This post was originally published with The Manila Times on October 31, 2019.
It couldn’t get any weirder. You could say it is the strangest of situations any incumbent politician could ever be in. It was as if he weren’t an incumbent.
In March of this year, less than two months before the elections, and, you could say, too late to do anything about it, Senator Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito was looking at his slide in the surveys, and hoping against hope:
“Sana yung Universal Health Care, maalala nila. Yung Department of Housing, sana maalala nila. Sana maalala na lang nila ang mga performance (I wish they would remember Universal Health Care and the Department of Housing. I wish they only would remember our performance).”
We told him, no; the customer — the voter — will not remember.
JV Ejercito knew what he was up against. “Kahit konsehal or board member or kagawad, kapag dalawang members ng pamilya na sabay tumakbo, hindi ginagawa, kasi maghahati talaga, may nalilito (Even for councilor or board member or village councilor, two family members running for public office is avoided, because the votes would be divided. This creates confusion).”
The advantage of the incumbent was lost: his half brother, a former senator, and more known, was running.
JV Ejercito was at 15th to 18th place in the surveys. He was static in the polls and in the eyes of the public. Simply stated, JV Ejercito is this fine, hardworking person who would have had no problem retaining his seat in the Senate. He is that same person who won.
What changed was the playing field: there were new but powerful names running (Bato dela Rosa, Bong Go, and Imee Marcos); and old but powerful names were back (Lito Lapid, Jinggoy Estrada).
Survey companies look for awareness and conversion: the number of people who know of a candidate, and the number who will vote for him. Between awareness and conversion is endearment. It is what makes a product become a brand. We needed to make people fall in love with the candidate.
Big lesson in political perception management
We wait for that glorious day in the history of this country when the people will vote with their heads. When issues will prevail over popularity, the principle rather than the person, his platform of government rather than how magnificent he can stand on one.
Well, that’s bunk.
Even well-developed countries display widespread rationalization of choice of candidate.
“Voters form candidate preferences and thereafter change related political attitudes and beliefs so they become more consistent with their candidate choice,” wrote Jon A. Krosnick, Professor of Communication, Political Science, and Psychology, Stanford University.
It’s really nothing new or bizarre. We do this frequently. We fall in love with a sports car, and then rationalize the purchase by citing performance and safety.
When Roman Catholics were asked why they were voting for Barack Obama, the answer was “there are bigger issues.” Their stands, normally unyielding, on gay and abortion issues became casualties of rationalization. They fell in love with the man and rationalized their love for him.
We needed an aberrant story to shape the image of JV, to make people fall in love with him. Now an aberrant idea terrifies. If an idea doesn’t scare you, it will be like a ship in the night, unseen, unnoticed, wending its way, making hardly a ripple. An idea that doesn’t scare will win everybody in the room, but it will be ineffectual, at the cash register or at the polls.
What is JV’s story?
We all know and recognize, and can name, the bad people in politics. It is stereotypical and global: politicians are bad; they’re drawn as crocodiles. It’s clipart.
Our campaign for JV Ejercito was blatantly aberrant. It laid claim to a story of performance and behavior, but juxtaposed it against the stereotype. We wanted to say ‘walang bahid, masipag, maraming nagawa (no scrupples, industrious, accomplished a lot)” — but succinctly.
We had the gall to say it, and sing it:
“Sa pagpili ng senador, kailangan maging mapanuri. JV Ejercito… Doon ako sa mabait, Doon ako sa magaling, JV Ejercito… JV good, JV good. JV is the good one.”
(‘In choosing a senator, we should be observant. JV Ejercito….I will side with the good. I will side with the one who has excellence. JV Ejercito….JV good, JV good. JV is the good one.’)
We wrapped the story in an earworm of a melody. In no time at all, JV was being referred to or introduced as “The Good One.”
We asked him to embrace it. Which wasn’t too difficult, because, as a rule, you shouldn’t go far from the product: this is JV Ejercito after all, who is known to be good and rather shy.
The campaign had an effect on the candidate. The tenor of his speeches changed. He was excited and confident. And who wouldn’t be if entire stadia were singing your song, singing paeans to you?
Did JV lose? Go to research
Like all advertising professionals, I swear by research, and swear to the integrity of research companies.
The senatorial surveys have always been accurate. “All 12 senatorial hopefuls who topped the final Pulseasia surveys conducted before each Election Day (2010, 2013, 2016) won the race” (Pauline Macaraeg; Esquire Philippines).
The last surveys before the May 13 election predicted the winners. JV reached as high as 9th place in Pulseasia.
‘But he didn’t win’
Oh, but he did — in our battlefield. Campaigns are waged on air and ground. A perception management team can answer only for the air war, for the ads and posters. Now ground war is another world entirely. This is the world of the command vote.
We slept, believing we won; we awoke to a world upended. Suddenly the inerrancy of the surveys was broken, the predictions belied.
When asked to handle a political campaign, we always say, “We handle only the air war.”
We promise to do our best to win the mind. The ground war we defer to a different kind of experts. We yield this arena: this is a competence we do have and would rather not learn.
With no Iglesia ni Kristo and El Shaddai endorsements, with a sibling running at the same time, with old and powerful names clogging the slate, hampered by funding problems, with only a month of airing, this was no loss. The candidate went from a good product— a man known to be hardworking, one with accomplishments — to a stellar brand, his name in the mouths of voters; from the doldrums, way below the statistically viable contenders, to as good as 9th.
JV “The Good One” Ejercito felt good about the gains of the campaign: millions — 14 million, to be exact — knowing of his accomplishments and loving him and praising him in song.
Imagine if we had a week more.
The author is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists and causes, and co-founder of Caucus, Inc., a multi-discipline consultancy firm. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.