Everyone throughout their school years has a few teachers who they remember fondly. Those individuals who shape the way you think; whose lessons truly seem to stick. Those rare teachers one encounters who truly seem to have been born to teach. In my case, one such teacher was when I was in grad school at Marquette: Dr. Bausch, who taught the all of the business ethics classes and most of the management classes. I remember vividly one class where the focus was about the ethics of advertising medications. At the time, prescription medicines were just beginning to advertise on television in the United States, and the topic was quite appropriate: Previously, prescription medicine was never advertised, and there are very real ethical issues.
The class was in Milwaukee in winter, and Dr. Bausch had just returned from teaching in Russia, wearing one of those Russian fur hats. The heat in the building was just turned on, and everyone was wearing their hats until the class warmed up. Here’s the exchange as I remember it:
Me: “Dr. Bausch, did you ever notice that the medicines advertised on TV are for “funny” diseases or conditions?”
Dr. Bausch: “What do you mean by “funny”?”
Me: “Well, it seems that there are an awful lot of ads for guys who don’t have enough lead in their pencil, have excessive flatulence, yellow toenails, or are suffering from the pain and tragedy of hair loss.”
Dr. Bausch, while removing his hat, in a serious, deadpan voice: “John, there is absolutely NOTHING funny about hair loss! ”
This exchange, though amusing, led into a further discussion about WHY consumers respond to medical advertising. There have been numerous market research studies undertaken by pharmaceutical manufacturers that show conclusively that people are more apt to ask their doctors about a new drug, rather than ask about a potentially embarrassing condition. In other words, it is easier to ask your MD for a “little blue pill” or a dash of Rogaine than admit that your little guy is distracted at the wrong moment or that you need Turtle Wax so that the rain beads off your head. This also applies to other forms of advertising: Ever notice how much of the SPAM you receive is related to Viagra, pecker enlargement, or going bald? Conditions over which people are often embarrassed about or ashamed.
Once, in the Middle East, I was on a trip dealing with a government official. At lunch, my agent said:
“John, I’ve got something rather unusual to ask you.”
“Well, you know **official’s name**?”
“He’s thinking of approving your contract.”
“OK…. Do the drawings need to be modified?”
“No, No, No… nothing like that. He has a favor he would like from you. Well, he has a problem with his new girlfriend that is rather embarrassing…”
“He brought her home, and started to undress… And she laughed at the size of his…. You know….”
“Ah… So he’s a little lacking in the size department. His underpants navy has a dinghy instead of an aircraft carrier. ”
“Well, much as I sympathize, what does he want from me?” (Note, I am trying desperately to keep my composure by this point)
My agent pulls out a printout of a SPAM sales pitch for penis enlargement pills… “Grow two inches in two months!!!!”
“He has ordered these three times and customs keep confiscating the pills. Since you live in the US, can you pick these up and bring them? He’s desperate.”
“Will I get the contract?”
“Yes, Yes, Yes!!!”
“OK… No problem.”
So, I order the pills (Around $200), and they arrive. I bring them to the Middle East. No problem with customs. Give them to my agent. I get a sale the same day.
About six months later…
“John, **person’s name** needs more pills.”
“<<Incredulously>> You mean they really worked!?!?!”
“Oh yes… He’s much larger now!”
“OK… My price is another contract!”
Now, I’m 99.9999% certain that the pills did absolutely nothing. I think that his problem was psychological, and the pills had something of a placebo effect. Nevertheless, the shame over the reaction of some girl was stronger than his common sense and skepticism. Yes, I enabled in order to get a sale (Dr. Bausch would probably give me a very stern look… Sorry Dr. Bausch.) I did really feel sorry for him (I’d have probably helped without a contract). Unfortunately, much of what is advertised is simply bogus. Best case, you are buying nothing. Worst case, you may be poisoning yourself.
So, at over six hundred words, I have yet to mention the Philippines. How is this relevant? In the West, medical advertising is fairly strictly controlled. Yeah, you receive SPAM from dubious sources. Yeah, there are tons of disclaimers on advertisements, but, generally, what you buy is as advertised, in most cases.
In the Philippines, advertising is far less strictly regulated. In fact, the old saying, “Caveat Emptor” really becomes important. Many pills that supposedly cure a myriad of conditions are freely advertised, some with the disclaimer “No Therapeutic Claims are Made”, but many without.
Advertising exists in order to convey a message. That message is that a product or service exists that satisfies a need or desire. It really doesn’t matter what that need is, just that something exists that can fulfill that need. How that message is communicated really depends on the medium used, along with the ethics of the advertiser. Those ethics can use spin (a grey area between outright lie and bending the truth), truthful claims, discounts (to give a sense of urgency or immediate gratification), justification, or a myriad of other tools. The sales pitch can be relatively simple (“House and Lot for sale”), or incredibly sophisticated (like subliminally using product placement in movies). Where that ethical line is drawn can vary, and the use of such methods can really push the boundaries (Does advertising the fact that sugary breakfast cereal has been fortified with vitamins make it healthy?) .
A common example here is with powdered milk or baby formula. I never knew it before, but apparently Juanito can grow up to be a rocket scientist, or even President of the Philippines, just by drinking certain brands of milk! Imagine a world where study, perseverance, education, and skill are no longer required in order to be successful in life! Just by drinking milk! A true miracle, by any measure of the word. So you see Kris Aquino appear 7 or 8 times per hour while you are watching the program of your choice… Doing like Kathy Lee Gifford in the States… Parading her kid around for publicity. You cannot help but wonder, “Does HER kid drink that milk?” If so, why isn’t HE the one advertising the product? He should be a child prodigy by now. (I also wonder how many different products she shills… It seems she’s everywhere: milk; noodles; real estate; shampoo; makeup; cooking classes; laundry detergent (Can you imagine her washing clothes?).
With advertising, frequency of the message is important, too… A catchy tune that burrows its’ way into your thoughts, impossible to get out of your head. In the Philippines, there are two current commercials that seem to be frequently repeated. By “frequently”, I mean they will show the same commercial three times in a row, back to back. The first is the Palmolive shampoo commercial. “KC, how do you stay so YOUNG???” (It doesn’t hurt that she’s about 25 years old). “Oh, it’s because I FEEL young, hee hee hee ”. Then she starts singing her “La la la la” song. Funny… I used the same shampoo and MY hair didn’t grow a meter and allow me to swish it around.
So, then we come to PCSO (The Philippine lottery). Patriotic sounding music…. Basically, “Filipino hearts, Filipino winners”. Your lottery purchases fund all of this charity… You really MUST be unpatriotic if you don’t play. Repeated 12 times per hour for your viewing enjoyment.
Really, though, advertising in the Philippines has recently become much more sophisticated. There is a focus on branding more than ever before. Companies are more conscious of their brand and brand image. Filipinos are huge users of Facebook, and other social networks (along with the rest of the world). Indeed, it is difficult to find a product or business now that doesn’t have its’ own page (Though how often they are updated is an entirely different matter).
These are some examples just off the top of my head… Readers of this site will have many more examples. Expect advertising to continue to develop and look more like advertising in the West in the years to come.
John Miele is a Citizen of the World, having spent time in many locations around the globe. Currently, he finds himself in Manila, but travels throughout the Philippines. John joined the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine in mid-2008.