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Marketing Candidates In The 2000 Election

The reasoning behind this year’s horseback riding, diving off boats, and pool playing


August 10, 2000
Copyright © 2000 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

In selling anything–from soap to tacos to aspirin–a product is marketed to convince consumers to grab it off the shelves.

It’s no different with political candidates, except they only get one chance every four years to make their sales pitch.

By law, each political party can spend up to $3 million in media alone to spread the message of its gubernatorial hopefuls during an election year. Considering that the bulk of that amount–more than 75%–will be disbursed during the last eight to 10 weeks before the November 7 election, the investment is not insignificant.

"When you’re a candidate, you only get one chance to sell your product," said Mediafax Inc. President Bill McKenna. "If you advertise in January, you’re too early, because you’re not going to sell the candidate until November. And while there’s only one purchase made for a candidate, purchases are made all year long for a normal consumer product."

By the time voters flock to the polls in November, the three political parties and gubernatorial candidates will have spent more than $20 million in taxpayer money for their electoral bid, including $9 million, or 45% of that, in media. This will be done on behalf of New Progressive Party (NPP) President Carlos Pesquera, Popular Democratic Party (PDP) President Sila Calderon and Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) President Ruben Berrios.

"Candidates must build the strongest possible brand equity, or strongest possible positioning," said Manuel De Juan, president of Market Access Inc. "All the elements of the classic marketing equation are transferable to a political candidate."

The four Ps

The "four Ps" of the marketing mix–product, pricing, promotion (advertising, media, and public relations) and packaging–make up the credo of the advertising trade. Namely, what you sell, how you sell it, how you present it, and how much you charge for it, make the difference between success and failure.

This election year, gubernatorial candidates are promoting their images by riding horseback, diving off boats, playing pool and riding public buses. These are not serendipitous acts, but coldly calculated moves aimed at specific targets–women, youth, the working class–among the 2.4 million voters registered to cast ballots.

"[Calderon’s] image strategists are evidently trying to portray her as a humanitarian woman with extraordinary executive (private and public sector) experience," said De Juan. "This is why you see her in farmers markets and on the beaches, and also why you see her in the Cantera Peninsula and in the ‘Alcaldia Abierta.’"

Pesquera, for his part, is trying to sell the idea that he is the candidate who will continue Gov. Pedro Rossello’s "push for change." To that end, he is actively wooing young voters. "He’s following the same strategy Rossello used in 1992 when he built his image," said one top advertising executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "That’s why he gets on a Sea Doo and on a bus."

Rossello, who was the first gubernatorial candidate to advertise himself jogging and playing basketball, also campaigned in Jet Skis, motorcycles and kayaks. He aimed his guns early at youth and was rewarded by having a sizeable portion of them vote for him.

"All the polls said Sila was ahead of Pesquera among youth," said political analyst Luis Davila Colon. "Pesquera is neutralizing that by going to beach festivals and concerts."

Unlike Calderon, who is Mayor of San Juan, and worked as Secretary of State and Chief of Staff under former Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, Pesquera is a newcomer to the political fray. His first government job came when he was appointed by Rossello in 1993 to head the Transportation and Public Works Department.

Still, recent polls have shown both of them in a dead heat, which analysts say explains why their campaigns are so similar–if Pesquera goes to the beach, so does she, and if Sila rides a horse, so does he.

"A woman riding a horse in a patriarchal society is a symbol of a strong woman," the top executive said. "It’s not common to see a horse in an urban setting, but the symbol isn’t necessarily about the mountain. It’s about saying ‘I’m a woman of authority.’"

Pesquera’s choice of ads–one showing him batting a baseball and another sweating it out at the gym–also seek to paint him as strong by addressing his perceived weaknesses. "Those ads were aimed at countering his image as an ineffectual leader," said political analyst Marco Rigau.

Early in the campaign, Pesquera also chose to appear with his wife and children in ads. Rigau said this was targeted at differentiating himself from Calderon, who is in her second marriage.

Packaging a candidate

Food and other products are painstakingly staged–from air-brushed to waxed until they gleam–so they look their best in advertisements. The same is done with political candidates.

In 1992, publicist Joe Franco was reported as saying that he helped "fabricate" Rossello’s image. Although that gave fodder to the opposition, which began to call the now twice-elected governor "fabricated," Franco was stating an ineludible fact.

"A political candidate’s personal appearance, demeanor and verbal skills, particularly public speaking, are all components of the packaging mix," said de Juan. "Not one detail can be left to chance. Everything a candidate wears, does, or says–outside of the bathroom–must be studied and carefully calculated."

Pesquera, who has faced stinging satire because he sometimes has trouble enunciating words, addressed that issue head on in one recent ad in which he tackled that perceived weakness, Rigau said.

"His best ad so far has been the one in which he said he wanted to be everybody’s governor," the former PDP senator said. "He repeated that word, ‘everybody’s,’ twice, making the point that he doesn’t have to speak beautifully because what he wants to do is work for the people."

While Pesquera will show up in public with ruffled hair and sweat-soaked clothes, no such images are ever publicized of Calderon, who invariably appears well groomed. That carefully maintained image has led the opposition to attack her as being all a "front," taking it as far as criticizing her use of makeup.

"The language of the NPP leadership is sexist and anti-feminist," Rigau said. "They’re talking about her makeup and calling her old and ‘doña.’ That’s the same campaign they used against [1992 PDP President and gubernatorial candidate Victoria Muñoz Mendoza]."

Negative campaigning

Like all campaigns before it, this election year has seen its share of negative ads. The opposition has tried to mar Pesquera’s image by attempting to tie him to the charges of corruption that have ailed NPP officials. His followers, meanwhile, have painted Calderon as a leader who waffles and takes contradictory positions.

Are these low blows effective when it comes to voting? Most observers say no. In fact, analysts say negative campaigning can actually backfire.

"When one is accused of ‘corrupt’ and the other is called ‘doña’ and criticized for wearing makeup they’re catering to the true believers in each party," said one media executive. "That can have a backlash. In the end, people try to validate the image that they get in those short spots with what they see in reality."

Negative campaigning is nothing new to Puerto Rico. When Hernandez Colon and former NPP Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo ran against each other, there was not much else, said Davila.

"Rossello changed all that by focusing for the first time on the platform," he said. "What the candidate has achieved plays a strategic role in the campaign."

That’s why the PDP has attempted to portray Pesquera as having been a poor administrator, who contributed to cost overruns in the projects he managed. The NPP, meanwhile, have painted Calderon as someone without a record to boast of and with less academic preparation than their candidate.

"Another consistent theme in Pesquera’s campaign is his technological training and the achievements he can rightfully lay claim to during his seven years as czar of infrastructure development in Puerto Rico," said De Juan. "Not a single chance is passed

to associate him with the enormous quantity of infrastructure projects undertaken from 1993 to 2000."

Resurgence of the PIP

In the PIP, which in 1996 registered a disappointing 3.8% of the vote, the Vieques issue has fueled its resurgence, according to observers.

Berrios spent almost a year camping in the U.S. Navy’s firing range on that island municipality, protesting military practices there. Shortly after being removed by federal officials this year, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

"Vieques is a very important campaign issue," said Davila Colon. "For the first time in 25 years, the PIP has momentum and that’s because they’re on the side of a sympathetic cause."

Noel Colon Martinez, who broke off with the PIP decades ago, expects this year’s election to reflect that newfound unity among independence followers.

"[Vieques] has given Berrios the halo of a man who has sacrificed himself and who deserves special consideration," Colon Martinez said.

Polls have shown the PIP in the upcoming election as receiving between 8% and 10% of the vote, which would be unprecedented in the past 40 years.

"There are a lot of ‘independentistas’ who have registered now, who didn’t get out to vote for the PIP and are going to vote now," said Rigau.

That, analysts say, could be the death knell for the voting phenomenon known as "melonismo," from watermelon, because it involves pro-independence supporters whose PIP color is green, who vote for the red-insignia PDP. In the past, this group has voted with the PDP and been an important factor in leading the pro-commonwealth party to victory.

Hit them with your best shot

Because $3 million over an entire year is not enough to pack the punch, and because people’s memories tend to be short, campaigns have become much more about what happens during the few weeks prior to the actual voting.

"To get an impact, you must spend a lot of it right before the voter goes to make his decision," said McKenna. "That way, you get that message to the maximum number of voters and you get multiple exposures. There’s a lot of research that shows a person really needs to be exposed to a message three or more times before they really absorb the message."

Not only do you have to spend more nowadays to get the same amount of media exposure as several years ago, but strategists believe that Puerto Rico voters are impressionable and the press hungry for controversy. "That leads you to pack your punch for the last moment," Davila Colon said.

Several elections, including referendums, have been affected and determined, by last-minute events. In 1992, Rossello almost lost his significant lead against Muñoz Mendoza after he was seen on TV reportedly sticking his tongue out at his opponent during a debate.

"In the 1993 plebiscite, ads on federal taxes and the [demise of the Section] 936 [federal tax credit] had the knockout effect [in favor of commonwealth], and in 1998 the fifth column [none of the above] did not become a winning factor until the last two days before the referendum," Davila Colon said.

The last lap in the campaign used to be in August and now has moved back to the last days between October and November. "That knockout effect makes parties save up for the last minute," he said.

In that, as in most other publicity matters, political candidates are no different than products that sell better during particular seasons–such as individual retirement accounts and toys. And political strategists are much like advertisers who must make the most of short shopping periods before major holidays, such as Mother’s Day or Christmas, said McKenna.

"Those are very good examples where people advertise in short periods of time because the target’s decision is made in a short period of time," he said.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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