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P.T. Villar by Danilo Luis Mariano

February 5, 2010

Phineas Taylor Barnum was a 19th century American businessman and entertainer. It was he who popularized the term “showman,” which was also used to describe what he was best at.

Several famous quotations have been attributed to him, rightly or wrongly. “I don’t care what they say about me so long as they spell my name right,” is one of them.

The gurus of mass communication, self-styled or otherwise, have gone on to give that memorable P.T. Barnum quotation a twist, “any publicity is good publicity.”

The theory seems to be grounded in fact. Case in point: Manuel Villar.

The latest surveys show him neck and neck in the presidential race with Noynoy Aquino, making up for the ground he lost months back when Ninoy and Cory’s son was persuaded by his Liberal Party mates to throw his hat in the ring.

A more recent opinion poll showed Villar in a “statistical tie” with Aquino.

In unveiling their survey results, the pollsters invariably commented that Villar was able to whittle down Aquino’s lead while the C-5 controversy was heating up again in the Senate.

Experts in “deconstruction” will likely detect a measure of frustration in that particular comment. Widespread was the expectation that the report of the Senate committee of the whole (SCOW) would prove fatal to Villar’s presidential bid.

His political ambitions would not survive the SCOW’s conclusions that Villar had intervened in the design and execution of the C-5 Road extension project to benefit his real-estate companies and that therefore he deserved censure for blatant conflict of interest.

The SCOW findings gave heart to Villar’s political rivals and other quarters that never saw him as fit for the presidency in the first place. The brouhaha, however, produced an altogether unexpected effect—“unexpected,” especially by those who failed to reckon with P.T. Barnum’s insight.

The more his adversaries in the Senate and elsewhere pressed their case against Villar, the larger the media mileage he got. Best of all, the publicity cost him nothing—not that it would have mattered to a candidate who seems so ready to throw his money around.

For a couple of weeks or so, not a day passed when Villar’s name and face did not land on the front page of the national dailies or the top-story lineup of radio and TV newscasts. While the accompanying text tended to cast him as the epitome of bureaucrat-capitalism, it did not apparently matter to the bulk of news consumers.

All that mattered to this segment of the populace was that Villar was being talked about a lot. And when the pollsters came around asking them about their preferences, the name of the most prominent newsmaker of the day came to mind automatically.

“Name recall” is what communication professionals call this phenomenon—and politicians willingly give up fortunes, theirs as well as the public’s, to grab this edge.

Villar’s rivals evidently failed to anticipate that he was gaining an important advantage over them. While the senators were angrily debating the SCOW report, most of the other presidential aspirants—notably Aquino—chose to keep a low profile. They let Villar occupy center stage.

Even during those days when he chose not to show up at the Senate, Villar managed to keep the public’s attention focused on him.

As the poet and writer Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.”

When Villar did show up on the Senate floor Tuesday, his refusal to grant his colleagues the courtesy of interpellation ensured that only his attempts to refute the charges against him would lead news reports.

The constant repetition of the charges against Villar has had the effect of embedding his name in the popular consciousness—especially among those segments of the population who have neither the skills nor the inclination to grasp what his detractors are saying about him.

What Villar is accused of involves such complicated issues that trying to understand them tends to give even the well-educated a headache. He allegedly violated so many laws and ethical standards that lawyers would be hard pressed explaining them in a language the man in the street can easily understand.

And this is obviously why the billionaire Villar has opted to portray himself as an offspring of the same kind of grinding poverty that afflicts so many Filipinos—especially those who belong to what statisticians euphemistically call “Class E.”

Villar has been playing up his purportedly humble roots as the son of a fishmonger—although, as noted in earlier editions of this column, the business of selling fish requires the sort of capital not ordinarily available to the truly poor.

Nonetheless, the” mahirap” tack seems to be working, going by an analysis of the latest survey results. Emboldened by these findings, Villar’s propaganda juggernaut is taking the offensive with this formula—which strikes some observers as the equivalent of class warfare.

To be sure, the presidential election is still three months away. And as the saying goes, “There’s many a slip betwixt cup and lip.”

Nevertheless, the Villar campaign offers many valuable lessons for students of mass communication—especially on how to turn the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse.

By the way, P.T. Barnum is also supposed to have also said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Like the legendary showman, the senator knows where to find them.


Your  Midfielder is reposting this piece by veteran journalist ang political analyst Danilo Luis Mariano today for us to reflect on as the official campaign period unfolds.

Our gratitude to gratitude to Manong Danny for posting his article on FaceBook. He writes a regular column in The Manila Times and is one of the msin panelists/convcnors of the werekly news forum Kapihan Sa Sulo every Saturday.

Graphics added by yours truly.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2010 5:36 am

    didn’t i tell you ding that our liberation is very far off the horizon because majority of our people have no accesss to those “liberating websites” and they remain sandbagged by MSM’s spin on Villar’s from rag to riches story and the broadcast media’s spin on his stellar legislative performance?

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