30 November 2012

Creativity In Philippine Advertising During The Martial Law Years

During the martial law years in the Philippines, one peculiar aspect of this period is the presence of free enterprise. “Free” being used loosely in this context. People were allowed to foster and grow a business. Some may say that as long as it is under the radar from cronies and the ruling government, the business is relatively safe. Unlike present dictatorships, such as North Korea and Iran, where images of impoverished citizens completely smothered by government are top of mind, the Philippines had a certain duality in its application and definition of a dictatorial government. Freedom of speech was oppressed yet, in a certain way, freedom of expression was allowed.

Some of the best movies made were during the Martial Law era. As a popular saying goes, oppression breeds creativity. Stories and themes were layered enough that the political commentary, if there was one, was not obvious enough to capture attention.

During the time, television, movies, radio and print media were censored. In fact, the first order of President Marcos when Martial Law was declared was the "take over and control of all privately owned newspapers, magazines, radio and television facilities and all other media communications." With the channels for advertising under government control, did it affect the advertising industry the way it conducted its business? This is in the context on how commercials and print ads are made.

According to Norman Agatep, Managing Director of Euro RSCG Philippines - 4As, government “instructed the private sector to clean its act up” which led to the founding of the Advertising Board of the Philippines (Adboard) in 1974. Its purpose is to self regulate the industry to ensure that government won’t stifle its growth and disrupt the business. The Adboard provided a stronger voice to work for the benefit of the entire industry and to stabilize the relationship between advertisers and the media. At that time, there was not much cooperation among the pillars of the industry.

A bulk of the income of media comes from advertising. But in the time of Martial Law they still have a line to toe. Obviously, there are certain themes and subjects that are hands off when it comes to media. Some of these are the criticism of government, putting the country in bad light, highlighting the oppressive nature of government, etc. But aside from the founding of Adboard, how much did martial law affect the advertising industry?

Channeling Celebrities

The principal goals of advertising are to create awareness, establish presence, maintain an impression, and ultimately increase the sales of a brand or product. Unless it is a Public Service Announcement (PSA), political commentary or social issues are not a component of an advertisement. It can be argued that these could be the theme of the commercial but more often than not, an ad about shampoo, for example, does not include a message to feed the poor.

Most ads during the period were mass consumer goods such as toothpaste, shampoo, milk, and softdrinks. This is not much different to the products being advertised now. Looking at the theme and stories of both hardly show any difference; toothpaste ads promise whiter teeth, fresher breath; soap and detergents guarantee cleanliness, snacks bring joy and fun. It was the same as before, there was hardly any deviation to the formula. Although, one may notice that today’s advertisements carry more celebrity endorsements than ever before.

Pushing the comparison off the edge, it can be said that the martial law era stifled celebrity endorsements. Of course there were some who appeared in commercials and print ads then but not as prevalent as now where almost every product and brand features a media personality pushing it. It is as if everyone were in fear of being in the limelight at the time, even if nothing wrong was being done. But now, the floodgates have opened and having a name and face to the product is almost a necessity.

Commercial Cacophony

But what if there was some political statement embedded deep within martial law commercials? That it was too layered to be noticed by not just the censors but also by the citizens themselves? Suspending logic/belief/reality, the following three television ads can be used as an argument that the ad industry was part of the revolution for change:

Milk Is Not Milk If We follow The Bouncing Ball - Klim is a powdered milk brand that was owned by Borden during martial law. It was later acquired by Nestle in the late 90s. Klim had a commercial where viewers get to sing the jingle by following the bouncing ball. Can this be a symbolic message with different signals being put out? The name itself is a backward spelling of milk, just like democracy at the time. And follow the bouncing ball? That in itself is a strong message.

Charlie Balakubak Is A Subversive - Gard shampoo is a dandruff shampoo (owned today by Colgate-Palmolive) with Charlie Balakubak its central character. Charlie suffers from dandruff and is shunned and ignored by girls until he decides to use Gard shampoo. An interpretation of this commercial is that Charlie is a person who sees the impurities of the government but has to change his ways and accept the norm to be able to join society. Would that be a stretch?

Paul Anka Asks Us To Remember - Kodak had a commercial where Paul Anka sings Time of Our Lives while treasured memories caught on camera were featured. The first few lines of the song are “Good morning, yesterday. You wake up and time has slipped away. And suddenly it's hard to find, the memories you left behind. Remember, do you remember…?” Could this be a call for everyone to remember the times before martial law? That everyone is in a state of fear that no one remembers the time before?


There could be internal conflicts and actions going on in the background for the industry during Martial Law. It looked like it worked and self regulation kept the industry safe. Commercials today eschew the same message for the same products as before. It seems the industry weathered through those turbulent times unscathed. For the ordinary citizen, an ad is a call to try a product. And for the advertiser, it is a way to eventually make it a part of their daily lives. Just like the products, martial law is something the government wanted us to embrace and accept as the norm. Maybe they should have hired an ad agency for that.