JUST a mere month into the 90-day official campaign period, three presidential candidates have already used up more than half of their allowed ad airtime in the country’s two top networks.

This is even as data from media monitoring agency Nielsen Media indicate a relatively tempered ad-spending among the candidates, compared to the three months prior to the start of the campaign period.

As it is, Nielsen says that from February 9 to March 8, 2010, Nacionalista Party standard bearer Senator Manuel ‘Manny’ Villar had racked up ads worth P150 million or about 34 percent of the P442 million total ad value posted by the six candidates who had placements in TV, radio, and print.

Previously, Nielsen had noted Villar as having placed ads worth about P1 billion from November 2009 to end of January 2010. Network insiders, however, acknowledged the practice of giving considerable discounts for ad placements, which may have reduced Villar’s bill to only P500 million.

The law also says that there should be 30-, 20-, and 10-percent discounts on TV, radio, and print ads placed during the campaign period. This means Villar’s ads during the first month of the official campaign period may have cost him only P106 million.

While that figure has kept him as the unbeaten the ad-spending topnotcher among the nine presidential candidates, it represents just 20 percent or so of the P500 million (or P10 per voter) maximum campaign expenditure allowed each of them. A candidate’s political party may also spend another P5 per voter, or P250 million.

There thus seems to be a lot of spending wriggle room left for Villar. But he may run into trouble if he chooses to spend much of what he has left on more TV spots – as do Senator Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III of the Liberal Party, and former President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada of the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino.

Last 40 minutes

All three have just a little more than 40 minutes of ad time each left to place in ABS-CBN 2 and GMA 7, Nielsen data show. As a result, political campaign strategist Ronald F. Jabal says that Villar, Aquino, and Estrada may have a hard time sustaining their campaigns on TV until May.

The Fair Election Practices Act (Republic Act No. 9006) allows each candidate a maximum airtime of only 120 minutes for TV ads, computed per station, during the official campaign period.

According to Nielsen, Villar’s daily average ad spending for TV from February 9 to March 8 was about P3.6 million or about 17 TV ads in various networks.

He placed 159 ad spots in both GMA 7 and ABS-CBN 2, logging a total of 79.5 minutes (worth more than P45 million) in each network.

This leaves Villar with 40.5 minutes or 81 30-second ads in each of the networks until May 8, the last day of the campaign period.

Aquino, whose TV-ad spending is second only to Villar’s, is in a similar predicament.  The senator logged 76 minutes on ABS-CBN 2 worth an estimate of P39.1 million and 66 minutes on GMA 7 valued at P32.9 million. He is now allowed only 44 minutes or 88 30-second ads on ABS-CBN 2 and 54 minutes or 108 30-second ads on GMA-7 until the campaign period ends.

In the campaign period’s first month, Aquino’s ads appeared on TV at an average of 16 times per day, spending an average of P2.9 million daily. His total ad expenditures, including radio and print, come to P83.3 million, inclusive of discounts.

Estrada, whose ads so far have come out only on ABS-CBN 2 and GMA 7, has logged 77.5 minutes in the former and 65 minutes in the latter. His remaining air time is recorded at 42.5 minutes or 85 30-second ads on ABS-CBN 2 and 55 minutes or 110 30-second ads on GMA-7.

Estrada’s daily average TV ad spending for February 9-March 8 was P2.80 million or about 11 spots per day. His total ad expenditure for the period, with discounts, amount to P72.6 million.

Nielsen Media has imputed the 2010 published rate cards of the media agencies for the candidates’ TV political ads from March 1 to 8 even as the Comelec has ruled that the 2009 rate cards should apply.

Of the seven free-to-air TV stations that carried political ads on primetime shows from March 1 to 8, three increased their 2010 rate cards: ABS-CBN 2 by 15 percent; GMA-7 by 10 percent; and QTV 11 by 15 percent.

Comelec watching

Ferdinand Rafanan, legal department head of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), says the election body is monitoring the candidates’ ads and spending and will issue a warning to candidates who are almost near the allowed broadcast air time limits.

Penalty for candidates who overspend is removal from public office or disqualification to join future elections, which will be imposed by the Comelec, and imprisonment of one to six years, which will be imposed by the Court. Penalty for other violations in the law is imprisonment of one to six years, which will also be imposed by the Court.

Interestingly, three months before the start of the campaign period, Estrada’s total ad expenditure was the least among six presidential candidates who had ad placements, even trailing behind preacher Eddie Villanueva (Bangon Pilipinas Movement).

This time around, however, Estrada, with a discounted total tri-media ad cost of P72.6 million, has placed third after Villar and Aquino.

Fourth is Senator Richard ‘Dick’ Gordon (Bagumbayan Party), who spent a discounted total of P48.8 million. Much of this apparently went into TV-ad placement. So far, Gordon has used up about 40 percent of his allowed broadcast air time on ABS-CBN 2 and GMA 7, clocking 52 minutes and 43 minutes, respectively.

That leaves him with only 68 minutes or 136 30-second ads on ABS-CBN 2 and 77 minutes or 154 30-second ads on GMA 7 in the next two months.

Shifting, sliding

Administration bet Gilbert ‘Gibo’ Teodoro, meanwhile, surprisingly posted a total discounted ad expenditure of P266,092 for the campaign period’s first month, a drastic dive from the estimated P115 million he spent just last January. From November 2009 to end-January 2010, Teodoro had posted a total of P184.4 million, which had made him second only to Villar in total ad expenditures.

Villanueva, in fact, outspent Teodoro between February 9 and March 8 in terms of ad placement costs. The Jesus Is Lord leader’s ad spots for the period cost him, with discount, a total of P715,149. This, however, was also a deep plunge from his estimated total January ad spending of P20 million.

Within the campaign period, Villanueva has placed TV ads on GMA-7, as of March 8, logging a pithy 3.5 minutes there. He therefore has 116.5 minutes left or 233 30-second ads allowed on GMA, and a full 120 minutes total on ABS-CBN. (Villanueva also placed ads on QTV-11 – a joint venture of GMA Network and ZOE Broadcasting Network that has Villanueva as its founder — for a total of 1.5 minutes, and RPN 9, where he had a total of 1.5 minutes of spots.)

Teodoro, by comparison has yet to place an ad on ABS-CBN 2 and GMA 7 since February 9.  His “Galing at Talino” ad, however, appeared three times on Studio 23, which is part of the ABS-CBN family, last February 13.

In truth, only Aquino, Estrada, and Gordon have actually increased their ad expenditures, if one compares their first-month ad placements with their average monthly ad-spot costs from November 2009 to January 2010.

Even Villar pulled back his ad expenses by about 26.7 percent, compared with his average ad-placement bills three months before the campaign period started.

On air, on ground

 

Aside from the legal constraints, strategist Jabal, who is senior partner at the AD & R Strategic Communications, Training and Research, says that the change in a candidate’s ad expenditure could be strategic. Take Teodoro, he says: the candidate came out with numerous ads during the pre-campaign primarily for awareness purposes. Now, says Jabal, his camp is focusing more on the campaign on the ground.

“(T)hey are now relying on the machinery in order to deliver for them not just the awareness but the conversion (into votes),” Jabal explains. They’re already going to use that so this (campaign) will not entirely be media related. This is already ‘warm bodies’.”

In recent news reports, the former defense secretary had said that he had not released any new ad because he had yet to approve a concept for one.

But Jabal comments: “I don’t think it’s a matter of choosing what kind of ad or what medium to use (because) nothing came off of that, so why choose that particular channel? Why not keep the resources now to grassroots, because he has been made to believe that the community, the mayors, and the machinery will be able to bring in the votes.”

Jabal says that the Teodoro camp might have already discounted advertisements because they did not benefit from it so they are now relying on the machinery that other candidates do not have.  He adds that Teodoro may be thinking that “once the local campaign kicks in with the machinery, ‘that would bring me the survey results that I want.’”

In the case of Estrada, the increase in ads may not be a matter of trying to win more votes. According to Jabal, there has always been some suspicion that the country’s former chief executive was not really bent on finishing the race, and may merely be building “awareness” to strengthen his bargaining leverage should he decide to withdraw.

Jabal notes that Estrada’s fairly respectable showing in surveys is an affirmation that people still like him.

“If you connect that to the suspicion that he might withdraw from the electoral race, nagpapataas siya ng profile, nagpapataas siya ng bargaining leverage,” says Jabal. “(It’s like Estrada saying) ‘I still have a lot of supporters. If I withdraw, I can shift those numbers to a particular candidate, which means that mas mataas ang aking bargaining leverage.’”

Curious contracts

In the meantime, Jabal warns that candidates may find ways to skirt around provisions in the law and still appear to be maintaining the allowed ad expenditure and broadcast air time.

Indeed, there are already ads that seem to invite questions, such as those for two candidates – say, Aquino and runningmate Senator Mar Roxas, Villanueva and Perfecto Yasay Jr., and Estrada and Makati Mayor Jejomar ‘Jojo’ Binay.

There are also ads that are entered into contract by a political party, even though the content of the ad is actually for a particular candidate. Examples so far are Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino, which purchased a number of political ads for its standard bearer Estrada; Nationalist People’s Coalition for Senator Loren Legarda, who is running for vice president; Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) for Binay; Bagumbayan Party for Gordon; and Nacionalista Party for Villar.

Then there are the party-list group ads that appear to echo those of a presidential candidate or bear some of his symbols and colors.

Among these is Akap-Bata Party List’s ‘Dagat ng Basura (Sea of Trash)’ ads on TV that are reminiscent of Villar’s most popular commercial. Its spots, which ran during the first 30 days of the campaign period, had a total value of P34 million. Applying the 30-percent discount required by law, the ads that aired from February 9 to March 8 would have actually cost P23.9 million.

Resolution No. 8758 or the implementing rules and regulations of the Fair Elections Act do not clearly state how the ad expenditure and broadcast air time used in these ads will be recorded. Comelec legal department head Rafanan also says that the Commission has no applicable guidelines yet on how to resolve these cases.

Who paid for it?

But James Jimenez, head of Comelec’s education and information division, says that the law “leaves a lot of room for variations.”

“The law says registered political parties have so much time,” he says. “What do you expect political parties to do? Sure, literally, you can expect them to promote their own party. But in a high-stakes election, why would you waste your precious air time…when you can use it to promote your own candidate? So yes, it might look like you’re…violating the law, but in fact you’re not. There’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing.”

According to Jimenez, an ad’s ability to “create associations” with certain candidates is “outside the scope” of the Comelec.

“For instance,” says Jimenez, “Noynoy’s ad, the one with rap, there’s a portion there that says, ‘Bagong Henerasyon.’ Now Bagong Henerasyon is a party-list group of Bernadette something. Then (its) ad is all yellow, uses the same fonts as Noynoy’s, uses the same symbology as Noynoy’s. But it doesn’t matter. It’s still counted (as) Bagong Henerasyon’s because it’s really the ‘paid for’ clause that (matters in law).”

Still without any ad placement are presidential candidates Senator Ana Consuelo ‘Jamby’ Madrigal (Independent), Nicanor ‘Nicky’ Perlas (Independent), and John Carlos ‘JC’ de los Reyes (Ang Kapatiran). Comelec recently disqualified Vetellano Acosta of the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan from the presidential race.