IT’S AN air war for now for the candidates for president; it’s an air war for their running mates, too.

Just like their respective parties’ standard bearers, the leading candidates for vice president have poured in hundreds of millions of pesos on political advertisements on television.

The official campaign period started only last February 9, but from November 2009 to February 8, 2010, four candidates for vice president — Liberal Party’s Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas III, Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino’s Jejomar ‘Jojo’ Binay, Nacionalista Party’s Loren Legarda, and Bagumbayan Party’s Bayani Fernando — had already incurred a total of P561.5 million in advertising values for television, radio, and print ads.

Minus discounts of up to 47 percent granted by media agencies at the time, the net indicative spending on these candidates’ political ads amount to P294,417,894.

In the first month of the 90-day campaign period, or when campaign finance laws also started to take effect, the four showed more tempered spending, as did their running mates.

From February 9 to March 8, 2010, the combined spending on political ads of the four candidates and Bangon Pilipinas’s Perfecto Yasay Jr. amounted to only P167,814,890, according to published rate cards of media agencies.

Minus discounts allowed by the Commission on Elections (at the rate of 30, 20, and 10 percent for TV, radio, and print, respectively), the combined indicative cost of these candidates’ political ads during the 28-day period amounted to only P144,327,68.

Some candidates, however, may now be counting on dividends from their early investments in political commercials.

The pre-campaign ad juggernaut by Roxas, for instance, seems to be helping him maintain his lead in the vice-presidential race even though he has drastically slashed his ad expenditures since the campaign began.

Data from the media monitoring agency Nielsen Media show that Roxas’s tri-media ad buys have fallen by as much as 61 percent from his January ad placements. Yet results of pre-election surveys by the country’s two leading polling firms Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia since December 2009 reveal voter preference for Roxas to be holding at a consistent 40 percent and above.

Over airtime cap

Observers credit Roxas’s survey showing in part to his considerable investment in “advocacy ads” and “infomercials” way before parties even began announcing their respective candidates for the May 2010 elections. Indeed, by the time fellow Liberal Party Senator Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino announced his presidential candidacy on September 9, 2009, Roxas’s ads had been running on TV for months.

Originally planning to run for president, Roxas eventually gave way to Aquino, who was suddenly pushed into the forefront after the death of his mother, former president Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino. Roxas’s ads even appeared to have suddenly petered off after it became clear that Aquino was considering to run in the presidential race.

Roxas, however, did not hold back for long. According to Nielsen data, of the P431-million worth of ad placements by vice-presidential candidates from November 2009 to January 2010 alone, 43 percent or about P184 million in value belonged to Roxas.

The senator had also logged a total of 155 minutes of ads on ABS-CBN 2 and 130 minutes on GMA 7 from November 1, 2009 to February 8, 2010.

Had the campaign ad airtime caps been in force during that period, Roxas would have already overshot the limit of 120 minutes per station, at least in the country’s top two networks.

Same for Binay

But then so would the PMP’s Binay, who posted comparative totals of 134.5 minutes on ABS-CBN 2 and 124 minutes on GMA 7 during the same period.

Binay, the mayor of Makati City, had placed P137-million worth of ad spots from November 2009 to January 2010 as well. Among the vice-presidential candidates, he is second only to Roxas in terms of ad-placement worth in the three months before the campaign period.

Of the eight vice-presidential candidates, only half ran ads before February 9, 2010: Roxas, Binay, Legarda, and Fernando, former Metropolitan Manila Development Authority chairman.

Of the four, only Binay had pre-campaign ad values that exceeded that of his running mate. In fact, Binay’s ad placements were 1.6 times higher than those of the PMP’s standard bearer, former president Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada.

Coincidentally, like Roxas, Binay had also originally planned to run for president and had began placing numerous TV ads extolling his achievements as chief executive of Makati in early 2009. He was said to have begun having second thoughts about aiming for the presidency after Aquino, son of Binay’s former political patron, announced his candidacy for the position.

Not big on ads

Political strategists explain the frenzied ad placement and spending by many candidates before the start of the official campaign period as a way of going around caps on campaign expenditures and the amount of commercials each candidate places.

The law says that vice-presidential candidates, like those running for president, can spend a maximum of P500 million, or P10 per voter. A candidate’s political party may also spend another P5 per voter, or P250 million.

And yet choosing to sit out the pre-campaign ad splurge were Dominador ‘Jun’ Chipeco (Ang Kapatiran Party), Eduardo ‘Edu’ Manzano (Lakas-Kampi-Christian Muslim Democrats), Jose ‘Jay’ Sonza (Kilusang Bagong Lipunan), and Yasay.

Since February 9, Yasay has joined Roxas, Binay, Legarda, and Fernando in placing ads. But his spots in the first month of the campaign period have barely amounted to P1-million worth, even as he shares those ads with his running mate, preacher Eduardo ‘Eddie’ Villanueva.

Binay, meanwhile, has since cut back on his ad expenditures – just like Roxas. Nielsen data show that Binay’s ad buys in the first 30 days of the campaign have shrunk by as much as 67 percent from his January figures.

Unlike Roxas, however, Binay’s survey showing has been less than steady, with Pulse Asia having him at 14 percent in December, 13 percent in January, and 15 percent in February.

Still, SWS has him making modest gains, getting 10 percent in December, 16 percent in January, and 17 percent in February.

Campaign analyst Ronald Jabal of AD & R Strategic Communications has pointed to the public perception of Binay as a “local candidate” as a handicap to his quest for a national post.

This cannot be said of Roxas or of Legarda, who is still in the second spot in terms of voter preference in surveys.

Legarda’s numbers, though, have been slipping since December, according to both Pulse Asia and SWS.

Perhaps this is why Legarda made a considerable TV ad push a week before the start of the campaign period, Nielsen data reveal.

From February 1 to 8, 2010, Legarda bought TV spots worth a total of P48.76 million – about 63 percent of the value of all her tri-media ad placements from November 2009 to January 2010. The amount also topped those posted by Roxas, Binay, and Fernando.

Last-minute splurge

Fernando, who is fourth in surveys, appears to have tried a tactic similar to Legarda’s.  He, too, made a last-minute splurge on TV ads right before the start of the campaign period, snapping up TV ad placements that had a total value of P23 million. And while Binay’s TV commercials were worth some P13 million more, Fernando’s total TV-ad buy for that period was 74 percent of the value of his tri-media placements between November 2009 and January 2010.

Unlike Roxas and Binay, Legarda and Fernando have increased their ad expenditures since the start of the campaign period. The value of Legarda’s ad spots rose by five percent from her January number, while that of Fernando grew by eight percent.

In the first 30 days of the campaign, Legarda had already consumed two-fifths of her allowable minutes on ABS CBN 2, and a fourth of her limit on GMA 7. By comparison, Fernando had a decidedly more modest total of 15 minutes on ABS CBN 2 or 12.5 percent of the allowed minutes per station for each candidate, and 18.5 minutes (15.4 percent) on GMA 7.

It is actually Roxas who is second to Legarda when it comes to total number of ad minutes logged in each of the top two networks since February 9. Roxas’s tally at ABS CBN is 24 minutes, while at GMA he has consumed 33.5 minutes.

The combination of media platforms for candidates’ advertisements, however, has begun to change going into the campaign period. While print’s share of their total ad values is still less than one percent, Nielsen data show that TV’s share has dropped to 77 percent from a high of 94 percent  pre-campaign period.

By comparison, radio’s share has shot up to 23 percent from a measly six percent pre-campaign.

Jabal says that this rise in radio’s share could be attributed to radio-ad rates, which are way lower than those of TV.

Radio cheaper

Placing ads on radio is about nine to 16 times cheaper than on TV. Even if the Comelec-imposed 30-percent discount were applied, a 30-second ad spot on primetime TV would still cost a candidate a hefty P303,015 on ABS-CBN 2 and P332,640 on GMA 7. By contrast, a 30-second ad spot placed on these two networks’ AM radio stations DZMM and DZBB would cost only P32,641 and P24,000 respectively if the Comelec-imposed 20-percent discount for radio were applied.

Jabal also says that at this stage of the campaign when candidates are already going to the regions, transferring a larger part of the advertising budget to radio (from TV) makes good sense for a candidate’s campaign strategy, as radio is a medium by which candidates will be able to “hit their market” or reach audiences in targeted localities across the country.

Thus Legarda, who had no radio ads from November 2009 to January 2010, now had 24 percent of her total ad values for the first month of the campaign going to radio.

Some 20 percent of Binay’s ad values for the same period were also for radio, as were nine percent of Roxas’s. Pre-campaign, the comparative figures for Binay and Roxas were nine percent and five percent, respectively.

However cheap, though, placing ads on radio cannot be indefinitely employed by candidates as a campaign strategy, as each national candidate is allowed by the Fair Election Practices Act only 180 minutes per radio station for the entire duration of the campaign.

Yasay has yet to have a radio spot. Fernando, meanwhile, is the only one who has reduced instead of increased his ad placements on radio, with their share of his total ad value going down by 5.5 percentage points from the pre-campaign figure.

For sure, if the current candidates were to go by the book in their strategies, the second month of the campaign should see a sharp rise in their ad expenditures.

Next 30 days

Jabal explains that strategists usually divide the 90-day campaign period into three 30-day phases. Ideally, he says, the first 30 days are devoted to creating awareness about the candidate. This is thus the stage where the candidate spends the least.

Then comes the next 30 days, where the awareness created during the first phase is supposed to be deepened. In other words, says Jabal, the candidate should now be convincing voters that he is capable of running the country by talking about issues and explaining to them the programs he will be implementing should he win. One of the most obvious ways to do that is through commercials, making this stage the “ad capital” of any campaign.

By the final 30 days of the campaign, all that should be left to do would be to remind voters of the candidate’s accomplishments and what he plans to do if he wins. This last phase, according to Jabal, is again largely for creating awareness or name recall among voters. Candidates can therefore spend less during this stage than in the previous one.

But judging from the way the campaigns are being run so far in this country, as well as from trends in past elections, Jabal predicts that candidates’ ad spending would probably peak in the last 30 days of the campaign instead of during the second phase. That’s because, he says, campaigns in the Philippines have generally been stuck at the “awareness level.”

Commenting on the content of the current ads of the vice-presidential candidates, Jabal says that all of these are merely for the purpose of creating name recall among voters.

“The agenda are not ventilated because (candidates) resort to mudslinging early on,” he also says. “They always say that Pinoys have matured, but how come (candidates) are not discussing issues?”