The May 13 launch of a book on political ads by Newsbreak magazine has recalled, if only temporarily, attention to the role of political ads in Philippine elections. In the elections of 2007, as in 2004, it indeed seemed obvious enough: spend on the ads and win.
Releasing its study on media coverage of the May 2007 elections in August that year, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility recalled that since the 2001 lifting of the ban, political advertisements had been a major factor in winning elections. Manuel “Mar” Roxas’ case was the shining—or dim—example of how those with money to burn could make their political fortunes through paid ads, mostly in television.
And then there was Jamby’s case. Ma. Ana Consuelo Madrigal ran for the Senate in 2001 but lost, apparently because she didn’t spend enough—and/or had a bad publicist. Endorsement by TV and film actor Judy Ann Santos—over TV, radio, print and billboards—catapulted Madrigal, who spent P53.31 million for the ads, from 35th place in the late 2003 surveys to sixth place by May, 2004.
Apparently with these lessons in mind, and no doubt egged on by their respective campaign managers and the ad companies, several candidates for the Senate spent for advertising in 2007 as if there were no tomorrow—or, what’s more likely, in anticipation of recovering their costs once in office.
Nielsen Media Research listed the big ad spenders in 2007 as Prospero Pichay of the administration ticket Team Unity (TU) who spent P109 million; Joker Arroyo of TU, P94 million; Manuel Villar, guest candidate of the Genuine Opposition (GO), P84 million; Edgardo J. Angara of TU, 69 million; Vicente Sotto III of TU, P61 million; Michael Defensor of TU, P60 million; Teresa Aquino Oreta of TU, P57 million; Ralph Recto of TU, P56.8 million; Loren Legarda of GO, P56.4 million; and Juan Miguel Zubiri of TU, P45 million.
With its 95 percent reach into Filipino households, television was the primary beneficiary of ad spending, with print a poor second. Overall the administration’s TU spent the most for ads compared to the opposition’s GO and smaller parties like Kapatiran.
Political ads assure candidates continuing media presence either as a substitute for or in complementation of media coverage. The well-intentioned though fatally flawed political ad ban which was in force from 1987 to 2001 sought to level the political playing field by preventing the most moneyed candidates from using the media, through political ads, to enhance their popularity.
The argument, in itself sound, was that, given their advantage, the most moneyed were likely to win over those who didn’t have the same means to buy political ads. The media would in short be another arena where the moneyed who could afford to pay for ads and not necessarily the competent and honest who could not would prevail.
Unfortunately that argument foundered on the shoals of media corruption and creative enterprise. Radio particularly rushed to fill the ensuing breach by offering candidates “packages” consisting of assured media “coverage” in exchange for fees that could be as low as a few thousands to several millions.
Scratch out one more experiment to democratize Philippine elections—and add one more item in the growing list of how money rules them, in addition to enhancing media corruption and unethical practice.
But the lifting of the ban did not stop the practice of offering candidates media “packages”. Instead the ads complemented the packages that had already become common by 2001, and which some media organizations were even defending as legitimate. In 2007, it therefore seemed that spending for the packages as well as the ads were assurance enough of—here comes that word so beloved by the pols—“winnability”.
Except that the results of the 2007 elections defied such hopes. The biggest ad spender of them all, the prosperous Mr. Pichay, was among the year’s biggest losers, while accused rebel soldier Antonio Trillanes IV, who hardly spent anything on ads, won handily. The losers among the TU candidates were also among those who spent the most for political ads and who knows what other media arrangements.
The CMFR study noted as early as July, 2007 that the crucial factor in the elections results was Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Their close association with Mrs. Arroyo was the kiss of death for Pichay as it was for former Presidential Chief of Staff Michael Defensor. On the other hand, Trillanes tapped into the vast pool of anti-GMA sentiment among the electorate the surveys had been noting for months, while former Estrada associates Teresa Oreta and Vicente Sotto managed to alienate the voters by jumping the Estrada ship and joining the TU ticket.
The 2007 elections were a turning point not only in terms of their demonstrating that political ads alone don’t assure victory in elections. The results also suggested that media exposure in general, whether through the news, the ads or in the long-term as a celebrity, no longer guaranteed making it to elective office. Actors Richard Gomez and Cesar Montano, for example, lost miserably despite their celebrity status, most probably because they chose to run under TU—and were also generally inarticulate about their plans if elected. Boxer Manny Pacquiao, whose popularity was thought to be enough to give him a congressional seat, was doomed for the same reasons.
The central lesson in all this is never to underestimate the electorate. In 2007 the voters showed that they were learning a few hard lessons themselves, and that it was the politicos and celebrities, not to mention such mechanisms as the numeracy-challenged Commission on Elections, who were falling behind an increasingly discerning electorate.
Disclosure clause: Luis V. Teodoro is Deputy Director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and headed the 2007 CMFR study on media coverage of the 2007 elections which included a chapter on political advertisements.