Commercials are primarily aimed at selling stuff and convincing the audience that they’re in dire need of some new fangled product or another; but these days I’m more interested in the products themselves and the images connected to them when they’re being marketed. The kind of products being sold says much about the target market, how big it is, and how members of said market live: are they rich? Are they poor? Can they really afford to buy things they don’t really need but merely want? And how closely do the advertisements on these products reflect the kind of economy where they’re being sold?
In the Philippines, to my reckoning and I don’t have figures here, the ads are mostly food products, followed by consumer goods that supposedly promote ‘health and beauty’ and then lastly there are the household cleaning agents.
Canned tuna is being marketted as a healthy alternative to meat by Century Canning Corp and it fields the Century Tuna brand. Century Tuna ads feature models with buff bodies, and they’re seen eating tuna sandwiches, tuna salad, or tuna with rice. Century Canning carries a cheaper brand, 555, and mainly the message of the ads is that tuna can taste like meat if its cooked in adobo, mechado, afritada or Bicol express sauce.
Before I left the country, there were ads on a new variety of canned tuna: corned tuna. The ads of San Marino (Century’s main competitor) featured a starlet and a matinee idol who were supposedly bored with food and with each other, but when they ate corned tuna, their love and appetites were rekindled.
Now it’s fine that there are tv commercials that exhort the public to eat healthier; but it’s clear that the target market for the eat-tuna-be-healthy ads are the yuppies; they’re the ones who can afford to go to gyms and possess the level of vanity to exercise for the sake of looking good, just like the tv models selling the canned tuna.
As for the corned tuna (no matter what Boy Abunda says, it doesn’t taste anything like corned beef) and the rollicking lovers, well, if you’re a fan of soap stars Marian Rivera and Dingdong Dantes, maybe they’ll work on you. And for the most part, it’s the C-D classes that watch the soaps, with some members of the A and B who like mocking the actors and making fun of the dialogue and the improbable twists and turns of the plots.
The ‘lutong-ulam’ or viand-in-a-can variety is relatively a novelty. One is supposed to open the can and pour its contents over a heaping mound of freshly-cooked rice. No cook, no mess and I suppose for the laborers who are its target market, much cheaper than an order of ulam from the karinderias or eateries surrounding the factories.
2) Instant noodle soup, instant pancit canton, instant macaroni/lasagna dish
Through the years and as the economy continued its nosedive, more and more Filipinos have resorted to eating these instant noodle and pasta products as an alternative to rice and ulam. Instant noodle soup is, after-all, hot and filling and best of all, cheap. It saves you both time and money to cook and eat. It’s also flavorful because it’s loaded with monosodium glutamate.
For variety, there’s also the pasta-based products with ersatz cheese and tomato sauce; and then there’s also instant pancit canton.
There have been ads for these products that target children and young adults. The ads for noodle soup show children becoming smarter and more alert; and the ads for the pasta varieties show kids who have more fun after being bored with eating instant noodle soup.
3)Cookies, candies and gum
The ads are often fantasy-based (models end up flying or having their wishes granted by mischievous genies) or the models –children and adults — are shown being happy and hyperactive.
In the ads, when you eat/chew cookies/candies/gum, you can alternately be happier, win more friends (because you share with them your cookies etc) or win the girl/boy of your dreams (because he/she also happens to like your brand of sweets or chewing gum).
These products target the younger crowd.
Other food products with big ad campaigns are instant juice drinks (instant meaning powdered; ‘drink’ meaning artificial and opposed to the liquid and unreconstituted fruit juice. Of late, companies have released juice concentrate powders which can make a liter of artificial juice with one small packet. My mother’s nephrologist almost had conniptions telling my mother off when she, my mom said that she likes drinking concentrated iced tea: ‘They’re poison!’ , Dr. Dimacali said); soft drinks; hotdogs; powdered milk and milk formula; and the fast food chains.
I’m not a nutritionist, but it strikes me that all these products (excepting the milk) are not exactly high on nutritional value. The advertisers and companies producing them don’t lie either — they don’t focus on that in their marketting. And a common denominator in the ads is the issue of price: they all claim to get buyers the better value for their money.
But what does it say about the country when people buy and eat instant noodles, canned food on a regular basis in lieu of prepared meals which should meet dietary nutritional requirements? That children are considered lucky when they drink fake juice loaded with sugar and god knows what kinds of chemicals?
Now for the products advertised in Holland.
Commercials in Holland are also the same in the Philippines in the sense that they also feature food products, health and beauty products, and cleaning agents.
Food products in Holland mean
(1) Pre-heat food like grilled chicken fillet, burgers, pizza. All for busy people who have no time to cook because they’re too busy working. You just pop the product in the microwave, wait a few minutes, and voila.
(1.a) Everything sold in the supermarkets like Jumbo, Albert Heijn, Super de Boer, C1000 and Plus. These grocery stores always advertise themselves on tv; always and frequently. Each claims to give consumers a wider range of options, and for better prices.
2) Milk and dairy products; fruit and juice
Powdered milk is only for infants and after age 1 children are given liquid fresh milk. Almost no ads for this product, but there are a lot when it comes to cheese, yoghurt, fla, and ice cream. The ads for said products all claim that they, the products, come from very healthy cows (cows are often on tv) that eat fresh grass (a lot of grass, too. Acres and acres of it). Eating ice cream or fla is presented as a fun thing to do with the family, and it cheers you up.
Powdered juice is not marketed (and not sold, either, as far as I know. Haven’t seen any in the stores). Juice is marketed as a product of nature that’s good for everyone regardless of age. It should be fresh to be truly healthy, and companies compete to show that their product is the most fresh: there’s an ad (Coolbest) that says that the fruit Coolbest extracts its juice from is immediately packed and stored and then sent ‘to the coolest places on earth’ and they don’t mean Ibiza but the Arctic.
Children are shown drinking juice to cheer themselves up after a difficult day at school and their laptops were too heavy.
3) Chocolates, biscuits, and licorice candy
The chocolates in the ads are either veritable slabs or bite-sized and the ads feature them as products that make good gifts to close friends or as an expression of gratitude towards those who have given one assistance. There are no ads featuring children eating them, only adults.
Licorice, or drop, is big here in the Netherlands. The ads are funny, and they feature adults who do extreme things to get them like grow a nose on their fingers so they can sniff out candy hidden in the desks or pockets of colleagues.
The biscuits and cookies ads are simple and straightforward: there are so many varieties, but all the ads try to show that the cookies and biscuits are healthy and fun to eat because they’re made from wheat and milk and fruits and nuts. Again, acres and acres of agricultural land are shown.
When it comes to food products, the stress on healthy eating is unmistakable.
Comparing the products advertised on tv in the Philippines and here in the Netherlands already gives one an introduction to the kind of country the products are being marketed in. More obviously, though, they give one idea on how people in the two countries live.
I know that in advertising the truth is a rare element; companies and advertisers exaggerate their claims on how amazing their products are and how they will improve the quality of life of those who buy and use them. In more economically better-off societies, however, I think the lies are better founded, more closely related to the truth.
In Holland, when the ads depict mothers pouring liquid laundry detergent into their washing machines or popping soap tablets into that little box in the dishwasher, their counterparts in the real world are doing the same thing. Tv moms and real moms live in similar abodes — homes with central heating, electricity, running water, and appliances that make chores and life easier and much enjoyable like microwave open, flatscreen televisions, vacuum cleaners, clothes dryers, computer consoles and creature comforts of all sorts and sizes.
In contrast, I think that in the Philippines, only the laundry detergent/laundry soaps and the cooking condiments like soy sauce, fish sauce (patis) and vinegar are being advertised with honesty. With that I mean that the ads on these products mirror more accurately the circumstances of the consumers they’re targetting.
Why do I say that the ads on these products are honest? Concretely, they feature the products being used by models who actually resemble consumers or the models are placed in a situation reflecting the circumstances of the intended users. Laundry soap ads show communities of laundry women with pails of water and big basins, and the women are wearing dusters, their hair tied in ponytails or rolled up in buns so the hair doesn’t get into their eyes when they tackle mounds of dirty clothes.
Vinegar or soy sauce ads show mothers in the kitchen cooking lunch or dinner, and their houses are ordinary and plain. Their children are shown coming in from school after getting off public transport vehicles like buses or jeepneys.
I dislike the shampoo and whitening lotion ads the most. In them, the women get all crazy and obsessed keeping their hair sleek and shiny to the extent that they get depressed if they get so much as a split end. they buy bottles of shampoo and hair conditioner, and thank the hair stylists who endorse them. In reality, most Filipinas rely more on more on the shampoo sold in sachets because they’re cheaper. They don’t go to stylists– they go the friendly neighborhood beautician who had a month’s formal training in hair curling/straightening and received a diploma. Often it’s a risk you take when you go to them, but hey, anything for beauty.
The ads for whitening creams and lotions are plain lying.
Dental care means having a good toothbrush and using toothpaste (Dentists are like churches for lapsed Catholics: you only visit them when you have an emergency like a toothache).
The most truthful ads I’ve seen are the ones featuring pawnshops and motorcycles.
Pawnshops are often the first resort of people in sudden and desperate need of money or short-term loans. The ads show a mother weeping over a sick child, then her older daughter goes to pawn a wedding ring and later comes back with money.
The ad on motorcycles show a family man driving a motorcyle converted into a tricycle. He uses it to earn money to support his family, and with it he sends his daughter to college. Years pass and the daughter graduates. The motorcycle is as sturdy and reliable as the day it was bought.
Then there’s another ad where a laborer uses a bicycle to deliver some consumer product from the factory to the stores, and his wife takes pity on him so she asks her mother for a loan so they can buy a motorcyle. The final scene shows husband and wife on the the motorcycle –to which the man presumably attached an open metal cage where he puts the items he delivers — and they take it for a joyride.
That vastly different lifestyles and economic statuses exist in society at large in the Philippines is very evident if the ads are to be used as indicators.
One moment there’s an ad for Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and the costumers in the restaurant are wearing designer clothes and shoes (imagine getting dressed up just to eat at KFC!), then the next moment there’s a commercial for laundry powder where mothers in a fishing community (where the fishermen used wooden boats and toss nets into the sea with their bare arms and without the aid of machinery) are given a demonstration on which brand makes clothes cleaner with the least handwashing.
There are ads wherein well-dressed employees go to Jollibee to take advantage of the P35 meal promo and they’re seen being wowed at being able to save a few pesos. Homemakers are depicted as walking to the nearest sari-sari store to buy a sachet of dishwashing liquid for P5 and she’s also seen as ecstatic over the idea of being able to clean so many plates for so little an amount of money. Immediately right after these ads, however, can be commercials for the newest Samsung cellphone, or a Pinay supermodel’s endorsement of Olay facial cream which sells at P700 a bottle.
In Holland, everything is more or less consistent: there are no mothers scrimping, no fisherfolk risking life and limb in stormy weather at sea, no school children catching colds and flu from being exposed to sick fellow passengers riding public transport. Instead, there’s a monotonous series of commercials showing people in more or else the same economic circumstances: families who can’t decide which car to buy or where to go on vacation. Children getting up very early so they can be the one to open the Nutela jar or the muesli cereal box. Grandparents who ably cling to the last vestiges of their youth by playing tag with their grandchildren on a wide expanse of lawn (health insurance ads).
Everyone is the ads look like they have immediate and regular access to pediatricians, dentists, cardio and neuro experts. And in this, the ads are not lying: people in Holland make sure that they and everyone in their families have health insurance: it’s the law.
In the meantime, there are products and services that are hardly if ever advertised in the Philippines. In the Netherlands, there are commercials on vastly more expensive and luxurious products as well like cars (Skoda, Opel, BMW, Renault, Ferrari) perfume (Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana, Ralph Lauren, Chanel), vacations to ‘exotic’ locations like Dubai, Egypt, Thailand; Apple (the company) products. Bank and insurance companies deliver their pitches, as well as investment experts, travel agents, real estate agents, gold merchants, cable tv/internet/cellular phone service providers (these services come in packages: pay, say, 20E a month for all three).
These same products and services are not advertised in the Philippines because the public cannot afford them. These are products and services utilized and enjoyed by the elite which comprise the smallest sliver of the population, and by the members of the very small middle class who have to sell their souls in corporate jobs.
Imagine advertising high-end shoes in a country where so many people in the provinces don’t even have slippers. Or trying to sell perfume in gold-tinted, jewel-encrusted bottles where consumers ordinary cologne sold in plastic spritzers are already considered a luxury. No one needs travel agents — people hardly travel outside the country for fun and leisure; those who do leave for abroad do so for work. Cellphone companies continue to find ways to get costumers to continue using their services by providing more affordable packages: text or call or text and call all day for P20.
Both the Philippines and the Netherlands have their respective shares of problems. There’s worsening racism in Holland, the government is cutting provisions for social welfare and benefits, and unemployment is slowly rising. These are very real problems for the Dutch people, but without intending to undermine the gravity of these social challenges, it can be rightly said that the problems in the Philippines are much, much worse. Even the commercials hint at this, however obliquely.
In other countries, the debate when it comes to advertising and broadcast advertising is focused on stereotypes: how women, gay people and the so-called ethnic minorities are depicted and the misconceptions perpetuated and propagated by carelessly written and produced commercials. In the Philippines, this isn’t really the case and the public — excepting the cause-oriented and special interest groups –, sadly, don’t raise a fuss over how commercials strengthen false beliefs and destructive biases that cultivate very backward, sexist, alternatingly discriminatory and patronizing perceptions about the aforementioned sectors. The values are stake are much more basic: is something affordable or not?
Commercials in the Philippines, more the most part, feature products and services that fill the most basic needs but none of the more humble wants. Ad agencies have no pressing need to come up with truly innovative or creative commercials, because their target markets have very minimal purchasing power. How many ways can you sell pancit canton, sardines or toothpaste?
And as things stand, commercials and advertising in the Philippines is not powered by wishes, wants or desires; ad companies and manufacturing companies take their cue from the economic capabilities of consumers, and right now (as they have been for decades), these capabilities are weak. It’s a race to promote products with, supposedly, high quality at the lowest price while there’s the undeniable intent to make profits.
The sachet is proof of this — shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, whitening creme, moisturizers, deodorant sold are in them; , tomato sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, ketchu sandwich spread come in bigger sachets. In the meantime, diapers are sold in packs of 12, sanitary pad companies slashed their prices, cooking oil comes in plastic bags, and softdrink in smaller bottles. Filipinos struggle hard to stretch their meager budgets; manufacturers have to work harder to convince them to part with their money.
Commercials in countries like Holland encourage spending because consumers have the means. Commercials in the Philippines cannot push people to spend; they can only convince people to choose a specific brand instead of another if and when they do buy and spend.
If the so-called economic experts in the Philippines still insist on saying that the country is well on the way to economic recovery, ask them this: how come more and more Filipinos eat instant noodles, hardly if ever buy butter and instead opt for margarine, make weak coffee, use cooking oil at least seven times before discarding it? Even the commercials say so.
The Philippines is a regular basket case economically and politically, but there are solutions to its problems. Living in foreign and more prosperous societies like Hong Kong and Holland has helped me see the kind of changes I want done in the Philippines right after the systemic corruption has been done away with.
Sitting in front of the tv watching commercials one afternoon gave me a idea of one kind of concrete and obvious change I want in the Philippines: I want the tv commercials there become more reflective of the life actually lived by their audiences, the potential consumers, and vice-versa — for audiences to be able to relate more to the commercials instead of merely wishing they could buy the products.
I’m not saying that I want Filipinos to become more consumerist and worldly; but I do want Filipinos to be able to have the option and the means to, say, give their children pancakes or waffles for breakfast when they want something else than rice (meaning the parents can well afford to buy rice. And meat. And fish. And all kinds of fruits and vegetables. And real juice.)
I want the commercials to promote affordable but healthy products other than vitamins like Enervon for adults, Tiki-Tiki for babies or Cherifer for teenagers and I want people to be able to buy them because they’re necessities and not luxuries. I want all families to be able to afford advertised services like cable tv and internet (it goes without saying that they have computers — to say nothing about electricity and water; sofas and book cases and other furniture; concrete walls and galvanized steel roofs; indoor toilets that flush).
I want all Filipinos, particularly those who operate the machines that create the products and ensure the delivery of services and those who toil in the fields to produce food that nourish the rest of society, to be able to enjoy the fruit of their labors. Those who make cheese and ice cream have the option to eat both on a regular basis if they want; those who plant rice should never go hungry and instead be able to cook desserts made from wheat like cake and pastries.Those who build buildings and roads and bridges be able to go home to houses that do not resemble or have the sturdiness of cardboard boxes or chicken coops. I want them to be able to watch commercials and have the immediate means to buy the products advertised if they want.
But the best thing would be this: for the Philippines to evolve into a society where tv commercials would not be about fake needs and artificial necessities (how many kinds of shampoo, deodorant or toothpaste do you need anyway? Or would it kill you to not have that cellphone?) but about reminders of the services the national government is able to provide 24/7: free health and dental services in the closest public hospital, just call to make appointments; quality public school education and weekly tours for school children to museums and libraries; employment opportunities in the government-run enterprises and business, please email your resume or contact your local government unit.
And on and on in a new society wherein Filipinos will be finally free to aspire to more than just ordinary consumer products and services. In the future, hopefully, the minutes and hours that used to be devoted to promoting said products will be used to promote arts and sciences, both of the sort that celebrate Filipino ingenuity, intelligence, talent and creativity without the need to compromise dignity and self-worth; or to imitate foreign crap pop culture. Commercials will be advertisements on a society that has done away with useless spending, brainless consumerism,and they will serve as introductions to programs that teach, entertain, enlighten and empower.
Sheesh. This is a long blog. I have to stop watching tv — I’m seeing too many commercials.