THIS presidential campaign is turning out to be the most expensive yet in Philippine political history, but it is also a story of two extremes – profligacy and penny-pinching on political advertisements by the candidates.

In just the two months since the official campaign period began last February 9, six candidates for president racked up a daily average ad spending total of P10.5 million, or almost P633 million in  60 days.

By contrast, the remaining three candidates had a total tri-media ad bill of zero, with data by media monitoring company Nielsen failing to yield a single print or broadcast spot bought by any of them.

One of these three – independent Nicanor ‘Nick’ Perlas – even says that spending millions on political ads is simply not an “efficient” way of making use of his limited campaign budget.

Figure 1. A comparison between total media spending in ​​​​the first
and second months of the campaign by candidates for presidency.

Obviously, the six big ad spenders would beg to disagree with the admittedly cash-strapped candidate. All six of them have been feverishly calibrating the volume of their respective ads in the last two months, and with most ending up with results not exactly to their liking.

For instance, Nacionalista Party (NP) standard bearer Manuel ‘Manny’ B. Villar Jr., who remains the top ad spender among the candidates, based on Nielsen data, even suffered a slide in the March surveys of research firms Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations (SWS).

Still, his ads, which had a total value of P273 million in the two months of the campaign  – for an average daily spending of P4.55 million on ads – helped him hold on to the No. 2 spot only, with slight ratings regression,  in voter preference polls by both companies. (According to NP spokesperson and senatorial candidate Gilbert Remulla, Villar’s survey slip was due to “black propaganda.”)

More ads but…

The voter-preference numbers of administration candidate Gilberto ‘Gibo’ C. Teodoro Jr. and Bangon Pilipinas bet Eduardo ‘Eddie’ Villanueva, meanwhile, had flatlined at seven percent and two percent respectively in the March Pulse Asia poll, although both had significantly increased their ad buys in the campaign period’s second month.

Nielsen data show that Teodoro bought only three TV ad spots for the entire first month of the campaign. It was only on March 23 – well into the campaign’s second month – when he began placing ads again. He ended up spending a total of P24.6 million for the campaign’s second month, representing a daily average of P1.4 million from March 23 to April 8 and a 565-percent increase from what he spent the month before.

But Villanueva, with his ad buys shooting up by 930 percent, even bested Teodoro’s ad-spending uptick. Then again, that was because Villanueva’s first-month ad placements had a very modest value to begin with. Indeed, Villanueva’s indicative ad spending of P4.5 million for the second month was the lowest figure posted among the six presidential candidates who bought ad spots.

Incidentally, unlike the Commission on Elections (Comelec), which takes note of the “paid for” and “paid by” clauses in monitoring political ad minutes and expenditures, Nielsen’s tracking is based on “brand,” just like what it does for commercial ads.

Jay Bautista, Nielsen’s media executive director, says that this is how it has been monitoring political ads for the past four elections.

“Whoever is the prominent candidate in the video, that is the brand,” he says. “That is actually based on the traditional way of monitoring ads where you look at the brand and count the ‘spend,’ the minutes, and the spot against the brand.”

Traditional strategy

In any case, Villanueva and Teodoro, sixth and fourth respectively in voter-preference polls, are actually the only presidential candidates who seem to be following traditional political strategy in ad spending.

According to campaign analyst Ronald Jabal of AD & R Strategic Communications, ideally candidates should spend the least on ads during the first month of a 90-day campaign period. They should then splurge on the second month in an effort to build up public awareness about them and their programs. By the last month, says Jabal, all that is left is to remind voters about what they had been told before, which means candidates can taper their ad spending.

But four of the presidential candidates who have been placing ads appear to be following an entirely different campaign playbook.

Nielsen data show that even Villar’s ad spending had actually slowed by 45 percent in the second month, as did that of frontrunner Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III of the Liberal Party (LP), whose ad spending slid down by 50 percent. Aquino posted a comparative two-month indicative ad spending of P176 million, or a daily average of P2.9 million.

Nielsen monitoring also shows the ad spending of Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino’s Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada dipping by almost 91 percent in the second month. Apparently, Estrada’s TV ads stopped airing for almost a month – from March 6 until April 3 – and resumed airing only on April 4. Regardless, Estrada’s two-month total spending of P86 million had him landing third among the highest ad spenders during the campaign period’s first 60 days.

Figure 2. Media spending by each presidential candidates,
from the first month to the second month of the campaign.

No more ads

Displaying an even more dramatic shift in ad-spending pattern was Senator Richard ‘Dick’ Gordon, standard bearer of the Bagumbayan Party, who had been spending nearly P1.6 million a day on ads in the first month of the campaign. But beginning March 8, Gordon’s ads suddenly ceased in all three mainstream media platforms.

His indicative ad spending from February 9 to March 7, though, was still almost P48 million, enough to make him fourth in terms of ad spending in the first two months of the official campaign. Interestingly, Gordon has also been consistently ranking fifth in voter-preference surveys.

Totally off the beaten campaign track, however, are those of Perlas, fellow independent candidate Ana Consuelo ‘Jamby’ Madrigal, and Ang Kapatiran Party’s (AKP) John Carlos ‘JC’ de los Reyes.

PCIJ was unable to catch up with senator and banking and shipping heiress Madrigal, whose previous run for the Senate had her placing print and TV ads that featured popular actress Judy Ann Santos.

But Perlas admits to PCIJ that his having no political ads is due largely to financial constraints, while AKP president and spokesperson Eric Manalang says that his organization deliberately stayed away from placing ads in print media and major networks because “we do not believe in big money politics.”

It’s ‘evangelization’

Instead, AKP acquired blocktime programs in Radio Veritas and Catholic Media Network in specific areas in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. The programs, Manalang says, discuss “the evangelization of politics,” which he described as “putting God and moral values back in politics.”

While blocktime programs entail costs, Manalang says that these are “not big money,” and that “the amount paid for one 30-second (ad) spot might be enough (to run the programs) for two years already.”

Taking a swipe at other candidates, he says that campaigning is “easy” when one has money since an ad agency essentially does much of the work on radio and TV. But, says Manalang, “presenting one’s self to the people is the most dignified way of campaigning.”

“A candidate should go where the people are,” he says, “such as public markets, and meet them face to face.”

Travel and mounting sorties are in fact the biggest cost items in the campaign budgets of both AKP and Perlas. To trim expenses, both Perlas and AKP have resorted to accepting donations in kind and offers of accommodations — from volunteers, in the case of Perlas, and from bishops and parish priests, in the case of AKP — in the regions that they visit. Perlas says as well that he travels with only one companion, who acts as his photographer and video cameraman.

Both AKP and Perlas also employ “non-traditional ways” of making their candidacy and platforms known to voters, mainly through new media. Perlas resorts to online campaigning while AKP makes use of a “text brigade” – an initiative of its supporters in Cebu that sends out a million text messages daily, says Manalang.

But De los Reyes and his party may have one distinct advantage over Perlas and all other presidential candidates: the backing of the Roman Catholic clergy.

Manalang, however, refuses to call this an “endorsement,” preferring the term “sympathetic” since the former, he says, would make it seem “personality-based.” And when asked whether this compensated for the AKP’s lack of political ads, he retorts, “You cannot compare it to billions spent on infomercials.”

So far, AKP’s De los Reyes, Perlas, and Madrigal have all been unable to breach the one-percent mark in voter-preference surveys by Pulse Asia and SWS. Yet they may find comfort in PR professional Jones Campos’s observation that surveys are not a very reliable gauge of how voters would actually behave in the elections.

Campos also says that these “are useful to a candidate in much the same way as political ads are — only to the extent that a candidate can use them to boost his candidacy if his (survey) showing is good.”

Investing more

For sure, even this far down the road, no one among the nine presidential candidates is showing signs of complacency – not even the consistent frontrunner. LP general campaign manager Florencio ‘Butch’ Abad says that candidate Aquino’s party will even be “investing more (on ads), especially in the closing (of the campaign period)” because its message will have to evolve.

Abad admits that a huge chunk of the LP budget – “more than 50 percent or even higher” — goes to political ads, making it “without doubt,” the highest cost item in the party’s campaign kitty.

He also says that Aquino’s steady performance in surveys can be traced largely to closest rival Villar’s supposed inability to spend as much on ads as he used to since he is now “circumscribed to the minutes allowed.”

In Nielsen’s tracking of political ads in the three months prior to the start of the campaign period, Villar had emerged as the top spender, accumulating almost P500-million worth of TV ads alone – and that was with discounts factored in.

NP’s Remulla defends his candidate’s pre-campaign ad spending by saying that “there was a need to catch up in the race.” He points to the fact that at the time, media coverage of the death of Aquino’s mother, former President Corazon C. Aquino, had “made a star out of Noynoy overnight.”

There was “no way” for Villar “to let his candidacy and platform known through mainstream media except through political ads,” says Remulla. He adds that unlike Aquino, Villar has no “sister who is a celebrity, a mother who is former president, or a father who is a national hero.”

“He does not have his name emblazoned on airports,” says Remulla. “What Senator Villar has is the success of his business.”

Villar has repeatedly said he has been spending his own money and has not become dependent on donors who may become future liabilities.

The poor get less

The truth is that if only the amounts involved hadn’t rivaled the budgets this year of some government agencies serving the poor and indigents, perhaps the public would not be as aghast over the political ad spending in the current campaign.

For instance, Villar’s two-month ad spending total of P273 million is more than the  P205-million budget this year of the Department of Education’s School Health and Nutrition Program in the 2010 General Appropriations Act.  It is also way more than the P207 million of the Quirino Memorial Medical Center, and the P179 million of the Amang Rodriguez Medical Center in the 2010 budget.

Similarly, Villar’s ad spending and Aquino’s P176-million ad buys in the first 60 days of the campaign are also bigger than the P168-million budget of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, the P151 million of the National Children’s Hospital, the P132 million of the Tondo Medical Center, the P122.8 million for “Health Care Assistance” to indigents in various public hospitals, the P112 million of the National Anti-Poverty Commission, the P90.9 million for the DepEd’s  Medical/Dental and Optical Health and Nursing Services, the P60.5 million of the Presidential Commission for  the Urban Poor, and the P63.8 million of the Philippine Commission on Women in the 2010 budget..

Independent candidate Perlas himself confesses that had he a bigger budget to play with, he would have spent a “meager share” of it on political ads as well.

But he says that these ads would be released only “toward the end of the campaign and, unlike the other candidates, “very much within the limits of the law.”