Column: Necessary evil

Published June 10, 2008

I think I understand the view—best expressed in Pat Evangelista’s column last Sunday and Conrad de Quiros’ column last week—that the senators who have contracted to do product endorsements violate a moral law. But I do not share it.

Or, rather, I do share most of their concerns, but think that, all things considered, the ads, at worst, are a necessary evil.

This position is directly opposite to that staked out by the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s own editorial, published on the same day as Conrad’s column. The headline alone was a giveaway: “Circumventing the law.” The editorial deployed a battery of arguments: financial, conflict-of-interest, historical, even (with tongue firmly in cheek) aesthetic. But the core argument was moral. “The senators endorsing products may not be violating the letter of the law, but they are certainly violating its spirit.”

Today, on the very next page [in the Letters section], we will find the same it-is-not-illegal-but-damn-if-it-ain’t-immoral argument, this time advanced by the country’s most famous election lawyer, Romulo Macalintal. It takes a certain courage, even a foolhardiness, to argue about election ethics, when one’s most famous client is herself accused of violating not merely the spirit of the law (e.g., the PhilHealth cards, the Light Rail Transit tickets, the battalion of temporary street sweepers, all embossed with the image or name or initials of the boss) but of the very letter of the law. (Hello, Garci?)

But Macalintal does have a point, and in making it he offers an unusual conflict-of-interest perspective. “They advertised themselves to us as public servants and they were elected not to be servants of advertisers or manufacturers. They are supposed to serve the public interest and not private interests.” In other words, the senators may be violating the terms of their original advertising contract, the one they entered into with the electorate.

To be sure, Pat and Conrad make the same argument too. Evangelista: “It is simply a matter of ethics—whether it is correct for an individual who is mandated to represent the people to use that same mandate to sell soap to that same public.” De Quiros: “At the very least what’s wrong with it is that it throws the weight of a public official’s position and role as authority figure behind a particular product.” But I find Macalintal’s jujitsu throw of an argument—“They advertised themselves to us as public servants”—to be clever indeed.

All the same, I cannot add my out-of-tune voice to the chorus of condemnation. I believe the fundamental task the Philippine polity faces in the short term, if we are to remain democratic, is to ensure that Macalintal’s most famous client does not loiter in the halls of Malacanang after June 30, 2010. For that to happen, we would need all the help we can get. That’s where all the candidates-in-waiting can prove useful.

* * *

I have written about the role of advertising in democracy before, borrowing Daniel Boorstin’s idea that advertising is the “characteristic rhetoric of democracy.” My main concern then was the potential for abuse in advertising’s most powerful role, which Boorstin defined as “erasure”—the uncanny ability of advertising, not to make us remember, but precisely to make us forget. “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.” (That’s Boorstin talking, not me.)

We see “erasure” applied all the time. We will certainly see it applied to the most contentious primary season in US history: I do not know what shape they will take, but we can be sure that the new Democratic campaign ads will attempt to erase the bitter divisions between the Obama and Clinton campaigns. Hillary Clinton’s forceful concession speech, for instance, gives us a foretaste. Where once she had sought to distinguish herself from Barack Obama as a fighter and an achiever by chanting “Yes, we will,” a performance-oriented riff on Obama’s rallying cry, last Saturday she started to put all that behind her, by taking up Obama’s mantra as her own. “Yes, we can.”

* * *

Advertising is the rhetoric of democracy also in the pivotal sense that it is our lingua franca. Together with the expressions popularized by such cultural bellwether shows as “Eat Bulaga” and pop anthems endlessly looped on music video channels, television ads give us a language, a code, with which to communicate with one another. The buzzwords change, of course. Before, the cool life might mean authenticity in the key of Sprite: “Magpakatotoo ka.” Today, it would use the teasing language of McDonald’s: “Pa-cheeseburger ka naman.”

The controversial ads that feature senators of the Republic are of course meant to keep their names in the limelight. The products they endorse may or may not enjoy a bump in sales because of their endorsement (politicians are not exempt from the laws of marketing), but those ads needed to be produced anyway. The additional cost may have been marginal.

But they are all investments in 2010. At any other time in our history, this may have been a bad thing. But take a look around. Political analysts remain divided on whether the next presidential election will go on as scheduled; many Filipinos find it hard to believe that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo will slink into irrelevance. (Manolo Quezon gave a name to this attitude: president-for-life.) But the ads are helping seed the ground for a transition, helping create a groundswell of anticipation that will be difficult to deflect.

Let a thousand ads featuring politicians bloom; that will help bring the 2010 election closer to reality.

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