Column: Is advertising good for democracy?

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?

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”



Filed under Newsstand: Column

4 responses to “Column: Is advertising good for democracy?

  1. The basic premise in advertising is that “the consumer is NOT a moron,she is your wife,your daughter,your sister or your mom”.Just like in politics,you may be able to fool the consumer with deceptive advtg. once or twice or thrice but not
    all the time.

    The classic case is Gloria.She has been repackaged so many times to suit different needs (Gloria Labandera,Nora Aunor Look alike,Mother of Strong Republic,etc).The political operators behind these image makeovers have been so cocky thinking they could always fool the Filipino masa.

    But the Filipino consumer or voter is not that gullible.All you have to do is see Gloria’s all-time low trust ratings.

  2. Gej

    I suppose it isn’t advertising itself that subsidizes the work of media, but rather, the corporations and other entities that subsidize media, through advertising.

    Whether media (or at least some sectors of media) can remain truly independent in spite of this reality will determine whether advertising is ultimately good for democracy.

  3. John Gokongwei:Master of the Universe?

    Business giant John Gokongwei Jr. has retold the story of his life and his inspiring success in entrepreneurship, and challenged Filipinos to think bigger and market their products to the world.

    “Why serve 86 million when you can sell to four billion Asians? And that’s just to start you off. Because there is still the world beyond Asia,” he said.

    “When you go back to your offices, think of ways to sell and market your products and services to the world… You can if you really tried. I did. As a boy, I sold peanuts from my backyard. Today, I sell snacks to the world. I want to see other Filipinos do the same,” he said.

    He told of his childhood experience of having to sell goods at 13 in a market in Cebu where he was born after his father, whose empire was built on credit, died.

    “After this experience, I told myself, ‘If I can compete with people so much older than me, if I can support my whole family at 15, I can do anything!” he said.

    “Looking back, I wonder, what would have happened if my father had not left my family with nothing? Would I have become the man I am? Who knows?” Gokongwei said.

    He continued: “I am 81 today. But I do not forget the little boy that I was in the palengke (market) in Cebu. I still believe in family. I still want to make good. I still don’t mind going up against those older and better than me. I still believe hard work will not fail me. And I still believe in people willing to think the same way.”
    Dear Mr. Gokongwei,

    My heart goes out to you in love.

    But I’m not inspired by your speech. It saddens me.

    Jesus said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the
    whole world, but loses his soul?”

    May you take this to heart, Mr John.

    While many are inspired by your speech, believe me, many
    others are praying for your salvation.

    “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.”
    (Acts 16:31)



  4. Well i dont really know much about advertisement ,but in my opinion if a debate might have taken place who would win? Is it good to our econony? Why is it good? Why is this bad?
    What role does this play in are everyday life?

    Well im srry 4 the inconvinence but if u can mssg back i would love to know the facts. ☻ ♪ ♥ ☺

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