Published on November 20, 2007
This week, all roads lead to Subic. The Ad Congress, the advertising industry’s biennial extravaganza — part conference of ideas, part festival of winning works, part street party of loud and lively revelers — begins tomorrow in the former American naval base. At one time one of the biggest military installations outside the United States, Subic is a fitting venue to discuss the power of advertising. After all, what is “projection of force” by forward-deployed units if not advertising in its most fundamental form?
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Watching the press screening of “Beowulf” last week led me back to our own ancient epics, to Lam-ang (who was in such a hurry to fight he took to the battlefield at the age of nine months), to Sandayo (who was born Athena-like by falling out of his mother’s hair on the ninth stroke), to Agyu. (A 1983 volume on five Philippine epics, prepared by University of the Philippines professors for a series on ASEAN literatures, is an invaluable source and a rattling good read.) A trope common to all these epics, Beowulf included, is the search for a hero, a protector, “the man for the people.”
I have been around Among Ed, the priest-governor of Pampanga province, enough times to know that his improbable victory and his counter-traditional politics excite the same kind of epic longing among some weary voters. I shared the stage with him in the late afternoon session of the American Studies Association of the Philippines general conference at the University of the Philippines last Saturday, and I noticed the same kind of excitement take hold of many in the audience. I may have the chance to write about this next time; in the meantime, I will upload our remarks to both the Newsstand and Inquirer Current blogs.
Also, I found an instructive error in one of Benedict Anderson’s capsule surveys of Philippine history, and was moved by this discovery and by my own error-ridden experience last week to consider what Frank Kermode calls the uses of error. But not now. Now we consider the uses of advertising.
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Is advertising good for democracy?
This seems like a counter-intuitive question to ask. Daniel Boorstin famously described advertising as the “characteristic rhetoric of democracy.” By that he meant that it was the language in which the democratic impulse — “to give everybody everything” — finds its supreme expression.
That is certainly a promise that many advertisements effortlessly fulfill. The ads that offer cheaper rates or better pricing packages for the use of SMS, for example, are about as grassroots-democratic as one can get. Communication makes community, and the consumer’s newfound ability to text more for less is empowering.
(I am also reminded of something a telecommunications expert said back in the beginning of time — that is to say in the year 2000: For an overseas worker in, say, Hong Kong, a cheaper rate for calling back home meant a better quality of life.)
Advertising is also relentlessly democratic in the sense that, together with soap operas and variety shows, it provides us with the common language, the lingua franca, of everyday life.
Those who work with small groups, whether in school assemblies or parish communities or business planning sessions, can confirm this phenomenon: when small groups are tasked with very little time to make a presentation in story form, they often use narratives popularized in commercials: the mother who keeps up with the Joneses in KFC, the encounter between old rivals Manny Pacquiao and Erik Morales in SMB.
So far, so “masa.” The problem lies elsewhere, in advertising’s breathtaking power to make us forget. “Erasure,” Boorstin called it. “Insofar as advertising is competitive or innovation is widespread, erasure is required in order to persuade consumers that this year’s model is superior to last year’s.”
Hence, Juan Ponce Enrile’s stunning transformation, in the 1987 elections, from Cory Aquino’s headache into a born-again statesman (complete with heavenly sunlight as backdrop). Hence, Francis Escudero’s successful crossover, in this year’s elections, from the leader of the House opposition who can only say no, to a leader who says yes to nonnegotiable principles. Hence, Jamby Madrigal’s effective and massively funded transition, in the 2004 elections, from ex-member of Joseph Estrada’s cabinet to Judy Ann Santos’ best friend. (At a rally I covered in Batangas province, I heard Madrigal say, “If you vote for me, I will come back here with Juday,” or words to the same grating effect.)
Advertising, therefore, requires some form of memory loss, or is predicated on aggressively burying old memories under new sensations, to move the consumer-citizen to buy the new product, the new and improved candidate. (Enrile again: In 2004, he successfully ran for the Senate as a single-issue candidate, on the controversial purchased power arrangement, effectively redefining himself all over again.)
Don’t get me wrong. Advertising today subsidizes much of the work of media; for that reason alone, it is very much a force for good in democracy. I never tire of quoting Raymond Aron’s practical defense of a free press. “Success,” he said, is “the one and only condition of independence.” At another time, he described such success in terms of a “sufficiently prosperous and liberal” press.
But advertising’s power of erasure should give all of us pause. “The struggle of man against power,” Milan Kundera wrote, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”