By Carmela Fonbuena
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
Candidates in the 2022 elections have run ads on mainstream media worth more than P20 billion from January 2021 to the end of March 2022 or halfway through the 90-day campaign period, demonstrating the increasing cost of electoral campaigns in the Philippines.
This combined spending of the candidates is equivalent to government allocation in the 2022 budget for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (P25 billion), the construction and upgrading of healthcare facilities and procurement of hospital equipment (P22.99 billion), or for helping indigent patients during the pandemic (P21.36 billion).
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) acquired the ad spending data of candidates from Nielsen Ad Intel. The database covers their spending on television, radio, print, and billboards based on rate cards or before campaign teams may have availed themselves of discounts.
Former public works secretary and senatorial candidate Mark Villar and re-electionist Sen. Joel Villanueva both breached the P2-billion mark, making them the biggest ad spenders on mainstream media so far. On top of their solo ads, Villar and Villanueva also appeared in shared ads.
Among presidential candidates, survey leader Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and his closest rival, Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, topped ad spending. Marcos and Robredo each recorded over P1.4 billion worth of ads — including ads where they appeared with other candidates — during the 15-month period.
The database of Nielsen Ad Intel doesn’t include the cost of producing those ads and fees to celebrities or talents who appeared in them.
It also doesn’t cover the expenses of candidates on social media and in their hustings around the country during the 90-day campaign.
Many candidates appeared to have spent above the spending limits under the law — P10 per voter for presidential and vice-presidential candidates and P3 per voter for other candidates except those running without the support of a political party, who are allowed to spend P5 per voter. Separately, political parties can spend P5 per voter.
With 65.7 million registered voters in the 2022 elections, these limits translate to a maximum spending of P657 million for national candidates and additional P328.5 million for their political parties.
Candidates are entitled by law to discounted rates of up to 50% during the campaign period. But even with discounts, many candidates would have already violated spending limits.
However, the ad spending limits apply only during the 90-day campaign period or from Feb. 8 to May 7. This interpretation, which campaign reform advocates are opposed to, is based on Republic Act 9369 or the 2007 election automation law. It says that those who filed their COCs will only become candidates during the campaign period and thus “unlawful acts or omissions applicable to a candidate shall effect only upon the start of the… campaign period.”
PCIJ’s computation showed that total ad spending before the campaign period, which began on Feb. 8, amounted to more than P14 billion. Many slowed down beginning Feb. 8 when ad limits took effect. (Click here for a breakdown of candidates’ pre-campaign ad expenses.)
Villar, for example, ran ads worth over P1.6 billion before the campaign period began on Feb. 8, when no limits were imposed yet on ad spending.
Villar’s pre-campaign ads included spots where he appeared with his father, the former Senate President Manuel Villar Jr, who was himself known for bombarding voters with ads when he ran for electoral posts.
Villanueva ran ads worth P1.7 billion before the campaign period, including spots where he appeared with fellow senatorial candidate Alan Peter Cayetano.
The head of the Comelec Campaign Finance Office, lawyer Efraim Bag-id, previously told PCIJ in an interview that their hands were tied because there are no sanctions against premature campaigning.
“The mere filing of the COC does not make them automatically a candidate… Prohibitions pertaining to candidates will not be applicable to them,” Bag-id told the PCIJ.
10 candidates breach P1B
Only Villar and Villanueva have aired ads worth more than P2 billion so far.
Both candidates belong to business families that run firms requiring government licenses. Villar and Villanueva’s families were both awarded franchises by Congress to run television stations. The Villars are also among the country’s biggest real estate developers.
In an earlier report published by the PCIJ, political science professor Ela Atienza said the potential conflicts of interest were a serious concern. “We have had many cases before when senators and members of the House of Representatives [belonged to] families [that] have business interests… Most of the time, they do protect the interest or push for the interest of their family businesses,” she said.
The total spending after the campaign could show more candidates breaching P2 billion, based on rate cards. The database so far only covers about half of the 90-day campaign period or until March 30, 2022.
Eight other candidates have run over P1 billion worth of ads since January 2021. They are presidential candidates Robredo, Marcos, Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, and Panfilo “Ping” Lacson and senatorial candidates Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, former senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Loren Legarda, and former Vice President Jejomar Binay.
Among vice presidential candidates, Senate President Vicente Sotto III has been the biggest spender so far, recording nearly P600 million worth of ads based on rate cards.
The president’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, aired ads worth more than P500 million while Sen. Francis Pangilinan aired ads worth more than P400 million.
Most of the vice-presidential candidates’ spending included tandem ads with their running mates Lacson, Marcos, and Robredo, respectively.
Most candidates can’t afford their ads
Campaign finance reform advocates urged voters to be more discerning about the sources of candidates’ campaign funds to check potential conflicts of interests that they might have if they won public office.
Candidates are only required by law to declare their donors after the campaign period, however. Advocates have pushed for real-time reporting of campaign spending.
For example, President Rodrigo Duterte’s Statement of Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE), which he filed after the 2016 presidential campaign, showed that at least half a dozen of his donors and their relatives were appointed to Cabinet and other positions in government.
Most candidates in the 2022 elections cannot afford the cost of their ads and must have relied on donors, based on their declarations in their Statement of Assets Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN), a document that public officials are required to submit annually.
Even Villar, who reported a net worth of P1.4 billion in his 2021 SALN, aired ads worth more than his wealth.
Other senatorial candidates who aired ads worth more than P100 million were re-electionist Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri (P821 million), former senator Jinggoy Estrada (P737 million), re-electionist Sen. Risa Hontiveros (P635 million), former presidential spokesperson Harry Roque (P494 million), re-electionist Sen. Richard Gordon (P 316 million), former senator JV Ejercito Estrada (P 348 million), Sorsogon governor and former senator Francis Escudero (P 147 million), former information and communications technology secretary and former senator Gregorio Honasan (P 144 million), and former defense secretary Gilberto Teodoro (P 136 million).
Ironically, the richest candidate in the 2022 elections, based on SALN declarations, didn’t spend much on ads.
Sen. Emmanuel Pacquiao, who reported a net worth of P3.2 billion in 2020, aired ads worth only P11.6 million, although this amount is expected to increase when ad expenditures from the rest of the campaign period are added.
Party list and local races
In the party-list race, the top spenders during the reporting period were Abono, Ako Bicol, 1-Pacman, Ang Probinsiyano, ACT-CIS, Bicol Saro, and Cibac. Except for Bicol Saro, all these groups which aired ads worth more than P100 million each based on rate cards are currently represented in Congress.
Abono party list, a group that purports to represent agricultural workers in northern Luzon, is represented by members of the Estrella and Ortega political clans from the region.
1-Patriotic Coalition of Marginalized Nationals Inc or 1-Pacman is represented by one of the House of Representatives’ richest members, Rep. Michael Romero.
They are just two out of at least 177 party-list groups “hijacked” by political clans and businesses, according to election watchdog group Kontra Daya.
An earlier PCIJ report showed how the party-list elections have become a back door for politicians to perpetuate themselves in power. At least 70 of 177 party-list groups accredited by the Comelec for the May 2022 elections have nominees who are connected to political clans or incumbent local or national elected officials, research by the PCIJ showed.
In the local races, politicians from Pangasinan province topped spending nationwide. Re-electionist Pangasinan Gov. Amado Espino III and Vice Gov. Mark Lambino aired ads worth over P173 million and over P47 million, respectively.
Balong Ventenilla, who is running unopposed for mayor of Mangatarem town in the same province, aired ads over P120 million.
Pangasinan has the country’s third biggest voting population, next to Cebu and Cavite provinces. It has over two million voters.
Level the playing field?
Political ads were banned in Philippine elections until the prohibition was lifted in 2000. This was based on the argument that ads would level the playing field, enabling new faces to compete with traditional names that have dominated Philippine politics.
Manuel Villar Jr., the father of top spender Mark Villar, released one of the country’s first successful political ads since the ban was lifted. His “Sipag at Tiyaga” ads were an instant hit in the 2001 elections.
In the 2004 elections, senatorial race frontrunner Manuel Roxas II’s “Mr. Palengke” ads were credited for his electoral success.
Critics have since lamented how political ads were accessible only to rich candidates. The Supreme Court junked a Comelec attempt to impose a 180-minute limit and 120-minute limit on all radio and television networks, respectively. The limits are applied per network or station.
Political ad spending has not always guaranteed electoral success, however. In the 2007 elections, top spender Prospero Pichay, a politician from Surigao del Sur, came close but failed to win a seat despite his catchy and ubiquitous “Pichay, Itanim sa Senado” ads.
Mainstream media is the main source of information on politics for Filipinos, according to an October 2021 Pulse Asia survey. Up to 91% of respondents said they relied on TV and 49% said they rely on radio.
In the senatorial race, Villar’s ad spending appeared to have helped push his numbers to the winning Magic 12 circle.
Villar started appearing in ads with his father in June 2021. From ranking 20-26 in the Pulse Asia survey that month — 18.5% of respondents said they would vote for him — the younger Villar rose to ranks 9-10 in the September survey with 36.2% respondents saying they would vote for him.
He recorded his best survey numbers in January 2022 when he ranked 2-4 with 56.2% or majority of respondents saying they would vote for him. He slipped to ranks 5-12 in the April survey, however, as the senatorial race appeared to tighten.
Internet campaigns and sorties
The internet has grown in terms of influence on voters in recent elections. Up to 48% of voters said they relied on it as their source of information, a proportion statistically equal to radio. Facebook is the most dominant internet platform, with 44% of respondents saying they relied on it as a source of information.
The popularity of the internet as a source of information gave rise to disinformation and misinformation, however, as people consumed information from unverified sources and the credibility of mainstream media came under attack.
In a 2018 speech, Facebook public policy director for global elections Katie Harbath said she agreed 100% that the Philippines was “patient zero” in the weaponization of digital platforms during elections. She referred to the 2016 presidential elections, which President Rodrigo Duterte won.
In the 2022 polls, numerous studies have shown that disinformation campaigns have disproportionately targeted Robredo to the benefit of Marcos. Marcos has denied allegations that his camp employs trolls to revise the history of his father’s dictatorship.
Many candidates have posted ads on Facebook, capitalizing on its wide reach among voters. As of May 2, Robredo was still the top spender while Marcos continued to snub advertising on the social media platform.
Her supporters spent over P30 million on ads on Facebook, circulated mostly before the official campaign period, to combat disinformation against her online.
Marcos prefers meme wars over ads, said Jonathan Ong, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has studied disinformation networks in the region. “Political ads are traditionally effective in conveying candidates’ general proposition and branding — but they can end up sounding generic and inauthentic. BBM is more invested in the “meme wars” and campaigning via political fan groups, community pages, and micro-influencers,” he said in an earlier interview.
Meanwhile, in the campaign hustings, Robredo appeared to dominate, drawing unprecedented crowds in many provinces.
A map of the campaign sorties showed she was the busiest among the presidential candidates in the campaign trail since Feb. 8. She was able to visit most of the country’s provinces except, notably, those in known Marcos bailiwicks in northern Luzon.
Robredo’s campaign has inspired unprecedented volunteerism, with her supporters conducting house-to-house campaigning to combat disinformation.
The same Pulse Asia survey on sources of information on politics showed that 37% of Filipinos relied on family and relatives. A quarter of respondents said they also relied on friends and acquaintances for information. — with research assistance from Martha Teodoro, Cherry Salazar, Kenneth Guda, and Elyssa Lopez
Illustration by Luigi Almuena