IT IS the lawyer who knows the law, it is the fisherman who knows how to fish, and it is the architect who knows how to design buildings. So why should voters rely on celebrities in choosing whom to pick as their political leaders?
But perhaps “rely” is too strong a word. Still, there’s no sugarcoating the fact that in this country, celebrity endorsements have helped many a politician win. In far too many cases even, celebrities themselves have been voted into public office with little to show beyond their showbiz credentials.
“It’s called transference,” communications consultant Fernando Gagelonia says of the fusion of showbiz and politics in the Philippines, which has made celebrity endorsements part and parcel of political campaigns. “You’re beautiful, you’re moneyed, you’re successful, and I want to be like you.” Even if it is only as far as making the same choices of one’s idol in the polling booth, apparently.
It’s also called a shortcut, especially for those who have little political stock. Or as Gagelonia puts it, “If you are not a familiar face to the public, people will remember who endorsed you.”
Obviously, the endorser can’t be just anybody. Here in the Philippines, where majority of the population are glued to their TV sets for three to seven hours a day, there’s no question from whom someone seeking election into a public office should ask for help. Says Yes! Magazine editor in chief Jo-Ann Maglipon: “If you want instant recall, if you want immediate rapport with a large audience, there is nothing like having a celebrity endorser.”
An ideal world
In an ideal world, of course, celebrity endorsers don’t matter. After all, says Rolando Tolentino, dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communications, “What needs to be sold are the platforms of politicians, their ethical positions, where they’re coming from, where they’re planning to deliver the country in the next three or six years — that should be the basis of choice.”
That it isn’t can be traced in part to the cult of personality that is Philippine politics. This in turn seems to be the result of a multiparty system that has failed to encourage the development of unique policies and ideas, and has instead degenerated into a mindless free-for-all for votes and not much else every three years.
Political strategist Ronald Jabal of AD&R Strategic Communications, Training and Research says that the usually overcrowded senatorial race in particular is highly dependent on candidate awareness and name recall. And as pointed out by Maglipon, the easiest way to achieve high awareness and recall is to tap a celebrity for an endorsement.
“It may sound stupid,” says Jabal, “but that’s the name of the game.”
For example, he says, a large part of the victory at the 2001 polls of Senators Francis ‘Kiko’ Pangilinan and Ralph Recto can be credited to their showbiz wives.
Pangilinan is married to ‘Megastar’ Sharon Cuneta while Ralph Recto’s wife is ‘Star for All Seasons’-turned-politician Vilma Santos-Recto.
Cuneta’s selling prowess is unquestionable. She can sell anything to the public – from burgers to milk to movies. Jabal is only one of many who believe she helped sell her husband’s candidacy.
It also helped that years before running for the Senate, Pangilinan had carefully cultivated his image as a public-serving lawyer under the klieg lights of ABS-CBN’s news and current affairs department, hosting several shows on TV and radio.
Recto, meanwhile, had already served nine years at the House of Representatives before gunning for a Senate seat. But he apparently still considered his wife’s wattage useful at the hustings. In truth, in a move that demonstrates how showbiz trumps history, Recto – grandson of nationalist Claro M. Recto – even ditched his surname and campaigned as Mr. Vilma Santos for greater name recall.
Yet another example of a Senate seat won by way of a celebrity is that of Ma. Ana Consuelo ‘Jamby’ Madrigal, the shipping and banking heiress who had her first brush with national politics as part of the Estrada Cabinet. After the ouster of her political patron, Madrigal made a bid for the Senate in the 2001 polls, but lost. Three years later, she tried again – and surprisingly placed fourth in the race.
The difference in Madrigal’s two runs was that in her second try, her handlers thought of having young actress Judy Ann Santos as her endorser. In fact, they went as far as engineering the looks of the endorser and the endorsed in posters and TV ads so that the two could almost pass as twins.
At that time, Santos and the popular action star Robin Padilla dominated the primetime ratings with the action-packed television series “Basta’t Kasama Kita.” Santos, who started out as a child star, also had a huge masa following by then, and enjoyed a wholesome image.
Many people were thus surprised when Madrigal, now aiming for the presidency, suddenly denounced the use of celebrities in political campaigns.
“Paying actors P30 million for endorsements is an insult to the Filipino intelligence,” Madrigal said in a presidential forum last February. “I have seen the folly of my ways and I will not repeat that because I do not believe you repeat a mistake. I also don’t believe you should perpetuate lies (with) a thick budget.”
Madrigal may just be an astute student of political campaign strategy, though. According to Jabal, presidential and vice-presidential candidates cannot rely on the showbiz endorsements alone. They have to brush up on issues that matter, he says, as the public somehow demands more from people running for these posts.
Failure to launch
Then again, there is the faltering campaign of the administration’s presidential candidate Gilberto ‘Gibo’ Teodoro Jr., who, Jabal says “sticks to issues.”
“But people find it boring,” he concedes. Not even the catchy “Sulong Gibo (Forward Gibo)” song by the popular pop rock band Rivermaya has managed to keep the public’s attention on Teodoro long enough for many of them to listen to what he has to say. Ironically, Teodoro has not made much use of the celebrity of his running mate, Edu Manzano, a former TV host, as well as father of VJ and model-actor Luis Manzano and ex-husband of Vilma Santos-Recto.
In any case, there is also such a thing as too much star power, says Malou Tiquia, founder of the political PR and lobbying firm Publicus Asia, Inc. She cites in particular the celebrity-filled ‘Hindi Ka Nag-Iisa (You Are Not Alone)’ TV ad that introduced Benigno ‘Noynoy’ C. Aquino III of the Liberal Party (LP) as a presidential candidate.
Drowning in stars
The stars, says Tiquia, drowned out the commercial’s message, which was that Aquino was continuing the legacy of his illustrious parents, assassinated opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr. and former President Corazon C. Aquino. Tiquia also says that there was not even an attempt to tell people what the candidate stood for — a crucial omission for someone who has set his sights on leading the nation.
Jabal, for his part, says that artistas should be used only as “teasers” in a presidential campaign. In Aquino’s case, he says it was unfortunate that stars were “overused” so early in the game.
“Puro artista ang naging simula, naging kengkoy (The start was so full of celebrities, it became ridiculous),” he remarks. “And he (Aquino) is not even known to hobnob with stars.”
Actually, despite their media dependency, Pinoys are also quite jaded and can easily be turned off by mere song-and-dance routines or by endorsements that appear to suddenly come out of nowhere.
Tiquia notes that many eyebrows went up when vice-presidential candidate Senator Loren Legarda of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) showed up in TV ads with singer-actress Sarah Geronimo, weeks after Legarda’s numbers failed to surge to present a formidable challenge against her main rival, LP’s Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas II.
According to Tiquia, Geronimo’s involvement in the Legarda campaign should have been part of its early stages, to prevent the perception among the public that the star was merely being used to prop up Legarda’s sagging survey showing.
The resulting perception was regrettable, says Tiquia, since Geronimo was a great choice as endorser. Says the strategist: “Sarah’s background may be good for any candidate. She rose from poverty to become an idol of young people.”
Geronimo also endorses the presidential candidacy of Legarda’s running mate, Nacionalista Party (NP) standard bearer Manuel ‘Manny’ Villar Jr. But not only has her wholesome image failed to rub off on Villar, it has also been overwhelmed by the less-than-wholesome images of some of the candidate’s other celebrity endorsers: comedian Dolphy, TV host Willie Revillame, and boxing champ Manny Pacquiao.
Although popular with the masses, all three men have reputations as womanizers. Revillame has also been accused of beating up his ex-wife.
Jabal, for one, says that the three would certainly not appeal to feminists. Their endorsement of Villar has even prompted no less than Monsignor Pedro Quitorio of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to ask, “Why should we select a person who is immoral if we are aiming to build our nation?”
Tiquia says careful candidates go as far as making sure that contracts with paid star endorsers contain a morality clause. The provision, she says, requires endorsers to refrain from actions that may cast a bad light on themselves, and a shadow over those they endorse. The requirement stays well after the votes are counted.
But then there’s that political puzzle called Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, the black sheep scion of a well-to-do family who made his name in action films before entering politics. A self-confessed ‘lover of women,’ Estrada was elected as the country’s chief executive in 1998, but had his term cut short by a popular uprising three years later. He was subsequently arrested, put on trial, convicted of plunder, and then set free by presidential pardon. Shortly after making a comedy movie last year, he announced his presidential candidacy and has since emerged as a major contender for the post, at least according to voter-preference surveys.
When he was still president, Estrada had sued a national broadsheet for calling him an “unwitting ninong (godfather)” of a bigtime, but questionable business deal. What he may well be, though, is the godfather of this country’s star-crazed politics. – with additional reporting by Jaemark Tordecilla, PCIJ, May 2010