By Tony Samson
ELECTIONS seem to bring out the creativity of candidates and their campaign supporters. Even before the list of official candidates was finalized, there were already tarps of likely aspirants popping up all over the place — just a big photo and a short message. The posters are out there to greet passers-by (also known as “eyeballs”), extend congratulations to successful graduates, greet one and all happy holidays, or simply stake out slogans (daughter of the revolution). There is, of course, no mention of the position they are seeking. It’s presumed to be obvious. (Psst — I’m running for mayor) The effort is merely to raise awareness of the brand.
There was a Comelec ban on electioneering prior to the February 12, 2019, formal start of the campaign). Already there was guerrilla advertising even then: Huge billboards with identifiable faces of candidates (okay, some are only vaguely familiar and looking like debutantes waiting for the next dance, never again) with names and slogans along busy thoroughfares. (Please take down your billboards, or else we’ll get quite upset.)
As for public appearances, there are ribbon-cuttings at mall openings, attendance in fiestas, wedding sponsorships, and visits to bomb sites — from a photo bomber. (Isn’t there a new butler?) The photo ops are featured in both traditional and social media. No, sir, that is not considered electioneering.
After the lifting of the electioneering ban this month, skirting the rules on allowed election spending will only accelerate. Costings are reported only on advertising placements. So, why are traditional media outlets getting antsy on the seeming lack of enthusiasm for ad placements and media plans for the coming eight weeks? Election spending is to media what Christmas shopping is to retailers. It is the surge of campaign advertising and publicity in an election year that ratchets up media revenue.
Has spending on campaigns all shifted to social media with its lower costs and millennial appeal? This is not a new trend, after all. The troll army with its blizzard attacks on hate objects (those who hate their love object) has been buzzing for three years now. It will only level up its game at this time.
There are other practices that skirt the spending cap rule that also explain the lower-than-expected election advertising, which historically anyway is lower for mid-term elections than for presidential ones.
“Paid media” involves ad spending in traditional media, including billboards. Note that in this category, the payment is over-the-table and enters the company’s audited books. The industry practice for political ads requires paying before broadcast (PBB). The payment is often delivered in sports bags and weighs much heavier than a check. The advanced payment method avoids the risk of collection problems, especially from the winners.
“Earned media” on the other hand is free. It refers to coverage of a candidate due to his newsworthiness, whether from a signal achievement (rare), a scandal involving pork rind (more common) or the assassination of a rival (not available for interview). Free publicity may take the form of an ambush interview or a scheduled one-on-one chat on a news program, or a lifestyle segment — sir, what is your favorite form of exercise, aside from stretching the truth?
To guarantee a friendly, okay flattering, coverage, the encounter is scripted to highlight the achievements and sterling attributes of the guest. The “earned” part of this media coverage is extended to the show’s producer or the host — ma’am, you look so young with your pigtails. (The host looks at his notes.) How did you bring down the price of rice in your province, when Metro Manila was going crazy with a shortage and skyrocketing prices? One will observe that a host with a long question which seems to already contain the required answer has probably been incentivized via PBB and required to nod his head every three seconds, assuming the demeanor of ecstasy in the presence of his guest. He will not interrupt even a ten-minute answer with charts and bar graphs. And no fact-checking please.
Debates too are part of free media. However, the format can waste a lot of the candidate’s time for the preparation, with very questionable returns on brand building. With so many candidates, can’t he just skip this ritual?
Skirting rules in the campaign trail is good practice for the job ahead. The ability to dodge legal speed bumps on the road to happiness is part of the job description for public service.
Tony Samson is chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.
By Tony Samson