Celebrities and elections: A completely different red carpet

Kristofer Purnell - Philstar.com
Celebrities and elections: A completely different red carpet
Composite image of actress Toni Gonzaga hosting a UniTeam rally and of television personality Vice Ganda with Vice President Leni Robredo
Instagram / Toni Gonzaga, STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — It is quite common knowledge that the Philippines is a showbiz country. We treat the Miss Universe competitions as others would the NBA Finals and the Academy Awards. We devote hours of our time over the newest and past love-teams, and we praise any celebrity who has the slightest hint of Filipino in their blood.

The elections are no different as many personalities have tried their hand in politics and came away victorious, examples being former President Joseph Estrada (actor), former Vice President Noli de Castro (broadcaster), and Sens. Lito Lapid (actor), Bong Revilla (actor), and Tito Sotto (host/singer).

If not to run, some celebrities publicly endorse candidates amid their campaign run. In 2004, Judy Ann Santos endorsed the successful senatorial run of Jamby Madrigal, while in 2016 then-rising couple Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla (dubbed "KathNiel") backed the Liberal Party ticket of Mar Roxas and Leni Robredo.

The 2022 elections is no different, as celebrity support flowed in for multiple camps — former Pinoy Big Brother host Toni Gonzaga was a constant sortie host for Bongbong Marcos, Sotto's brother Vic rallied their fellow "Eat Bulaga" hosts to push his vice presidential bid, and KathNiel's subtle support for Robredo was overshadowed by the immense presence of the likes of Angel Locsin, Jolina Magdangal and Vice Ganda.

Celebrity power as the difference

Yet somehow, these recent elections seem to stand apart from past celebrity participation in politics, never has the Filipino people seen such overwhelming support for chosen candidates to the point they became frequent appearances at sorties.

Dr. Ruanni Tupas, a Filipino academic at the Department of Culture, Communication and Media, IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society in London, says the difference can be found in the evolution of celebrity power.

"Celebrities then were celebrities of television and television culture. Now, they are celebrities of a wider variety of platforms, including different social media platforms," Tupas told Philstar.com. "This means that engagement with voters is more direct and immediate."

For Tupas, this also means that celebrity power emanates from all kinds of people, not only actors and singers but also online influencers whose followers range in the thousands and even millions.

But does celebrity impact have a huge effect on a campaign? Tupas says it is a complex assessment. 

"Celebrities can help improve the awareness levels of particular candidates, although it does not mean it translates into votes," he added.

Using the 2022 elections as an example, majority of the country's biggest stars were present at Robredo's rallies while a few went to Marcos' — and yet it was the latter who was able to receive over 30 million votes, nearly twice as much as Robredo.

This makes the Marcos campaign an interesting case study for PUBLICITYASIA founder Joyce Ramirez, who helped him launch the now popular "BBM" brand that was conceptualized during his 2016 vice presidential and of the digital campaign of Grace Poe when she ran for president the same year.

"This is a man who decided he will ignore all the debates and just use his limited time directly campaigning to the people," Ramirez told Philstar.com, also pointing out that celebrity endorsements are still no match to the endorsements from fellow politicians which Marcos numerously had.

The factor of social media and misinformation

Tupas says that we need to think of celebrities as part of a network of enabling or disabling factors which makes a politician win or lose, particularly as they become more involved in discussions about who they support.

"Because of the nature of political engagement mediated by social media, we also see celebrities more involved in conversations, and even 'bardagulans', about their candidates and the issues surrounding them," Tupas explained.

These kinds of participations, Tupas continues, are also interconnected because they are being watched live online. It boils down then to the specific or targeted demographics or weaknesses being addressed by candidates and their celebrity supporters.

Tupas expounds further that misinformation and disinformation have also been mobilized in organized ways that can either favor or go against a candidate.

In this regard, celebrity power is not enough on its own to sway people to vote for a given candidate, grassroots campaigns and an organized machinery are crucial to one's success.

Celebrities are citizens too

A big concern raised is that supporters are being given money to attend political sorties; the same applies to celebrities, but like the supporters they face they say are also volunteers and were not paid to appear at rallies.

"We can assume that artists, for whatever reason, who appeared in sorties did so because their contracts allowed them so," Tupas said. "We should take the view too that many of these artists did so because they truly believed in the candidates. They are Filipinos too who are invested in the future of the country."

However, Tupas points out that a number of celebrities did not endorse any candidate, and like those who did made a calculated risk.

Ramirez expounds on this by saying that if a political candidate an artist showed their support for loses in an election, it is bad for brand equity, credibility, and overall for business.

"Many of these celebrities listen to the amateur advice of their inner circle who are often biased to their political preferences and that's why they end up in such a big mess later on," Ramirez also said.

Support going forward

With the campaign season officially over, many begin to wonder if celebrities who voiced adamant support for a particular candidate will show the same amount in the weeks or months to come, whether or not they become victorious.

"For those on the winning side, we can expect that the personalities will continue to champion and protect their elected officials," Ramirez said.

As for those who came up short, Ramirez's personal stance is that these celebrities should "keep a low profile for now as it is not good to keep on making noise if the end result is futile."

Tupas meanwhile says that if these celebrities were invested because they shared the same ideals or principles of a given candidates, then it automatically follows they will be actively involved in their cause(s) no matter the final count.

"I would like to think that we will see this happening among those who have shown commitment and investment in candidates in the recent elections, and who publicly announced that they were doing so as volunteers," Tupas added.

Popularity is the key

As a showbiz country, the make-or-break factor for an individual in any industry in the Philippines is how popular they are, and that includes participating in the elections.

Tupas admits the Philippine elections have been personality-based, something that Ramirez echoes as a celebrity running for public office has better chances than a celebrity endorsing a political candidate.

"If one wants to have the best chance of winning, it is best to be popular or already widely known than to run as a nobody," Ramirez continued, citing that engaging with professionals who can help steer one's imaging and branding as a major boost.

In this regard Tupas says the elections are not an equal playing field because celebrities with a huge amount of star power have the advantage not starting from zero and have really high awareness levels — something that seasoned politicians with high name recall can benefit from.

Popularity, for Ramirez, is a combination of many factors such as looks, track record and appeal with the masses — for her all that is needed to win is the vote of the CD market. She adds that these plans take time, years even and never overnight.

Speaking of track records, Tupas says these are important in so far as they are "perceived" as good track records, and that is how social media comes into play to manufacture stories about candidates and penetrate even the privacy of everyone's lives.

Discussions for the future

As another election cycle closes, the Philippines awaits the arrival of a new administration whose victory heavily relied on a machinery years in the making that was boosted by the different kinds of celebrity power they had in their camp.

This is something that should be considered not just for any future elections but how we view the "power" and influence a personality has, especially in the Philippines.

"It is actually more productive to talk about celebrity power, rather than celebrities, to move away from our traditional understanding of who celebrities are," Tupas said.

He reiterates that politicians can wield celebrity power, and in the age of the Internet so do social media influencers and content creators who have nurtured a good number of followers.

These individuals, these current and potential voters, are deeply invested in the personalities they follow and even idolize, as well as the content and images they represent.

The Philippines will most likely continue to revolve around show business, but if celebrities continue to advocate and stand by individuals that align with their principles towards a better country for all Filipinos, then there may be hope for the positive influence they will spread.



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