Second of Three Parts

POLITICAL ADS are a bundle of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As candidates in the upcoming elections continue to pour considerable amounts of money into political-ad campaigns, officials from state agencies such as the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) have expressed interest – and concern – over where their funds are coming from.

Voters themselves have yet to be asked if they care about where all that money financing the ads is coming from. But surveys conducted by the public opinion polling group PulseAsia Research Inc. indicate that voters welcome even pre-campaign political ads, apparently seeing these as aids in getting to know the candidates ahead of making decisions inside the polling booth.

Voter awareness

Data from surveys conducted from July 2008 to December 2015 by PulseAsia Research Inc. showed a growing acceptance among voters of pre-campaign ads.

Asked “whether or not it is right for a politician who might be a candidate to appear in an advertisement before the official election period,” more and more respondents answered in the positive as the 2016 elections came closer: 48 percent in July 2008; 55 percent in September 2015; and 65 percent in December 2015.

Asked in a December 2015 PulseAsia nationwide survey how much the candidates’ advertisements would help them in their selection of those whom they would vote for in the coming May 2016 elections, 38 percent said the ads “will be very helpful”; another 42 percent said the ads “will be somewhat helpful”; and 15 percent said they were undecided.

Of the respondents who rated ads to be “very helpful” and “somewhat helpful,”38 percent said that through ads, they “get to know the issues or advocacies of the candidates” and 27 percent said that they “get to know the track record, capability or experience of the candidates.”

Truth in advertising?

Unfortunately, unlike claims in commercials for shampoo and toothpaste that could be validated by science or by consumers to be true or false, what candidates say or do in ads seem to deflate the principle of “truth in advertising” that industry practitioners are made to swear by.

One ad industry insider even voices concern that political ads in general mock and deny the citizen’s right to full, fair, and unvarnished information about those who wish to lead the nation and manage the public purse.

According to these political spinmeisters, this year’s elections have turned into a buyer’s market where money talks to mute or muffle “truth in advertising” and in its stead, give way to “political branding for the win.”

“It’s paid media, paid service, mercenary service,” a senior PR agent tells PCIJ.

“To us,” the agent adds, “they are products, not people. The goal is to sell, to secure winnability. You want me, you pay me, pera-pera lang ito (this is just about money).”

In truth, elections are hugely lucrative for media agents, PRs, and creative teams that candidates contract and deploy for overt and covert operations across print, broadcast, and online platforms, or across traditional and social media.

No SRP, no SPG

Still, there are those who express unease in putting candidates in the best possible light – while leaving voters unaware of potential dangers. Says an old PR industry hand: “Politicians are not just soap or shampoo. They are not ordinary products. The lives of people are at stake here.”

One ad agent also notes that unlike any other products, candidates do not come with an SRP (suggested retail price) notice, or an FDA (Food and Drugs Administration) stamp of approval, or even an SPG (Striktong Patnubay at Gabay ng Magulang) alert. They don’t even come with a warning from the surgeon general that they could be bad for health and kill, literally and figuratively, says the agent.

Still another ad industry insider worries that by their product expiry date on poll day, a “no return, no exchange” policy applies to these candidates should they get voted.

Yet still, the war for votes must be won on two fronts: from the air and from the ground, according to veteran political strategists who have seen action in past elections.

This is especially true for candidates for national office who must have — more than just oodles of cash — the right message and image to communicate well, and thus sell, to voters, on television, radio, print, and online media, and at the hustings.

A free-for-all game

One senior ad and PR industry hand even remarks, “During election season, you bend the rules. If you stick to the rules, you will get nowhere.”

The political campaign veteran also says there are almost “no limits” on how far one should bend the rules, “even for special operations.” It is, says the source, “a free-for-all game.”

Social media, which many PRs consider to be a buzz trigger, did not figure as yet as a major platform for courting votes in the 2013 elections. These days, though, the latest social media metrics place the number of Filipinos with access to the Internet at a low of 42 million and a high of 48 million, enticing many national candidates to now mount pitch battles online.

Some candidates who are the most engaged in social media have also hired “under the line” social media teams to stage troll, “astroturf,” and “black hat” operations on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the insiders say.

“Astroturf” refers to “creating the impression of public support by paying people in the public to pretend to be supportive,” according to the Urban Dictionary. “The false support can take the form of letters to the editor, postings on message boards in response to criticism, and writing to politicians in support of the cause.”

As for “black hat” operations, computer programmer and software freedom activist Richard Matthew Stallman, often known by his initials rms, has been credited for coining the phrase, which refers to the “malicious hacking of secure networks to destroy, modify, or steal data; or to make the network unusable for those who are authorized to use the network.”