivery of “free media” stories that run without payment in newspapers, radio, television, and online media.

Then there are the agents who secure “paid media” reports, or get the candidate’s press releases published or aired by paying several thousands of pesos to news media and social-media players. In some news agencies, ad buys are bundled with guaranteed “free media” stories for the candidate as a bonus.

Indeed, today’s going rate per story has reportedly been scaled up to as much as P10,000 by two opposition candidates. In past elections, P5,000 was the maximum rate per story, according to those interviewed by PCIJ.

But this is just for “paid media, retail” or money given for stories. After all, it is not just stories, but also “friendship” and “goodwill” that PRs want from the newsroom gatekeepers. Hence, there is also “paid media, wholesale.” Through gifts in cash or kind, PRs try to create “bonds” or ties with some editors, producers, anchors, columnists, and media bosses who are open or given to taking such deals.

For this second group, one candidate’s team recently sent kilos and kilos of crabs and prawn, and other goodies to newsrooms. Cash of up to P100,000 has also passed hands from the candidates’ teams to some media practitioners at private meetings, PRs say.

To be sure, one PR said, “just a few” newsroom executives are engaged in the practice. The PR adds that to save face, time, and money, “we do not approach anymore the hostile ones, or those who would not accept.”

Social media, which many PRs consider to be a buzz trigger, did not figure as yet as a major platform for courting votes in the 2013 elections. These days, though, the latest social media metrics place the number of Filipinos with access to the Internet at a low of 42 million and a high of 48 million, enticing many national candidates to now mount pitch battles online.

As a result, a candidate’s “Comms Team” now also includes a couple of social media managers assigned to do both monitoring and message management tasks, including growing the content and traffic of the candidate’s official web and social media accounts; “listening” to conversations online; engaging followers; drawing eyeballs; posting promotional blogs, tweets, and photos; and even supporting or buying certain media accounts with significant followers.

The teams of three candidates for president – Mar Roxas, Grace Poe, and Rodrigo Duterte – have reportedly courted and won over such accounts with 2.6 million to 3.16 million followers to assist their campaigns online.

Some candidates who are the most engaged in social media have also hired “under the line” social media teams to stage troll, “astroturf,” and “black hat” operations on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the insiders say.

“Astroturf” refers to “creating the impression of public support by paying people in the public to pretend to be supportive,” according to the Urban Dictionary. “The false support can take the form of letters to the editor, postings on message boards in response to criticism, and writing to politicians in support of the cause.”

As for “black hat” operations, computer programmer and software freedom activist Richard Matthew Stallman, often known by his initials rms, has been credited for coining the phrase, which refers to the “malicious hacking of secure networks to destroy, modify, or steal data; or to make the network unusable for those who are authorized to use the network.”

But aside from ad and PR agents, a few others with little or no experience in doing message and image for candidates influence, and sometimes even command, the candidates’ Communication Teams. Such is the shared misery of the Roxas, Binay, and Poe campaign teams, industry insiders say.

They say that these three presidentiables have teams or persons assigned separately to do the following tasks:

  • Traditional advertising, promotionals (stickers, leaflets, handouts, tarps, billboards).
  • Media relations and PR for print, radio, TV, and online/social media;
  • “Special operations,” including mounting “negative attacks on rivals”;
  • “Ground operations,” including managing the schedule of rallies, public events, and meetings with local ward leaders; and
  • Networking with the “Con” or conventional (i.e. local politicians), and “Non-Con” or non-conventional (i.e. civil society organizations, civic groups, churches) allies and groups.

But that’s not all. On top of all these teams, say insiders, are those who compose the “Execom” or executive committee, and “ManCom” or management committee, of the candidate’s campaign team. These committees include the charmed circle of family members, top donors, campaign managers, political party leaders, and the personal friends and allies of the candidate.

“In elections past, there used to be one overall bastonero (sergeant at arms),” says a PR agent working with a wanna-be president’s team. “In this case, I don’t see anyone doing that for the candidates, and for the ad and PR agencies.“

“There are so many cooks in the kitchen,” continues the source. “And it’s the same with the other candidates. Away-away sila (They fight), the one who speaks loudest and the strongest, and with the backing of money, wins the arguments.” — Malou Mangahas, PCIJ, March 2016

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