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Months before campaign, politicians test the power of 'advocacy ads'

By Jam Sisante, Mark Merueñas, and Howie Severino
06/23/2009 | 10:53 AM
The first in an occasional series on political advertising.

Officially, the campaign period for next year's election will start eight months from now. But who's waiting?

In only the first three months of this year, just three possible candidates have already spent a total of P230 million in "advocacy ads" -- thinly disguised campaign commercials on television and radio.

Roxas and Villar lead in "advocacy ads" spending

Nielsen Media Research identified the three as Senator Manuel "Mar" Roxas II (P140 million), Senator Manuel Villar Jr. (P80 million), and Senator Loren Legarda (P10 million). All three have given indications they're running for the presidency next year.

The early electioneering is obvious to many TV viewers. But the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has already determined that the so-called advocacy ads do not violate election campaign laws since the political advertisers have not yet filed their certificates of candidacy.

"Free for all, yan ay saklaw ng freedom of expression until and unless mabago po ang ating batas [Free for all, that is covered by freedom of expression until and unless our law is amended]," said Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento.

It’s not exactly “free for all;" with air time at peak viewing hours on a major network (such as GMA7 and ABS-CBN) worth as much as P475,000 per 30 seconds, heavy political advertisers at this stage are a very exclusive club. Senator Panfilo Lacson cited the cost of a presidential campaign as his reason for abandoning his plans to seek the presidency in 2010.

Paid ads versus negative publicity

With his vast wealth enabling his freedom of expression, the real estate magnate and presumptive candidate Villar is bombarding the air waves with ads extolling him as a bosom friend of OFWs and small entrepreneurs. The ads accompany his camp’s hopes that the paid exposure will outweigh the effects of the free but negative publicity he’s getting as a result of conflict of interest charges by his Senate colleagues.

Villar has refused to participate in Senate ethics hearings called by Senator Jamby Madrigal on allegations that he illegally profited from a diversion of the C5 road project.

Instead, Villar is bringing “his case directly to the people whose wisdom transcends the combined minds of all the senators," according to a statement by his spokesperson Jan Mata. “Admittedly, Senator Villar is active in his public informational campaign. It is by this means that he registers very well in the public mind."

This “public informational campaign" seems to have already paid off, judging by the latest surveys. Villar topped an April-May Social Weather Stations poll, but Villar’s camp itself commissioned the survey. He was followed by Vice President Noli de Castro and Senator Roxas in the same poll.

In a Pulse Asia survey released around the same time, however, Villar was fourth among 16 names appearing in the presidential preference poll, while Roxas was fifth. Topping the survey was De Castro, aided to a great degree by the advantages of his office, including the government’s media machinery.

De Castro was followed by senator and former FPJ campaign spokesman Francis Escudero and former president Joseph Estrada, respectively. The top three are household names because of their TV exposure through the nightly news, and rely more on free publicity rather than paid ads.

Roxas catches up with Villar

Political analyst Ramon Casiple told GMANews.TV that while Roxas and Villar get their share of free publicity through the news, their political ads helped them break through the top five. "[The political ads] contributed to Roxas's and Villar's visibility, ratings," Casiple said.

It would also appear that Villar’s communications strategy has overcome the ill effects on his image of the road controversy. However, a closer look at the Pulse Asia numbers over time tells a different story. Villar’s 14 percent preference among Pulse Asia’s respondents was less than his 15 percent in a similar poll last February. Thus, it does not appear that his ad campaign during the Senate brouhaha has improved his standing.

Roxas, in contrast, improved over the same period from 8 percent to 13 percent. Pedaling hard in his “padyak" commercials, Roxas has virtually caught up with Villar. Of course, it hasn’t hurt Roxas that his engagement to broadcaster Korina Sanchez has been garnering him loads of free airtime.

And in case you missed it on TV, Roxas tweeted his followers with the wedding details here.

While his rival is in pre-nuptial mood, Villar is in crisis communications mode. His ad campaign “softened the blow" of the road controversy, according to Harvey Keh, the lead convenor of Kaya Natin, a movement advocating ethical leadership. “Without the ads, he would have rated much lower."

Villar is adhering to a formula that worked in the 2007 elections when he outspent nearly all other senatorial candidates. But he is surely aware that other big spenders lost badly, including Prospero Pichay, Ralph Recto, and Mike Defensor, whose ads could not erase the stigma of belonging to the administration slate.

Another presumptive candidate testing the power of advertising is Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, who spent a fortune placing ads in last May's Pacquiao fight. Not only does Teodoro lack name recognition, those who have heard of him identify him with an unpopular president. And it didn't help that many boxing fans were annoyed by the frequency of ads during Pacquiao's abbreviated fight.

While other candidates credit donors and friends as the sources of their funds, Villar openly acknowledges that the ads are bought with his personal wealth.

The Nacionalista Party standard bearer said in a TV interview in the first video above, "Pera natin yung ginagastos natin diyan at pangalawa palagay ko alam naman ng lahat na malaki naman ang naitutulong natin. Halimbawa yung sa OFW, nailagay natin sa kaalaman ng ating kababayan [We are using our own money to finance that, and I think we are able to give much help. For example, we were able to raise awareness on OFW issues]."

The early ads are necessary, according to a statement by Nacionalista Party spokesman Gilbert Remulla published on his Facebook account, because Villar “did not have a broadcasting or showbiz career to aid him in his politics. And neither does he have blue blooded ancestry where his surname is synonymous with major roads and is printed on legal tender." These are obvious references to Estrada, De Castro, and Roxas (a grandson of former president Manuel Roxas).

With the ongoing ethics investigation, Villar will have an even tougher sell. - GMANews.TV


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