Demeaning their office

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The Commission on Elections (Comelec) ruling that Senators Loren Legarda, Panfilo Lacson and Juan Flavier can go on endorsing consumer products so long as they’re not yet officially candidates for the 2004 election is likely to encourage others to follow these politicians’ example.

It won’t make for either a vibrant democracy or a better government. But it will be one way for the politicians to stay in the public eye even in those moments a voter least expects, and to get paid for it besides.

I don’t know—and they’re not saying—how much Legarda et al. are getting to endorse those wonderful products on TV. But celebrity endorsement doesn’t come cheap, and I can only presume that neither would a politician’s.

Despite the Comelec ruling, no one can dispute that staying in the public eye in a country where elections are about name recall more than anything else can’t be anything else but a form of (profitable) electioneering.

As everyone knows by now, Legarda has her eye on the vice-presidency of the Republic, and Lacson on the post higher than that. About Flavier’s plans we know little so far—which makes Flavier’s endorsement of anything less suspect, because he might just not run at all in 2004.

Legarda pops up in Filipino living rooms during TV prime time, and so do Lacson and Flavier.

Surrounded by admiring housewives, Legarda endorses a detergent. To its credit, her commercial breaks a long-standing tradition in detergent ads. That tradition says that although it’s the women who do the washing, it’s only males who can be credible authority figures even on such matters as what brand of detergent women may use.

The Legarda ad also tries to link the use of her chosen detergent to the liberation of women. Unsuccessfully, since there’s no escaping the drudgery of clothes washing whether it’s by machine or by hand, and not even a senadora can make that task pleasant.

Lacson, who’s said to be a teetotaler, endorses a brandy, but limits himself only to saying that “Atin ito [This is ours].” As ads go it doesn’t depart from others of the same family, and in fact repeats the line in another, older TV commercial which featured Lacson’s colleague, Noli de Castro.

Meanwhile, Flavier, a doctor in a past life, endorses a brand of vitamins in a commercial hardly flattering to the Arroyo administration of which he’s a part. In it Flavier says, as if it were a given no one can argue with, that life’s very difficult these days (“Mahirap ang buhay ngayon”), which is why one needs to take vitamins. The argument is that if you do take your daily dose, you’re less likely to get sick, and therefore less likely to go crazy over the expense of medical care (thanks, among others, to astronomical doctors’ fees).

Celebrities of all sorts from all over the world—actors and actresses, rock stars and athletes—do endorse consumer products. The US media lead in this regard, but with Philippine TV not too far behind.

The range of those products is infinite: from computers to razor blades, cell phones to watches, shoes to tennis racquets. At one particularly low point in his life, the great Muhammad Ali even endorsed cockroach traps (the popular US brand Roach Motel) on US TV.

While one can argue that politicians are celebrities too, there’s something not quite right in their endorsing any product. It doesn’t matter if it’s something as useful as vitamins or—for lack of a better word—as sinful as liquor.

That a politician should only be endorsing something he really uses misses the point as well. Michael Jordan does wear Nike shoes, but Michael Jackson doesn’t drink only Pepsi, as his endorsement of that soft drink implies. Endorsing something doesn’t always imply that one uses it. Not in advertising it doesn’t.

That Lacson doesn’t drink at all is not contradicted by his endorsement of Napoleon VSOP brandy. He doesn’t say he drinks it, only that “this is ours,” a phrase that allows for a vast universe of meanings.

Neither does Legarda’s endorsement of Ariel detergent mean she uses it, and you won’t hear Flavier saying he takes Clusivol multivitamins daily. A metaphor might help. A drug pusher, for example, doesn’t necessarily dip into his wares. The most one can say is that all three senators are urging viewers to buy and use the products they’re pushing. If the viewer interprets this to mean that they use the products too, that’s his or her conclusion. Caveat emptor: let the buyer beware.

If all this sounds like so much hair-splitting, it’s because the ethics of advertising, such as they are, are as gray as politics’. The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees (Republic Act 6713) nowhere says “Thou shalt not endorse consumer products,” although it does say something about such things as commitment to public interest, professionalism, sincerity, etc.

Maybe it should contain something as concrete as a rule on product endorsement whose wording can’t be questioned. It’s not only because the absence of that prohibition permits politicians to campaign before the actual campaign period. It’s also because product endorsement endows the product endorsed with a distinct advantage denied its competitors.

Virtually unnoted is that these politicians’ constituencies are more likely to use the products they endorse, not necessarily because they’re better, but because of their endorsers. Endorsement ads are expensive precisely because of the edge they endow the product with.

This may seem to be of little or no moment when it’s a celebrity doing the endorsement. It is not the case with a public official, who is assumed to be unbiased. It is true that even public officials favor certain brands for use in their homes and private lives. But to make those preferences public favors some brands over others, whereas everyone, the corporations which make certain products included, are assumed to be equally their constituents.

A politician’s—especially a legislator’s—endorsement of a product also further demeans the office he holds by turning it into an object of commercial exploitation. Actors and athletes do not achieve their status through the elections crucial to democracies. They achieve them through public adulation. They are allowed a wider latitude of behavior, including product endorsement, precisely because their status owes nothing to vital political processes, only to the whims of the market and of citizens as consumers, not as citizens.

These are the two most critical reasons for the discomfort many people feel when they see an elected official endorsing a product: the sense that their exercise of the sovereign prerogative to put someone in office is being used for trade, and the sense as well that the very power they have entrusted in those they have elected is being used to sell them brandy and detergent.

Of equal concern is that, beyond the actual message of the endorsement, there is the subliminal one to remember these individuals, and to remember them come election time.

Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos’ view that “there is nothing wrong with [Legarda, Lacson and Flavier’s endorsing a product] since they’re not yet candidates” ignores a number of issues the politicians’ endorsement of consumer products raises.

Those issues are not limited to whether there’s truth in what they’re advertising, but includes the even more vital one of their demeaning their office—endowed upon them by the citizenry through elections—as public officials.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in law to prohibit it. And because the Comelec has practically endorsed it as a means to get around existing election laws, rather than end the practice with Legarda et al., their examples are likely to be only the beginning.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, December 17, 2002)

One thought on “Demeaning their office

  1. Lucille Berano

    Well, celebrity endorsers do not necessarily change one’s opinion/s of someone or something outright, but certainly there are those whose opinions count a lot to us such as those of Ms. Kris Aquino, especially in political matters as well as that of all her product endorsements such as Leonardo Bags, San San Cosmetics, Kissa Papaya Soap, Eurotiles, Chunkee Hotdog, Purefoods Corned Beef, Swatch watches, Smart, etc., especially that of her San Miguel Beer commercial. Apart from Ms. Kris Aquino, we find her mother, ex-president Cory Aquino as an effective political endorser and certainly in that leauge is Mr. Aga Muhlach, whose appeal is as timeless & as casteless as Kris, both celebrities known to penetrate or seep accross society’s cross-section!

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