In this age of the free-for-all proliferation of online content, “fake news,” “alternative facts” and “historical revisionism” are apparently becoming the norm rather than the exception in public communication. But nowhere are exaggeration, misdirection and outright deception probably more prevalent than among the multitude of ads we are exposed to every day in various social media.
With the use of advanced digital apps, how many times have we seen wrinkles, eye bags and other facial imperfections disappear, gray hair turn black, obese bodies become trim and dark skin become fair right before our eyes—without any mention of the time it took to achieve those transformations, assuming they are achieved at all?
How many times have we seen well-known personalities—doctors, beauty experts, actors, social influencers—personally endorse a product, only to discover later that the “endorsement” came from clever artificial-intelligence image and voice manipulation?
I can cite many more outlandish examples, but my personal favorite is the lengthy “advertorial video,” which starts out as an editorial article but ends up as a hard-sell advertisement. The standard format has a speaker recounting his desperate search for a cure for a serious chronic health issue of a loved one (wife, parent, child), proceeds to the serendipitous discovery of a unique herbal formula, and concludes with an urgent offer of the almost miraculous product before “big pharma” (the usual villain) takes down the seller’s website.
The video comes complete with a clock ticking away the remaining time to avail oneself of the offer, or the limited stocks decreasing by the second. The funny thing is that if you revisit the site days or weeks later, the remaining time or available stocks never seem to run out.
The bottom line: with all the exaggerated, misleading or outright deceptive claims by unscrupulous online vendors, the age-old admonition “Caveat emptor (Buyer beware)” has never been more relevant than in today’s no-holds-barred online marketing environment.
Somehow I miss the time when things were much simpler in the world of marketing communications, where I was an active participant for over four decades. Within that time, I founded and ran my own ad agency, headed the 4As-P (Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies-Philippines) as president, then chairman, during the darkest days of martial law in the ’80s.
After Edsa in 1986, I was elected chairperson of the Adboard, the umbrella organization of all the industries engaged in marketing communications (advertisers, ad agencies, broadcast, print, cinema and outdoor media, research and production companies). Its primary mandate was to self-regulate the content of all advertisements produced by its members. This was done through its key Advertising Content Regulation Committee. It prescreened TV, radio and cinema commercials and post-screened print ads in newspapers and magazines to ensure the truthfulness and technical accuracy of the claims of advertised products.
I also had a memorable stint in the Department of Tourism (DOT) when then-Secretary Dick Gordon invited me to be its marketing consultant right after my retirement from full-time advertising work.
Coordinating with me, the DOT’s ad agency at the time conceived and implemented the ad campaign using the theme “The Philippines—It’s more than the usual.” Examples of TV texts and visuals: “more than the usual rush hour” (a big school of fish swimming under the sea); “more than the usual sidewalk” (the Ifugao rice terraces); “more than the usual fast food” (a freshly caught big fish being carried by a fisher on the beach).
The campaign, integrated with its successful predecessor (WOW Philippines), was aired internationally on CNN and BBC and received a recognition for marketing excellence at the Berlin ITB (Internationale Tourismus-Börse), the world’s largest annual tourism trade fair. With a reported 10-percent increase in tourist arrivals, it also won an award from the Creative Guild of the ad industry. And unlike other succeeding DOT campaigns (including the present one) it was not embroiled in any plagiarism issues because all the parties involved—the client’s principals, the ad agency and the film production company—made sure that only original and proprietary video footage was used in every television execution.
But with the rapid rise of social media in the early 2000s, online advertising with its relatively low cost started its ascent to its present prominence. This phenomenon outpaced the ability of any regulatory body, including those of national governments, to effectively monitor and regulate public online content.
Absence of accountability
Today, practically anyone with access to cyberspace can disseminate information, whether true, specious or simply false, and express his personal views, whether conservative, moderate or radical. And today, the ordinary layperson, constantly bombarded by a surfeit of conflicting information and opinions, is hard put to exercise objective discernment and judgment.
But most relevant to us Filipinos is the increasing absence of transparency and accountability from the government when communicating to its citizens. And our growing tolerance for the culture of deviousness, e.g., putting positive spin, withholding relevant information, or simple silence on the part of public officials regarding controversial issues, is a cause for serious concern.
A case in point is the handling of the “Love the Philippines” ad campaign of the DOT which has become a national embarrassment even before it started. For me, the bottom line main issue is, who are to be held accountable for the uploading on the DOT’s official online sites of the controversial (AVP or TV) materials—stock video footage of scenes from other countries unabashedly misrepresented as Philippine scenes. The fact that the DOT’s ad agency on record has “owned up” to the mistake (for which it was summarily dismissed) has ostensibly put an end to the matter.
But as a longtime advertising practitioner, I find it hard to believe that a leading ad agency with international ties would commit such a basic and senseless infraction on a project of national importance. But if this really was the case, it definitely violated the revered ethical principle of “truth in advertising” and more than deserved what it got.
But what about the culpability and accountability of the other parties involved—the principal representatives on the client side who negligently allowed the video to be uploaded on their official online sites in the first place? What about the production house which surely knew the original source of the controversial video clips and intentionally made spurious use of them? Shouldn’t they also be sanctioned severely for failure to diligently or honestly exercise their respective roles? This is standard practice in advertising, especially when a mistake causes harm to the public, in this case our national reputation due to the oversight of a state agency. But as to be expected in our country, truth, transparency and accountability invariably take a back seat among our public officials, especially when vested interests are in play or at stake.
The clincher was the President’s prompt pronouncement that the Tourism Secretary’s commendable quick reaction (?) had put the whole fiasco “under control.” Filipinos are expected to naively believe that positive spin and accept that outright condonation of accountability. Many probably will. Amen. —Contributed