Is political branding good for Philippine democracy?

Branding is considered the hallmark of modern political communications. It’s viewed as “ersatz” ideology, or a sales pitch during the “political point of sale” (elections) where candidates are products and voters are consumers. It reduces complex political information to slogans and symbols (e.g. colors and songs about swimming in a sea of garbage), all manufactured based on strategic market research. Some thus argue that political branding creates “shallow ideological roots” that can be shifted for electoral gain. So is it simply means to an end?

I argue here that the democratic benefits of political branding outweigh its costs.

(If you are more interested in branding in action / lessons and observations from the 2010 election campaign scroll to Reflexivity: the Missing link here.)

This has to be understood in the context of the “cacique” nature of Philippine democracy (where political bosses dictate the democratic process), and in particular, the widespread practice of “clientelism” (known as patronage in exchange for votes). Scholars of Philippine democracy more or less agree that the democratic deficit stems from patronage politics and the crisis of legitimation and representation it breeds (for more, see works by Bjorn Dressel, Paul Hutchcroft and Joel Rocamora).

The problems are evident when we look at the electoral process. Clientelism, through political machines, “deliver” bloc votes by bailiwick (not ideology), negotiated through political networks, and where economic and social stature are key factors in the calculus. Key word: ‘negotiated’ — this implies there is poor exercise of voter choice. Julio Teehankee calls these command votes. The politics of command voting is associated with vote buying/padding, voter disenfranchisement, rent-seeking, coercion, and even warlordism. This is distinct from a new form of voter mobilization, one that is separated from the bailiwick and is more malleable to ideological appeals. These are what Teehankee terms market votes. A market vote implies there is some form of consumer power being exercised.

Political branding challenges the primacy of command voting by activating the power of the market vote. To achieve this, branding mobilizes voters through ideological appeals as opposed to patronage. In so doing, it deepens the meaning of voter mobilization from the basic notion of casting a ballot (patronage), to a framework of casting a vote of choice (market). These choices are predicated on a candidate’s responsiveness to the electorate’s needs, which if authentic, would translate from a campaign brand to a brand of governance. It is in these ways that political branding has the potential to help shrink the country’s democratic deficits.

 

How do we understand political branding?

Political brands are unique, identifiable symbols and associations embodied in names or trademarks that differentiate between political actors, notably as candidates. They summarize ideas and attitudes and are “psychological representations” of the candidate from the voter’s POV, an affinity known as brand equity. In the Philippines, brand equity may be inherited from non-political contexts (eg. from the movies to Malacañang) or, more recently, constructed on the basis of the public zeitgeist.

Political brands are not just an identifier but an identity that needs to be “designed, positioned and driven to grow” through electoral market targeting and segmentation. Political branding is in short the strategic construction of an emotional connection representing the electorate’s preferences in candidate selection. A deep and almost scientific understanding of the electoral market’s preferences and concerns at any given point in time (measured through market research) is thus required.

 

Market vs Command: the rise and fall of the machines

The emotional appeals that define political branding, widely discounted as “cognitive shortcuts” for making “uninvolved decisions,” seem to instead invigorate the Philippine electorate.

Market votes are mobilized by media-based appeals via political branding (pol-marketing, advertising and comm-strats are subsidiaries of the brand paradigm). The Erap brand strategy hinged on segmenting the vote market by class, which cuts across bailiwicks. Classes D and E represent about 90 percent of the population. In a plurality system, if you grab that, you grab the presidency.

It’s now a matter of appealing to that latent vote market. Erap did so by sealing his affinity with the poor with the slogan Erap para sa Mahirap, thus capturing the presidency with double the votes for De Venecia, a “classic clientelist, command-vote politician.” Erap may be a political veteran with his own coalition, but it was his strong brand equity that attracted political networks into his fold; his networks did not create his electoral popularity. In fact, Erap actively circumvented traditional clientelist networks (although he did employ a hybrid command-and-market strategy). Contrast the Erap Juggernaut to FVR’s paltry 23% victory in 1992 (a less than 4-point lead over Miriam), which Teehankee credits to political machinery.

The mechanisms of command voting, on the other hand, erode democratic principles and institutions. In the age of mass media, without a strong brand, politicians are forced to mobilize command votes. Gloria Arroyo’s brand was “at sea,” and so in the absence of a political brand that would attract market votes, she actuated clientelism to win enough command votes to crush FPJ’s market votes (more on this by Thompson). Through years of dispensing political patronage, including with state funds and to powerful warlords and politicos, Arroyo machinated large-scale fraud that involved bribing election officials, extensive voter disenfranchisement and hundreds of extrajudicial killings, to pad a lead of just over one million votes in the official tally.

A study of the masa vote shows that political legitimacy is understood as bestowed by the people through elections, itself seen as the “legitimate democratic process” of representation. Seen through this lens, the connection the Erap brand established with the masses unleashed the voice of the electorate. If voters’ willingness to assert their choice – whether by ballot or street – is an expression of democracy (a notion I credit to Malou Mangahas, 12/2012 interview), then despite the glaring deficiencies of his presidency, the “pull factor” of the Erap brand had at the very least loosened the constraints to democratic participation.

 

 

Reflexivity: the missing link

The flaw in the Erap brand vis-a-vis democratic renewal was the shallow segmentation of the market. Creating a target voter cleavage by class may be an optimal numerical strategy, but it misses the point of political marketing. Marketing was developed to understand the “buying” (voting) behaviors of consumers (voters) to develop an optimal product that will retain brand loyalty. This is attained through authenticity. Erap’s populist brand was simply an alternative form of elite pro-capitalist governance.

The electoral market must thus be segmented in a variety of demographic configurations that do not only look at numerical strength but active concerns. Focus groups and public opinion polling measure these voter preferences, and the data produced help inform the construction of the political brand and campaign strategy.

2013 candidates, please take note. Chiz on the back of every bus on EDSA, the endless repetition of Pia’s name in a jingle, and blanketing the city with Recto’s face does not a political brand make. That’s just a pissing contest that looks like advertising, and it’s not even cost-effective.

Here are observations on the prominent features of brand strategy from the 2010 presidential elections…

    • Participatory Narratives. Brands take the form of stories that are constructed by the candidate but then left for the voter to finish as their own. Villar and Aquino did this very well. They catered to competing populist and reformist narratives that “run deep in the veins of public opinion” (Thompson).
        Villar’s storyline goes like this:

“if you work hard like me, you can lift yourself from poverty. If you elect me, I will make sure you have the tools to do so.”

         Aquino’s goes like this:

“We need good people in office to get rid of corruption. If you elect me, I can do this, but I will need your help. You are my boss.”

        In both storylines, the voter faces a “choose your own ending”-type scenario. This can stimulate public discussion of the political agenda, and motivate the electorate to truly deliberate on their choice (That Villar and Aquino were neck and neck in February 2010 suggests this was the case).

“Sino iboboto mo?” 

        thus translates to

“Ano ang iboboto mo?”

 

  • Emotional connections: the sine qua non of political branding. These are built by creating a set of promises and expectations catering to voter needs and wants, which also encourages democratic participation. The top motivators for candidate selection are leadership notions such as “dedicated to the service of the people” that, for good or ill, are judged primarily by images projected on the TV screen. These notions were also transmitted by symbols such as colored ribbons.Aquino had the built-in advantage of a “meta-narrative of family and nation, the Aquinos and the Philippines.” In contrast, Villar’s “rags-to-riches” narrative was aspirational and relatable (Hedman, Thompson). Televising his generosity in programs like Stop My Hirap offered a “foretaste of his promised benevolence as president.”

    Both brands were clearly compelling. So what tipped the scale?

 

  • Engagement of the political discourse strategically generated by the brand. Over the campaign period, opinion polls revealed competing clamors for pro-poor representation and incorrupt leadership, and to a lesser degree, competency. Sometimes pro-poor was up. Sometimes it was incorrupt leadership.Villar mainly drummed up a pro-poor message, and as a kicker, capitalized on his generally acknowledged executive abilities. Aquino’s Kung walang corrupt walang mahirap linked the dominant voter concerns of corruption and poverty, reflected his incorrupt image, and was flanked by a solid reformist narrative. Furthermore, Villar’s refusal to seriously engage with the booming anti-corruption discourse prompted the campaign to brand the billionaire Villarroyo. Aquino won with the largest plurality since 1986, dominating across all sectors and all regions.

 

In short: read the writings on the wall. Exploit an issue that voters care about to your advantage, and make sure you have the chops to sustain it. The worst mistake you can make is to think the electorate is stupid enough to buy in to a fake sales pitch. Authenticity is key. The people will eventually find you out.

Is political branding enough?

Certainly not. The problems lies in our political structures, and there likewise needs to be a shift in political mentality. We need to do away with party-shopping, and crack down on non-ideological party-shopping and political dynasties (although we need to reflect whether these families are motivated by personal reasons, or perhaps are truly dedicated to public service).

Perhaps shortening the presidential term and allowing one subsequent re-election will force presidents to make good on their campaign promises. As for elected leaders who do get a second (or third or fourth) shot at office, then we should pay more attention to what they are doing (cue the media and non-partisan monitoring groups).

We need mechanisms that encourage political outsiders a fighting chance at challenging traditional politics (in this respect, political branding allows candidates to construct counter-narratives to politics as usual).

At the end of the day, what we need are politicians who truly care for our country, and voters who will fight for this ideal, by exercising their power at the polls. That’s the brand of democracy I am hoping for.

 

**This entry is a condensed version of a paper submitted to the London School of Economics in partial fulfillment of the MSc in Politics and Communication. Full version with complete citations and bibliography can be found here.**

Felicity

  • Branding of political figures and their campaigns does offer an alternative to the old command structure. To the extent that it is market (voter) based, it does help to increase representation of the different views and concerns of the community. However, I am not so sure whether it genuinely represents a bottom-up mode of political mobilisation for the following reasons:

    1) it is still driven by elites and their pollsters and media handlers, which make their movements dependent on the mood swings fomented by the 24 hour news cycle and less about the issues that really matter to voters,
    2) there is a truly high barrier/cost of entry into the game, as branding requires serious investments, which cannot be made by just any candidate or reform group no matter how principled they are–it’s no longer possible given the size of our electorates to wage a truly door-to-door campaign, thus candidates are more and more reliant on the “packaging” and “messaging” aka branding which is just as costly as the old ward politics (hybridisation just makes it even more expensive),
    3) this results in a monopolistic form of competition, in which voters are merely fed what PR professionals want to reveal, and therefore make it harder for them to make truly well-informed decisions. It’s nowadays more about the sound byte (and “talking points”) rather than the substance of the candidate’s platforms.

    While branding may open up democratic space (a net plus as you say), that space may not necessarily be the best platform for giving voters a true choice, in the full sense of the word. So I guess you can say, we have moved on from a command structure to a more managed or negotiated one, with the ideal of a truly free, transparent and fair system a bit further away.

    • i never said it was bottom-up Doy. It will always be top-down. However it engages the bottom in deeper, more democratic ways than the command structure does. I have framed market votes as a better *alternative* to command vote politics, and the way we mobilize market votes is through political branding. it is not a magic bullet and certainly not a panacea to the sick man of Asia. Like I said in the conclusion, the trouble with our democracy is rooted in out structures and political system, and that must be overhauled.

      your third point is a problem in every democracy, with the professionalization of communication and the management of the news flow by PR hands and spin doctors. But some will argue to you that spin was the product of a newsmedia gone wild.

      the relationship between politicians, the media and the people need to be strengthened before any true transparency can take place. (Voltmer has an interesting opening explanation to this quandary in a forthcoming book on democratization processes and the media-politics-public trinity). Even America and the UK have not reached that point. It’s what Blumler and Gurevitch call the “Crisis of Public Communications” (great book).

      Point is: the system will never be perfect, a modern nation will never be Habermas’s idealistic “public sphere” of deliberation and consensus, and communication practices present ways of making the situation both better and worse. Like in any “policy,” you have to weigh your alternatives against criteria. My criteria. Mine criteria is that we reduce the use of command voting for the reasons set out above. the alternative i propose is better is the branding paradigm,. its benefits outweigh its risks… for now.

      • Sorry last bit got muddled up (safari hung for a bit.) I meant “against criteria. My criteria is that we reduce…”

      • It already is the paradigm, F. We live in a mediated society. The best way forward is to broaden the middle class–to move more of the proletariat up and educate them.

        • completely agree. but that is more an economic function, and a renewal of how we are educated as children regarding media, as well as media practices itself. the question is whether or not political branding is good for us in the system that we currently have (for example some say bawal na dapat ang color coding and whatnot, I think it was Jularbal who said that). My response is, until we overhaul the political system and recalibrate the way we think about media and politics, political branding should be saved for the above-mentioned reasons.

          perhaps i am just more pragmatic than normative. because yes I agree with you, we do need to move the proletariat up… but how? then we open a whole new can of worms :p happy to discuss.

          • It IS a conundrum: do you open up the economic system first or the political or both? How can a political system dominated and monopolised by a few families for instance be made to create opportunity for all? Yet, that might be an easier task than to get them to overhaul the political system. If one group brands themselves as reformist and actually delivers (a key task) to prevent another one that brands itself as populist from taking power, then you have a contest. The problem is that the populist/pragmatist camp tends to win votes. 2010 might have been the exception. But if the reformist group succeeds in lifting high school and college participation and completion rates and providing greater employment opportunities, 2010 might be seen as an inflection point, a year in which a structural shift was achieved among the constituents. The way the 2013 election cycle is shaping up though, it looks very doubtful. The question then becomes what can branding achieve for the reformists at this point?

  • Under the 1987 constitution, there have been three presidential elections. In all three, actor-politicians ran and many say won twice: Erap in 1998 and Fernando Poe in 2004, although the latter was supposedly cheated. Erap came second in 2010 (in an abnormal year in which “Cory fever” was a factor). In 2016, another actor-politician, Sen Bong Revilla (Lakas-CMD) who topped the 2010 senate race, could wind up running. If he wins, it would mean that three out of the four electoral cycles would have been won by these actor-politicians who are relying primarily on their brand’s cult following.

    Political parties have learned to use political branding in the Philippines by hitching their machinery behind a very popular figure around whom they scope their narrative for being elected into office. The impotence of machinery at the national level has been demonstrated by the failure of two pragmatic speakers of the house to secure the presidential palace.

    Binay’s winning formula is quite intriguing. The former human rights activist relied on identity politics to get him elected as vice president but coupled this with a very strong grass roots machinery developed from decades as mayor of the nation’s CBD. Although lacking the popularity of television presenters or matinee idols nor the heritage of ancestry that many old elites have, he was able to come literally from nowhere to beat the two front-runners who had one or the other.

    Since EDSA-1, “democratic space” in Philippine politics has expanded to accommodate the entry of “actors and activists”. Both however have had to rely on patron-client methods to gain and retain power. Both have sought to perpetuate themselves through dynasties. Democracy it seems creeps forward.

    • Doy, interesing points you make, a lot of which i encountered in my research but in the interest of space, had to do away with. but let me address them:

      Perron briefly explained why name recall is preponderant in our electoral politics: 85,000+ candidates run for 17,000+ seats, and until 2007, voters had to remember 12 or more names because they had to write them out on the ballot. with the introduction of electronic voting, it will seem that the name-recall metric will be downplayed more and more as voters and candidates get used to the system.

      Actor politicians also show much success in the polls because of a) name recall and b) they have the advantage of “pre-advertising” by their simple fame. easier to remember celebrity names. however, if we look at the 2007 senate elections, none of the winners were actor-politicians (Cesar Montano, Mr Jose Rizal himself, lost). my theory is because senatorial campaigns do not have to compete with prex/vp campaigns for media attention, more serious attention is paid to the merits of the candidates… celebs tend to win during presidential election cycles.

      To that point: like Erap, the brand was not a fully formed “political brand” in the modern sense… as brands need to be reflexive of deeper voter preference (see section here “the missing link”), and of course authentic.

      Binay is like Erap: it was his popularity that “pulled networks into his fold,” instead of making him popular. i am likewise intrigued as to how he got so famous. but the man is very ma-PR, he really knows how play the media to his advantage. he would be a good case study.

      On your final point: you might enjoy a brief paper by Joel Rocamora on the “reform constituency,” it’s in the book “The Politics of Change in the Philippines” (ed. Quimpo and Kasuya). political machines are not inherently bad; machinery is used in mature democracies to “get out the vote” as well, however, their voting blocs are constituted of willing voters united by similar ideology (whatever ideology that is, i have no issue even if I disagree with them, for as long as they are voting as a bloc because they believe in what their vote stands for). in the philippines, they are purely bailiwick-based. the closest we have to ideology-based voting blocs are religious sects like Iglesia, but I do find issue with them waiting for one leader to choose their candidate (which can also be negotiated, so for all intents and purposes, they are considered a non-geographic bailiwick).

      Indeed, clientelism still exists and even reformists like Aquino use them. however, (and i think some studies should actually look into this) the “hybridization” formula seems to favor market votes over command votes. and if reformists i ideologically agree with use political machinery as their primary method, i cannot support them, because they are mobilizing “forced” votes instead of allowing people to deliberate the merits of their candidacies themselves. that goes against my point of voter mobilization as simply casting a ballot, versus casting a choice, as the undesirable alternative vis-a-vis democratic participation.

      Also, I think we should also be careful of the use “political dynasty.” this is not inherently bad. there are families who are committed to public service, and it is a value that is taught from generation to generation (corruption seems to be too; and warmongering – see: the Bushes). simply because they belong to political families that they should be viewed with suspicion. The Kennedys are a political dynasty. So were the Roosevelts. So are the Aquinos (OK, they have a bad branch lol). The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, so instead of dismissing a political family name as bad just because our columnists tell us they are blanket bad, we should look at the tree 🙂

  • Wonderful write-up.

    Branding is sometimes accidental, such as when UNA jumps the gun on the COMELEC start date, sides with suspended Gov Garcia, and is led by a guy who loves dynasties. And indeed whose senatorial slate is stuffed with dynasty. The branding is “more of the same”, where “same” is attached to favoritism and corruption.

    Good governance is the main theme for everybody these days, but it would be nice to see brands built on specific differentiating themes: big central government or strong decentralized government, pro-business vs. pro-peasant (US Republicans vs Democrats), pro foreign ownership or anti, pro US or anti, and new ideas about how to solve the energy problems, protect against storms, etc.

    • i’m not a fan of differentiating ideologies for the sake of it… it’s too polarizing, and that’s fine if society is really divided on the issue… but are we really?
      i think the only thing that divides us in this country is rhetoric – a polarization we construct so we have something to believe in. and that’s understandable because our politicians really have not given us much else to believe in.
      i think our politicians need to find the issues that the people are really concerned about and take a position from there. i don’t see why, for instance, we “must” have pro-business vs pro-peasant. can’t we find a policy that boosts businesses while providing jobs and rights for the workers?

      • Yes, I agree with you in the main after people are in office. The difficulty is being able to discern competence from the lack thereof during elections, or at least getting some flags. The current method seems to be popular name, locally.. So we get some passionate, large population regions pushing their favorite names into the senate, no matter what they stand for or how capable they are. I think UNA and Pnoy senatorial slates are very different. UNA has an advantage because their branding can be “we are not Pnoy and he has not cured poverty or corruption, we will”. Pinoy can argue achievement, but the fact is, most people are poor and struggling. So UNA sounds good.

        But UNA is just Arroyo II.

        So those are very broad arguments. Somehow Aquino has to drive UNA to state some particulars and get them into controversial ground. Or else the Aquino “brand” has to be “UNA is blowing smoke, don’t buy it, we are for real”. Call it the “we are not liars” brand.

        heh heh, I find this rather fascinating. Thanks for provoking some new thinking.

        • UPnnGrd

          Hmmmm…. I will let ManuB say that JoeAm said it first —->>>> BINAY-a-RRRRO-YYYOOO!!!

        • Yeah this is exactly what i am doing research on now: what makes a (policy or candidacy) narrative win? but in the US context because I think political systems have are a determining factor of how your story ends.. and I like playing around with these ideas against different systems. (I am learning the German system a.t.m., it’s so fair and proportional to a mathematical perfection that it’s boring haha).

          also, see my note to The Cusp in the other comment regarding why name recall is a major metric in decisions for candidacy, and candidacy selection.

          in any case, i have no qualm with name recall per se, for as long as they were chosen by a plausible for because the voter truly believed in them… and for as long as the m*fk*r was not lying to the people. it’s their vote, it’s their choice! 🙂

  • manuelbuencamino

    Great stuff, F. And with technology, there is less reliance on traditional political machinery to deliver the message. Candidates can communicate directly to the electorate instead of through local leaders. However a candidate stills needs a ground game to get voters to the polling places, as the Obama campaign showed us. But this ground forces do not have to be the traditional ground forces of barangay captains and mayors, again as the Obama campaign showed. Each candidate can build his own army in cooperation and parallel to the traditional ground forces when possible and when it is not then a free standing army can be organized. At any rate, communications technology has made possible the creation of a non traditional volunteer army that rivals the traditional way of doing things. All in all a refreshing and challenging development.

    One does not a political party if one can organize a good volunteer force. It will make for more undisciplined politics in the sense that following party lines will not be crucial to political survival but at the same time independent politicians will coalesce around common goals rather than party or ideological lines. Personally I feel more comfortable with coalitions around issues rather than to rigid party and ideological lines.

    • Agreed! This phenomenon is called “hybridization.” I didn’t put it here because I don’t have concrete evidence but it seems that in national positions, strong brands rely on 70% brand and 30% machine. Which to me is heartening.

      Re: political parties. I would not be so critical of political parties in the Philippines if they actually had some sort of ideology. For instance I think the two-party system in the states stalemates important policymaking and that I can’t stand the republicans…. but at least there is ideology there they are willing to stick to (for better or worse).

      Our parties are nothing but legal, electable proxies for cogs in political machines.

    • Btw, interestingly re: mobilization to get to the polls. Louis Perron makes an interesting argument (and Dressel’s numbers and IPC’s findings back this) that “get-out-the-vote” campaigns are not as crucial in the Philippines as in the US, as we have consistently high voter turnout… and there is about a 76% or so “involvement” rate among Filipinos with politics. Further, the IPC focus group report says masa voters think of voting as an obligation as opposed to a right, elections are seen as a holiday and casting a ballot a mark of citizenship, an opportunity for change they do not take lightly. The IPC’s book is a good read for people who think masa voters are easily bought. Perron and Hedman also question whether there is a link between payment-and-casting. This indicates that vote buying is not very effective, that it is systematic manipulation that produces fraudulent results, more than the “manipulated voter”. Which means the system is truly broken.

      • manuelbuencamino

        F,

        Re mobilization in relation to the US is true. We do like to vote. That’s why smart candidates hire buses, jeepneys, tricycles all sorts of transportation on election day as a service to their supporters.

        On another matter, I’m interested in finding out how different economic classes influence each other in terms of perception of candidates and issues and to what degree. Do the classes look up to the next higher class for guidance as in E follows D follows C all the way up the line?

        • MB — VERY GOOD QUESTION. Incredibly good question. The 2010 results show that all classes broadly agreed, in terms of proportion per class per candidate (except Erap-Villar, there was a difference in Class D, but if you lump them together as the pro-poor option then the trend is unbroken). But whether there is influence, I don’t think anybody else has looked into that scientifically. Would be helpful for political campaign strategists to find out for sure!