In the winter of our lives…

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Greg B. Macabenta

Ad Lib

In September 2011, for the Global Summit of Filipinos in the Diaspora, convened by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO), then CFO Chair Imelda Nicolas, asked me to write a poem, “We Hear Our Motherland Calling,” as a response of overseas Filipinos to the call of Inang Pilipinas to her children in foreign lands.

I had written that call of the Motherland for the 3rd Global Filipino Networking Convention held in Cebu City in January 2005. The convention, which I chaired, was attended by Filipinos from Europe, the Middle East, the US, and countries in Asia. We called it “A Gathering of Heroes/ Pagbabalik ng mga Bayani.”

At the risk of seeming maudlin, some lines in the 2011 Global Summit response may answer the question of why I keep coming back to the Philippines (two to three times a year) in spite of all the horror stories told about our country, the least of which is the terrible traffic:

“For anywhere our path may lead, wherever we may roam,

’Tis only in your bosom that we’ll feel the warmth of home.


When age sets in and health has gone and stripped our spirits bare,

We know that you will welcome us when no one else will care.

And in the winter of our lives, when mournful bells will ring,

The Philippines will always be our summer and our spring.”

On this trip, my wife, Gigi, and I decided to celebrate our 80th birthday — literally, the winter of our lives — with friends and relatives in Manila, along with the launch of my new book, Confusions of a Communications Man.

Of course, we will have a repeat celebration with our children and grandkids when we return to the US. But it is only in the Philippines where we can revisit our youth, and recall our foibles.

On Facebook, a dear friend and former Nestlé senior vice-president, Levi Castillo, posted a photograph of me and Johnny Santos, former Nestlé Philippines chairman and president and former chairman of the Social Security System. It showed Johnny and me blowing out candles on an improvised birthday cake, as a belated celebration of his 81st birthday and my 80th, both in August.

This prompted me to dig up a photo of Johnny and me taken over 50 years ago. We were working on an ad. Johnny was a new executive recruit at Nestlé and I was an account supervisor and creative group head at Advertising & Marketing Associates. We both had plenty of hair then — which caused me to quip, “Hair today, gone tomorrow.”

And then the other day, on YouTube, I found a jingle that I composed in 1967 for Filipinas Life Assurance Company, plus a commercial that I created for Milkmaid that featured a precocious four-year-old Niño Muhlach.

Both had funny anecdotes associated with them.

Concerning the Filipinas Life jingle, the project was assigned to me by Special Advertising Services (SPADS), the ad agency of Filipinas Life. I was then working with a production house, Scan, Inc. SPADS badly needed a new jingle to keep the account from being pirated by another agency, Ideas, Inc. Ideas had presented a speculative jingle to the CEO of Filipinas Life who, in turn, demanded that SPADS present a better jingle or lose the account.

SPADS was under the impression that I was a jingle maker — which I was not — and, thus, gave me the assignment — which I accepted anyway, thinking I could pass it on to a real composer and make a few pesos in the process. The problem was, SPADS needed the new jingle, like, yesterday. The bigger problem was that there was no bonafide jingle maker available at a moment’s notice.

Realizing the urgency of the job, I contacted my kumpadre, Rusty Velilla, an experienced commercial producer, and a singing group led by Rudy Angus, and scheduled a recording session the next day. All the while, I wondered how I could conjure a jingle from thin air. When asked for the jingle, I confessed that I had none. But maybe, I said, if we had lunch first I could think of something.

I then went to the rest room to relieve myself. At that point, an old Tagalog song came to mind with lyrics that went, “Mayroong pangsabong na tandang na pinakawalan sa gitna ng daan, at may dumalagang namasdan kaya’t gumiri na agad ang katiyaw ni Mang Juan… cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-curook…cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-curoook…” (There was a fighting cock that was let loose in the middle of the road and it spotted a hen… thus Mang Juan’s rooster began to flirt and crow…)

Suddenly, a set of lyrics hit me, superimposed over “cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-curook”… “Filipinas… Filipinas Life… Filipinas Life Assurance Company…”

I rushed out of the rest room, screaming, “I’ve got the jingle… I’ve got the jingle!!!” In the car on the way to the recording studio, I frantically worked on the lyrics and the melody of the incipient jingle and finished the song just as we arrived.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. SPADS presented the recording to a very pleased client The account was saved. And the jingle became a hit.

I just confirmed it on this trip. I stumbled upon a blog, “Isa Munang Patalastas, Philippine Retro-Advertising” by Alex DR Castro, which reviews “classic” Philippine ads and commercials.

According to the blog, my song was used as the intro of a daily early morning newscast of Filipinas Life and it “became one of the most widely heard jingles in the country, catapulting the company topmost in the minds of Filipinos.”

The same blog continued: “In 1990, Filipinas Life became Ayala Life Assurance, Inc. to underscore its transformation into a full-service life insurance company. Twenty years later, it would be renamed BPI-Philam Life Assurance Corp… Despite its new name, oldtimers still recall the insurance giant’s former name through the strains of a memorable jingle that woke up everyone early in the morning, singing along with its catchy chorus — Filipinas, Filipinas Life, Filipinas Life Assurance Company!!”

Little did they know that my inspiration was a love-struck rooster crowing, “cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-curook.”

As a post-script, word got around that my creative angels came alive in the rest room and some clients actually urged me to relieve myself whenever a brain storming session hit the wall (the technique works… sometimes).

The Filipinas Life jingle was one of my winners. I also had losers, one of them being the Milkmaid “Grow Tall Little Man” campaign.

That campaign, which I wrote and the commercials of which I directed, garnered two Clio finalist certificates (“For excellence in advertising excellence worldwide”), a trophy in an All-Japan Commercial Competition, and a first prize in a Philippine ad congress creative competition. What’s more, after seeing the commercial, Fernando Poe, Jr. cast Niño Muhlach in the film, Ang Leon at ang Daga (The Lion and the Mouse). Niño became a box office star after that.

But that Milkmaid campaign was a loser, nonetheless.

You see, I created it around the consumer promise, “Malakas magpataas!” (Makes you grow tall). But Niño, whose parents were of average height, was not destined to grow tall (besides working nights at a very young age can stunt a child’s growth, just like Hollywood’s Mickey Rooney).

Wrote Niño, in a comment on YouTube: “This is a classic! Grow tall little man ung theme pero di ako tumangkad! BWAHAHAHA!” (The theme is grow tall little man but I did not grow tall!)

At any rate, win or lose, recollections like these make every visit to the Philippines so precious. Indeed, in the winter of our lives, the Philippines will always be our summer and our spring.


Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.