What Do We Know About Political Advertising?

by Karla Mae de Leon

The Commission on Elections recently reported that Senator Loren Legarda and Congressman JV Ejercito Estrada are among the top spenders for this midterm election’s political advertisements. Despite attempts to curb excessive campaigning among midterm election candidates through COMELEC Resolution No. 9615 (limiting media exposure to an aggregate of 120 minutes in television ads for all networks and 180 minutes in aggregate for radio stations), the COMELEC still expects political ad spending to reach P2 billion. This amount is one indication of the growing reliance of candidates on political ads. The presence of political advertising in the Philippines creates greater incentive for candidates to maximize media coverage with the assumption that it will make voters know about them – and vote for them. Creating a positive relationship between amount of money spent and victory is often pursued by campaign teams.

These observations elicit very important questions: what are political ads for and how are they produced?

Marketing Candidates, Crafting Campaigns

Political advertisements rode on the rise of modern communication media. In a sense, political advertising is like selling a product, where airtime and exposure inform viewers about what is in the market. The newer the product is, the more advertising effort there should be.

“Selling” a candidate is not a quick and easy task. First, political ads have to produce what scholars call a “cognitive effect” where audiences gain awareness about the candidate. This is the first task of any advertisement – to inform the public of the product or service being offered and explain precisely what the product is. For a number of senatorial candidates, awareness levels are quite low. A recent Pulse Asia survey shows that first-time senatorial bet Teddy Casiño has a 46% awareness rating, while incumbents such as Loren Legarda and Chiz Escudero enjoy 98% and 97% awareness ratings, respectively. It makes sense then, that Casiño’s campaign has several ad placements in provincial networks, considering television ads remain the most important and effective tool in disseminating information about the candidate beyond superficial awareness (see related article: Pulse Asia: Name recall not enough to win). While advertisements may not have a direct influence on how people think, they have the power to shape what people think about.

Second, political ads aim to have an “affective effect”, or the kind that arouses audiences’ feelings and emotions. It takes the form of how a voters evaluate the candidate in terms of his or her “attractiveness, credibility and status.” This is strongly linked to the third purpose, which is to trigger a “behavioral effect” – how people act based on what they know and what they feel about the candidate. This is also called “conversion” – or a political ad’s ability to persuade voters from simply knowing about the candidate to voting for the candidate.

It is not always the case that candidates with high awareness levels also lead in votes. Jack Enrile, for example, has a 96% awareness level based on the most recent survey, but only 32.4% are voting for him. Compare this to Alan Peter Cayetano, who has the same awareness level but has a 48.7% “voting for” rating. This places a heavier burden on Enrile’s political ads to not only introduce him to the public, but also to try harder to convince voters of his attractiveness as a candidate.

Position-taking or Image-Making?

The ongoing debate on whether television ads provide meaningful information to voters raises the concern that television ads not only fail to provide meaningful information, they also degrade the political process by focusing on personalities rather than relevant political issues and platforms.

One reason why it is difficult to present serious issues in political ads is because campaigns aim to resonate “consensual values” among voters. Ads should make an impact to a broader audience rather than a narrow set of constituencies. An ad that explicitly takes a position on contentious issues such as privatization or relaxing laws on foreign ownership can alienate potential voters.

Consequently, most political ads are framed in a way where key messages are difficult to contest. This is the reason why ads center on messages like livelihood as in Cynthia Villar’s “Hanepbuhay,” food security as in Enrile’s “murang pagkain, maraming pagkain” and education, as in the case of Sonny Angara and JV Estrada; as no reasonable voter would not want livelihood, food and education.

Because television ads are not considered the best and most appropriate avenues for position-taking, they end up being utilized for image-building. Scholars call this “political marketing” where the candidate’s image is packaged to fit voters’ needs and desires. Image-oriented political campaigns put emphasis on the candidate’s appearance and looks on television, as well as on the kind of personality the candidate projects.

Images are not only visual pictures that appear in the voters’ minds. They are also visual impressions that voters make out from such political advertisements. For instance, when a brand is mentioned, a consumer constructs a mental image of what the brand is or where it is associated. Political ads hope to achieve the same effect, where citizens end up remembering the candidate’s desirable characteristics and translate this affection to votes.

The emphasis that political marketing puts on visual representations and general character of the candidate makes it susceptible to dilution of content and substance. Such compromise dictates that political campaigns convey messages that are able to “hit” citizens’ emotions and reason. Moreover, communicating a consistent and singular message about the candidate’s character is important for delivering an effective image. Bam Aquino’s advertisement seems to use this formula, communicating a simple message that he is a desirable and trustworthy leader because he is related to democracy icons.

The Power of the Voter/Audience

Political marketing creates space for campaigns to project a carefully managed image of a candidate. However, this feature is still vulnerable to the subjective interpretations of voting citizens. The social construction of images is still contingent on how voters choose to consume these messages. This means voter feedback can render them either effective or ineffective in terms of reliability, substance, appeal and other such determinants. In a democracy, the potency of a political campaign is only as good as how the voters perceive it to be.

Karla Mae de Leon is a third year undergraduate student of Political Science from UP Diliman. This piece is based on her research proposal for Political Science 111 (Qualitative Research Methods in Political Science). She is currently the Vice President for Externals of the UP Political Society.

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