This article was originally published with The Manila Times on December 20, 2018.
It was nearing the end of 1989, an especially bad year for the Philippines.
We had just barely survived several coup attempts. Corazon Aquino was holding onto the helm of the country, with a grip the plotters considered weak. The economy, which was just starting to take off, was again in shambles. We believed the country to be under judgment. It was a Christmas during a particularly bruising time. Political strife had turned bloody.
So I wrote, directed and voiced a Christmas message on film for free, begged a production house (Production Village) to film it, found a like-hearted client to sponsor it (M.Y. San), and pleaded with the networks to either air it for free or at reduced cost.
The commercial showed a pencil drawing of the face of Santa Claus. A hand enters the frame and rubs out Santa’s face, part by part, with a pencil eraser and then draws where he was erased. The camera pulls out and the hand leaves the frame to reveal that the face of Jesus has replaced that of Santa.
The announcer’s spiel went: “After this very difficult year, the country needs a different Christmas. Now, more than ever, we need a change in our hearts. Perhaps if we had less ho-hos and more hallelujahs; better yet, if we could put Christ back into Christmas, back into our lives, this country might get somewhere.”
But there was a larger problem, the problem of propriety.
If the reader is of a certain age and is observant, he/she will remember that biblical movies in the past did not show the face of Christ. Hands, yes; they needed palms to hammer nails into. You saw his sandalled feet walking about in a land of scraggly vegetation, fingers when he doodled on the ground after being asked about the propriety or justness of stoning a prostitute, his garment as he moved about in a dusty world. There was an over-reliance on over-the-shoulder shots as he scolded or parleyed with others or looked down on John and Mary from his high perch on the mount.
The Jesus in the movie Marcelino Pan y Vino was a hand talent breaking bread.
Strangely, the savior’s face is on paintings but not on celluloid. This was before Cecil B. DeMille broke all the rules and dared to show the sweet face of Jesus.
I needed to show the face of Jesus, draw it; the commercial could not be created without it. The “big picture”, to use terminology of the advertising industry, was that of his visage being drawn by hand. (The ad is on YouTube; search for “Santa TV ad”).
The risk was that client and agency would be demonized. The ad might be considered “sacrilegious” and I didn’t want a public relations mess to detract from the message I wanted to deliver. Besides, I needed to have it approved, the production funded and airing sponsored.
I asked a pastor who told me to just run with it. The client, son of one of the former owners of M.Y. San and a Christian, loved it.
The message hit the national nerve, winning praise and awards here and abroad. It engendered immense public relations value for the sponsoring client. It became the talk of the town. An entire year of grade school students sent letters of thanks to the client. A particularly pleasing one said, nearly if not accurately: “Thank you, M.Y. San, now I know what Christmas is all about”.
It was especially gratifying to be of value to country and client.
I revisited the spot recently and became despondent when I realized that the television commercial, now more than a quarter of a century old, could be aired again today, given this year and this still disunited country, without changing a word and in the same sad tone.
A merry Christmas to all. For the sake of our country, may the merry in Christmas be especially palpable this year. I pray the end of next year will be better and that it be blessed with harmony.
The author is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists and causes, and a co-founder of Caucus, Inc., a multi-discipline consultancy firm. He can be reached through email@example.com.