Tuesday, January 30, 2007

THERE'S A TYPO ON THE BENCH BILLBOARD


By John L. Silva

When companies attempt to make Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) a breathing, living ethos, they should be congratulated and encouraged on. But since the CSR movement is relatively a nascent undertaking in the Philippines, companies whose bottom lines have long been on profit taking rather than on social giving, have applied CSR with some hits and misses.

Take Bench’s current marketing and advertising campaign entitled “Wear Your Conscience.” It’s a social awareness campaign with Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation, an organization raising reading levels in school children, as beneficiary. The tagline is witty, but the concept, execution and results are way off the mark.

Bench recruited celebrities to pose in their polo shirts with logos suggesting “Conscience.” The celebs were the usual Bench stable like Richard Gomez and Lucy Torres, and Kris Aquino and they added socialites and celebrities who’ve graced the slick covers of Tatler and Metro. The photographs, taken by Jun de Leon are all fine technically.

There are celebs who affect a smile with genuine warmth, others more saccharine, some slightly vapid and a lot more of them raise the question, how do they merit having a conscience? That’s the first problem. Bench’s choice of celebs and the pictorial context they are in doesn’t inspire one to ponder social change. Many of them actually excel in charitable works. But in this context, posed with shirts, devoid of their advocacies, these celebs only epitomize Bench retail iconography, or fashion mag cover material, eclipsing the social concerns they may be involved in. A few of them have long too often been snapped, ad nauseam, at product launches grinning ear-to-ear with the latest SwatchVolvoTiffanyFerragamoMcDonalds that no matter what Mother Teresa undertaking they’ve accomplished, the burger gets top-of-mind recall.

Their poses are disconnected to the campaign. Some of the photographs are posed en famille, more fitting in silver frames and resting on top of grand pianos. They make good Christmas cards. But utterly fails as a call to action.

When Bench decided to bring the campaign to the billboard realm, festooning their heartfelt faces on the main highway EDSA, they blew it even further and unfortunately, may have blemished the recipient organization.

The Bench success story is tied significantly to its use of billboard advertising to sell clothes. Starting in 1987 with movie star Richard Gomez, Bench carved out a market selling clothing and accessories, from toddlers to oldies using the hottest stars or well endowed twinks on tarps three stories high that either make people pant or protest in moral outrage. However one views Bench billboards, they have been synonymous with the advertising adage that if you run out of ideas, sex sells. The billboard landscape today littered with Photoshop enlarged tits, spurious hard-ons, and Botoxed butts prove the bankruptcy of creative thinking in ad agencies.

So, when these “Conscience” billboards are set up with the familiar Bench logo and familiar Bench bodies displayed on the same billboard sites that have, for years, revealed anatomical parts oozing sex appeal, the campaign seems not a trifle disingenuous. Oh, catch the itty bitty Sa Aklat Sisikat logo on the lower right. You didn’t? You drove too fast.

Bench, with all the advertising and marketing firsts it has garnered could have used other more effective mediums and concepts to raise consciousness. Instead, they blithely pitted their feel-good efforts against a very vocal populace outraged by the billboard blight that has uglified this country. The recent typhoon Milenyo knocked down many billboards exposing them to be unsafe and had violated building codes. They killed innocent people, injured many more, destroyed vehicles and property, and contributed to billions of pesos of downtime in lengthy power disruptions brought on by their falling on electrical lines.

The propagation of Corporate Social Responsibility cannot be done by transposing traditional marketing and advertising gimmicks on it. Celebrity endorsements, logos, strike-a-pose, and gargantuan billboards have been used for hawking thongs, tuna and adult diapers but don’t crossover seamlessly to caring for your fellow men and women. Anti-billboard advocates, many of them friends of Sa Aklat Sisikat are nonplussed by the use of odious and dangerous billboards to spread their otherwise important educational message. That is, if the message even got through.

The laymen driving down EDSA assaulted by these same billboards will simply surmise that a direct donation to the organization would have been better than spending it on tarps. Instead, the “Wear Your Conscience” billboard, in the absence of a message, and a microscopic recipient logo looks like another billboard clutter hawking clothes. A portion of the proceeds from an accompanying book on the celebs and shirt sales will be donated to Sa Aklat Sisikat. One can mentally figure though that the publishing, marketing, and ad costs for this campaign could dwarf book and shirts sale proceeds and the eventual donation to a worthwhile organization.

It would be remiss not to acknowledge Bench’s philanthropic efforts through the years in support of the arts, education, and social welfare projects. I’ll be the first to recognize and heap gratitude to Bench for supporting organizations that I support as well.

Bench too monitors and knows the feelings and commitment of people who advocate eliminating billboard blight for aesthetic and public safety reasons. I have candidly stated to Bench that in the past their billboards were innocuous when they were the only ones around. Now, there is an unregulated and chaotic billboard industry (most billboards illegally placed and illegally sized) that has polluted the entire country. We anti-billboard advocates are telling Corporate Philippines (the prime abetters) that the demand for billboard elimination, given past events, will only increase and they should urgently map out alternative, safe, and aesthetically pleasing methods to sell their products. The Defensor Anti-Billboard bill now coursing through the Senate and the Congress when passed, will drastically reduce much of their foul presence. The recent filing of criminal charges against a company whose falling billboard killed a man, the vigorous drive by the DPWH and the MMDA to remove illegal and unsafe billboards are welcome moves to us and ominous to corporations to either get with the trend, follow the laws or suffer liabilities and make a mockery of Corporate Social Responsibility. It’s high time corporations and their sex addicted ad agencies don their creative thinking caps.

If the use of billboards to hawk a cause isn’t egregious enough, the more nauseating aspect of the campaign is the insensitivity of the “Conscience” message to the reality at hand. Sa Aklat Sisikat, like other education reform organizations, valiantly works to make more children read through teacher training and the distribution of books at the Grade Four Level. They have trained close to 2,000 teachers and reached out to 190,000 children (Read more about them at http://www.readerstransform.com/ and make a donation).

With half a million teachers and 12 million school children more to go, and a national budget inclined to defense than education; with children’s reading scores abysmally low; with malnutrition, carbon dioxide emissions, and sexual trafficking arresting hopes for a child to even begin to read; Aklat Sisikat’s work is so serious and formidable that the billboard images of slouched and pampered individuals reeking of privilege dreamily exhorting working people on buses and the MRT plying EDSA to go get a conscience is surreal, obscene, arriviste, and deepens the already tenuous class divide even further.

In Thailand, at the close of 2006, a terse news item appeared in the Bangkok Post about Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, a certified pilot, offering to fly - as a fundraising gesture - a commercial plane from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and back for the New Year’s celebration. He charged each passenger one million Baht and the proceeds were to help Muslim children in southern Thailand affected by the insurgency. Days later, a small one-paragraph news item had a declarative sentence that the Crown Prince raised 28 million Baht. There were no fawning congratulatory pictures, no self-indulgent full-page adverts nor billboards of him emoting in his palatial surroundings. His fundraising effort recalls the old-fashioned but preferred way of raising an issue and appealing for support: discreetly, no fanfare and with dignity. Our celebs and entrepreneurs should take a page from the self-effacing Crown Prince and engender conscience in this dire country in less floodlit, sartorial, and mascara ways.

The days of billboards are numbered and any attempt to sugar coat by putting a philanthropic spin on them will only be greeted with derision and increase the resolve to ban them outright.

There’s a typo on those billboards. It should read “Where’s Your Conscience?”

John L. Silva is Senior Consultant to the National Museum of the Philippines and a Trustee to Synergeia, an education reform organization. Reach him at jsilva79@mac.com