Based On A True Story: The Problematic Use of Real Stories in Advertising

April 15, 2020

By Veronica Florendo

The scene opens with a chase deep in the heart of Tondo. A man with ripped sleeves and his gang terrorize the slums’ citizens, and he forcibly enters a home to silence the crying baby of his neighbor. Little does he know that the child is alone in the house, abandoned by his parents. He ends up taking the child in his care, gets an actual job to support him, and becomes a loving father and friend in the process. The last thing that appears on the screen is this: “Binuhay ko siya. Pero ang totoo, binuhay niya ako.” The scene fades to black.

Suddenly, the Vicks logo appears on the screen, making the bold claim that “Everyone deserves the touch of care.” The commercial entitled “Learning to Love” was released by Vicks in 2018, in line with their #TouchOfCare campaign that “recognizes the transformative power of care and celebrates the extraordinary stories of the people who have lived it by their actions” (“Touch of Care”). The scene in question is actually a true story about a man named Hernando whose life is suddenly changed by baby Rhyz, who he had legally adopted 8 years prior to the release of the campaign. While most of what was featured in the commercial are true, part in which Hernando lulls Rhyz to sleep by singing and rubbing him with Vicks VapoRub™ is clearly not.

Stories like Hernando’sa man who throws away his unhealthy lifestyle and works hard to rise above poverty to provide for his childare not uncommon. As of 2018, almost one-fifth of the country’s population still lives below the poverty line (Philippine Statistics Authority). The struggles of people like Hernando who do not have stable housing or income have often been sidelined in the media in favor of the lives of the middle class. The backdrop of most commercials usually involves a brightly-lit home, creaseless clothes, and bright smiles, making Vicks’ decision to feature the slums of Quezon City a step forward in bringing to light the everyday situation of many Filipinos. But how does a company using a true story in their commercialsone in which the poor figure heavily intobecome problematic?

Take for example the #KwentongJollibee series, a campaign started by Jollibee in 2016. While the series started out with featuring the stories of its workers, it quickly branched out to using stories of other people by gathering information online for their Valentines and Christmas specials. Sociologist Nick Couldry talks about how adding the element of the “real” in television creates “new mechanisms for publicly reproducing class difference in an increasingly unequal society” (33). When added with the fact that these commercials, despite their good intentions, are created in an effort to generate profit, it creates an even more unequal dynamic where even the personal struggles of the poor are being co-opted by the large companies that contribute to this wide divide. 

What makes this even more contentious is how the resilience of these characters are romanticized in these commercials, even when the situation is anything but. In “Learning to Love”, the premise begins with a baby abandoned by his mother and left to die. “Regalo” under the #KwentongJollibee series is primarily occupied with the story of a family coping with the loss of the OFW father’s job before Christmas, culminating with the daughter being happy that her father gets to stay home, which is, of course, done over a Jollibee meal. While the commercial strives to make the point that the best gift a parent can give to their child is not anything material but actually quality time spent together, it fails to say anything about the conditions that push OFWs to sacrifice their desire to stay with their families in order to provide for them. The last line thrown by Jollibee, “‘Di kayang tumbasan ng anumang regalo ang saya na hatid ng pamilya ngayong Pasko,” is easier to say when they are not the person who had just lost their job and has to celebrate the holidays with their family, unsure about the future. Jollibee barely considered the situation of the OFW working themselves to the bone abroad because their own country could not provide them with an opportunity to live a better life instead of going elsewhere in search for greener pastures.  At the very least, ads like this must acknowledge that there is such a thing as a root cause whenever a particular suffering is being ‘questioned’ – although in this case, only glorified.

When the resilience of the poor becomes something to strive for instead of a call for change in advertising campaigns, then the true goals of the companies that engage in this strategy become obvious: to profit off of the empathy of their target market.

Though these campaigns do come off as  unethical, it might not just be an outright romanticization of the poor but actually telling of the situation of the country itself and why companies are suddenly shifting to this form of storytelling. While advertising campaigns have only recently begun to focus on these everyday struggles, filmmaker Pepe Diokno says that this approach has been indicative of a long narrative tradition of the country and has been prominent in local cinema. He believes that expressing the problems of the poor or:

“‘that sinking feeling’ is a representation of Philippine national sentiment…Just look at our narrative traditions. The lore of many of our heroes ends with tragedy: Jose Rizal was executed by the Spaniards; Andres Bonifacio was killed by his own people; Ninoy Aquino, assassinated allegedly on the orders of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. There’s that sinking feeling.”

Diokno

The accessibility of the commercial as opposed to film also helps to amplify these issues that would otherwise not be generally available to the public and is, despite what Diokno says, still not completely present in mainstream cinema.

Poverty only seems to sell in 5 minute-long commercials, anything longer than that starts making people uncomfortable.

The question still stands: if the depictions of the true stories of the poor are still not completely acceptable, how do we treat the struggles of the everyday Filipino with respect? While it is wrong to end everything on a hopeful notethese companies, at the end of the day, are still utilizing these campaigns to generate profittaking up a bleak and dreary tone where nothing is resolved does not make for a good advertisement. 

The only possible way for companies to move forward is to consider the agency of the subject or, to put it simply, to involve the person whose story they are featuring by letting them tell their  own story instead of using it as a mere prop to further the company’s own agenda. Digital research specialist Linda Raftree, when asked about the role of advertising campaigns in the narrative of the poor, remarks that “as intermediaries, our job is to provide platforms and to work to make these voices visible, not to tell other people’s stories.” We must not overshadow their amazing stories with product placement but to listen to the people of the stories we tell, tell these stories alongside them, and work to make sure that these stories, while heartfelt, do not have to arise again. Yes, brands are everywhere around us and sometimes they get to influence everyday decisions and situations, but oftentimes it is society’s oppressive structures that puts anyone in a place which storytellers would deem worth telling, but they are never worthy of glorification.


Sources

Couldry, Nick. “Class and Contemporary Forms of ‘Reality” Production or, Hidden Injuries of Class” Reality, Television and Class, edited by Wood H. and Skeggs B., London British Film Institute, 2011, pp. 33-44. 

Diokno, Pepe. “Poverty Porn.” Philippine Star, 9 Jan 2010, https://www.philstar.com/lifestyle/supreme/2010/01/09/538816/poverty-porn

“Kwentong Jollibee Christmas Special: Regalo.” Youtube, uploaded by Jollibee Studios, 8 Dec 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjXFV0ygp-A&list=PLLJfPsD7JozutKZEjFFmK1_vBHvW3bRsL&index=30&t=0s.

 “Proportion of Poor Filipinos was Estimated at 16.6 Percent in 2018.” Philippine Statistics Authority, 6 Dec 2019, https://psa.gov.ph/poverty-press-releases/nid/144752

Raftree, Linda. “Poverty P*orn: A Reflection on Deeper Issues.” Discussions on Digital Ethics, Privacy, and Power, 3 Oct 2013, https://lindaraftree.com/2013/10/03/poverty-prn-a-reflection-of-deeper-issues/

“Vicks – Learning to Love #TouchOfCare.” Youtube, uploaded by Vicks Philippines, 20 Jan 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vqqT9bjCgU.

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