By Joseph L. Garcia

It’s a skill to make someone fall in love with you for your looks, but let’s see you try that with a whole nation.

Your appearances say a lot about you, and you don’t even have to say anything. Throughout history, people in power, or those seeking it, have used their bodies as canvasses to convey a message. Like costumes in a theatrical production, appearances and self-presentation were tailored to show a figure’s values — and value.

For example, during the Second World War, then-Queen Mary, not yet the Queen Mother, went around war-torn London in light colored dresses to cheer up shell-shocked citizens. A popular story goes that when asked about the propriety of wearing bright, expensive clothing during difficult times, the queen was supposed to have answered, “Of course… they would wear their best dresses if they were coming to see me.”

Branding art

What the clothes don’t say, or what they hide, also matters. When the former actress Eva “Evita” Duarte became the wife of Argentine dictator Juan Peron, Argentina’s ruling class sniffed at her style, which had vestiges of her flamboyant movie star days. After a much-publicized “Rainbow Tour” by Mrs. Peron around Europe, she adopted the more tailored style she had observed at French couture houses. As Mrs. Peron changed costumes and charmed the people, few took notice of the corruption of her husband’s regime.

In the Philippines, a person who exemplified this fashionable tactic was former First Lady Imelda Marcos. Author Katherine Ellison, in Imelda: Steel Butterfly of the Philippines, her biography of Mrs. Marcos, wrote: “Palabas, or dramatic spectacle, is basic to the Philippines, where the most faithful crucify themselves at Easter festivals, and politics is always personal… Imelda was an expert in the art, which she used with skill to enchant both Filipinos and Americans.” Through her husband’s 20-year regime, Mrs. Marcos strutted around in her ternos, becoming a symbol of both power and extravagance that supported her husband’s regime.

Oddly enough, another expert in the use of image for political purposes was the unassuming Corazon Aquino, widow of slain senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., and later political rival of the Marcoses. In the people’s clamor for justice, Mrs. Aquino shook off her widow’s weeds and adopted yellow in her dress and her campaign, a color associated with her husband thanks to the song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree,” which symbolized the wish for him to come home from exile in the US (the moment he did he was assassinated). The EDSA Revolution of 1986, with a tired and angry populace awash in yellow, drove out the Marcoses and installed Mrs. Aquino into the presidency.

In 2010, yellow worked its magic again when Cory Aquino died during an election year. “Noynoy Aquino (President Benigno S. C. Aquino III) [was] not one of the better-performing senators before. But because the icon of democracy, his mother, Cory Aquino died, at that time… sympathy was simply something that was readily available for… his candidacy,” said Edmund Tayao, a Political Science professor from the University of Sto. Tomas and Chair of the Metis Facility: Strategic Research and Consulting Group. “Not to mention, of course, that the outgoing administration at that time was very much… into controversies. People were looking for something or someone that… could readily change that image, as far as the government is concerned,” he said during a phone interview with BusinessWorld.

Yellow had been so evocative of the change brought upon by 1986 that Mrs. Aquino’s son used it for campaigning in the 2010 elections, a color that evoked his parents’ legacy. Mr. Aquino won those polls, and during his inauguration, his sisters, including celebrity Kris Aquino, stood near him, all wearing yellow dresses. Mr. Tayao said, “That’s just part of the caboodle. You can wear any color, and the only reason yellow is the color is precisely because he wanted to project that he is an Aquino, and he represented the Aquino brand.”

LP campaign
PRESIDENT BENIGNO S. C. AQUINO III presenting “Team PNOY” candidates during the kick-off rally for the 2013 midterm election.

In the upcoming 2016 elections, candidates will use a number of tactics to get to voters, one of which will include their personal style, which would cover not only their dress, but their image, movement, and general self-presentation. Dr. Ricardo Abad, chair of the Ateneo de Manila Sociology and Anthropology Department, calls this “impression management.” “Potential leaders have been identified based on, among others, birthright, tradition, wealth, and brute strength — none of which had anything to do with looks… impression management, or the presentation of self in public, has become a formidable strategy in winning votes and getting elected to office,” he said in an e-mail.

“Living in a mass society, we have become incapable of knowing people, including potential leaders, on deeper levels. We have learned instead to judge a book by its cover, and if that cover aligns with what we as a people perceive to be sincere, compassionate, dynamic, heroic, and other positive traits, then we are more likely to trust that person. If that person happens to be a candidate, then we are more likely to vote for that candidate, all things being equal,” he said.

He used the case of the election that brought US President John F. Kennedy to power. “Studies of televised presidential debates in the US [have] shown that the candidate’s impression management contributed to the victory of that candidate.  Between Kennedy and [Richard] Nixon, Kennedy was perceived to be more trustworthy than Nixon, thus leading independent and uncertain voters to vote for Kennedy.”

During the televised debate, according to Sarah Bradford’s biography of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, America’s Queen, “Nixon suffered from the televisual defect of having an unusually transparent skin so that every hair follicle showed up on camera… He was tense, unnerved by technical complications in the studio during the day, while Kennedy was relaxed…” She also said that, “Those who heard it on the radio thought that the candidates had come off equal, but polls of those who had watched it indicated that Nixon had come out of it poorly, or even very poorly.”

It also helped Mr. Kennedy’s campaign, and later administration, that he had a very photogenic wife and family, which he used to an advantage: publishing spreads about their family life in magazines, and bringing his wife to state visits to charm world leaders.

Kennedy nixon
JOHN F. KENNEDY and Richard M. Nixon during the first televised presidential debate in the US, which was held in Chicago on Sept. 26, 1960, at the CBS studio. Photo from

Mr. Tayao added, “In… anything and everything that every individual does, even in personal relationships, it doesn’t necessarily make sense that one would say, ‘I like him, or… her, because… he’s nice, or he’s good…,’. One’s being well-meaning or one’s being good is… something that you make sense [of] only after some time. The first thing that you see is… how a person looks like.”

Mr. Tayao also makes a case that the lack of a real political party system contributes to the rise of personality-based politics. “Because of the lack of political party system[s], campaigns are not easily supervised or audited… in other words, everything now becomes dependent on how the campaign is going to… package a particular personality,” he said.

“They (appearances and image management) will matter, most of all, to voters who know little about issues (and they can be rich or poor people) and who do not know the candidates (and their platforms, if any) very well,” said Dr. Abad.

Dr. Abad, meanwhile, said, about appearances and impression management winning votes, “It’s one factor. But I think more than appearance it’s goons and gold. And the power and wealth of the candidates belonging to the incumbent party. And the influence of local leaders. And a kind of democratic system where elections are allowed to be popularity contests, creating special advantages for actors, singers, professional ball players, and boxers.”

Mr. Tayao, however, said that these old tactics might not work anymore, citing trends in the polls preceding the 2016 elections. “If we’re going to reflect on the ongoing presidential election[s]… it somehow suggests that appearances or personal backgrounds no longer suffice… for voters to decide who they are going to vote for,” he said. “If you look at the surveys, the numbers of the… presidential candidates… there’s no trend. If by trend, we mean that one candidate is obviously pulling away from the others, compared to other presidential races… there must be something else that the voters are looking for [to] be able to finally decide.

“There is a trend, in the sense that not one candidate is a runaway winner just yet… which means that personality alone is no longer enough for the… voters or the public to second-guess what the policy advocacy or what is the… position of a candidate as far as what issue is concerned.”