Friday, May 16, 2008

Selling Candidates

I found myself in the First Campaigners-Media Interface at the Hyatt last Tuesday despite not being a campaigner anymore and not being officially part of any media outfit. When they opened the floor for questions I wanted to introduce myself as “Hello, I'm from the Internet.”

Which would've been cute and true. However, the relevance of the internet to winning elections isn't that clear. Tony Gatmaitan has stated that 15% of the votes will be determined by cyberspace but he seems to be referring only to text messaging. There was no mention of blogs, social networking, and other stuff we in the interwebs are so used to. MLQ3 (scroll to the middle) thinks he's dismissive of these other aspects of cyberspace but dismissing something implies awareness. For all we know he may not even be familiar with how the other parts of cyberspace work.

I wanted to liveblog the event but the Hyatt didn't have free wifi. Riding dem intertubes is expensive, which is probably why we don't factor into elections yet.

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Klaus Preschle, country representative of event sponsor Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in his opening remarks noted that during one of his early visits to the Philippines he was surprised to find that “...boring speeches did not prevent people from having fun during campaigns.” Which I found funny because it's true; election campaigns here are circuses meant to entertain instead of enlighten, with “boring speeches” being the “relevance” that all entertainers try to inject. In TV viewing jargon, they're the stuff we zip and zap.

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The morning session launched a book called “Selling Candidates” by Pulse Asia Director Ana Maria Tabunda and Newsbreak writers Carmela Fonbuena and Aries Rufo, which chronicled the 2007 senatorial elections. The book focuses on political ads, which in 2004 was predicted to be crucial in winning future elections. Back then Mar Roxas (the dancing surfboard) got the number one spot through sheer number of ads despite being a relatively unknown department secretary.

The highlight of the launch was the panel discussion moderated by Cheche Lazaro, which featured exceptions to the rule: Alan Peter Cayetano, who didn't spend much for TV ads yet won, and Prospero Pichay who spent the most yet lost spectacularly. Yoly Ong of Campaigns and Grey represented the ad people / image makers, Charie Villa of ABS-CBN and Marichu Villanueva of the Philippine Star were there too.

Cayetano claims he didn't have much to spend for ads and, apparently, didn't need to. He had a lot of what is called “earned media” thanks to his tussle with the first gentleman, which meant free airtime on news channels. The news reports also reinforced his image as someone against the president, which was crucial as midterm elections also serve as a referendum on the current administration.

Pichay was the opposite, spending close to 100 million on TV ads which sent a simplistic message based on a pun and looked as though it was aimed at kids. Plus his reputation as the president's attack dog didn't help. He also admitted that he was unprepared and was only forced to run to complete the slate.

Yoly Ong says she chooses which candidates to help (she isn't a gun for hire) having worked only for the two Rocos since 2004. She says the image a candidate projects needs to be based on “basic truths;” it isn't a costume one can wear and take off.

Charie Villa, who heads news gathering for ABS-CBN, says that the challenge for them is to differentiate legitimate news from staged events. Ads are one thing but the stuff that appears on the news needs to be actual news.

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1. Everyone despises (or is mildly irritated by) Pichay. He's the Dr. Zoidberg of the panetl, the butt of jokes and the one who seems like he's out of his intellectual league. He's the trapo who makes the boring, repetitive speeches Klaus was probably referring to.

2. Cayetano doesn't strike me as especially brilliant but speaks clearly and (for a politician) concisely. He enumerates his points and answers the actual question without pandering to the crowd. Unlike Pichay he understands that this is a pretty well-educated crowd. He also gets points for the best comeback. In one exchange Pichay says this is the only country where an endorsement from an ex-president convicted of corruption helps a candidate win. Cayetano replies that this is also the only country where an endorsement from a sitting president is the kiss of death. (Oh snap!)

3. Ichu Villanueva looks simultaneously bored and nervous and constipated. Billy Esposo would've been the better representative for The Star (if they could literally haul his ass over). His insights from the media bureau of the Cory campaign would've made a great comparison to Yoly's current methods.

4. People listened intently to Yoly Ong partly because she's a good speaker (all successful ad people have mastered the art of the pitch) but mostly because most everyone in the audience (mostly journalists and political staff members) really wanted to know how an “image maker” works. She was the one providing practical information.

5. The panel discussion wasn't nearly long enough. Perhaps Cheche could do several episodes of her “Media in Focus” on the various aspects of this topic. By the time it got interesting time was up and everyone was hungry.

6. My being “from the internet” is still just a notch above inconsequential. Perhaps a similar event featuring emerging technologies and media for political campaigns is in order. (More on this in another post)

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I'll write about the afternoon session next.

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