2022 PH presidential race

Leni Robredo’s image challenges and her ‘pink bridge’ to the presidency

Ralf Rivas
Leni Robredo’s image challenges and her ‘pink bridge’ to the presidency

An estimated 40,000 Ilonggos show up to express their support for the presidential bid of Vice President Leni Robredo at the Iloilo Sports Complex.

Photo courtesy of VP Leni Media Bureau

Leni Robredo inspires yet struggles in gaining better survey numbers. Can the pink movement build her the bridge to victory in time for election day?

MANILA, Philippines– From an advertising viewpoint, Vice President Leni Robredo doesn’t need much to win the presidency.

Before anything else, a product (or person) has to be inherently good. A campaign or marketing strategy just enunciates these good qualities to the audience. 

Marketers would often quote the late American advertiser William Bernbach: “A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad.” 

But Robredo, a public servant with no record of corruption, is struggling to get better numbers in surveys.

Sociologists and political analysts whom Rappler spoke with said that even before Robredo’s aspirations for the presidency shaped up, she was already facing invisible battles distorting her image.

The front-runner, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., worked on myth-making for decades in preparation for this race.

Out of all candidates for the presidency, the lone female has the most obstacles to overcome.

The ‘glass cliff’

Itaga ‘nyo sa bato (cast it in stone): The last man standing is a woman,” Robredo said back in 2016.

But after breaking the glass ceiling, she had to navigate another invisible obstacle: a glass cliff.

A glass cliff is a phenomenon where women are placed in leadership roles when the risk of failure is highest. 

This cliff is not easy to spot, as the prestige of the position masks the limited resources given to the person on the cliff. The stereotypes of a woman being frail and weak are galvanized once she flinches or falls off the glass cliff.

Robredo, a formerly reluctant politician, has been atop these glass cliffs many times. The Liberal Party, to a great extent, asked her to take risks by running in 2016. She had endured even more during her six years in office.

President Rodrigo Duterte, all too aware of what Robredo had to endure, created scenarios to turn the public against her.

Recall that Duterte has set up Robredo to fail by appointing her as head of the anti-illegal drugs committee in 2019, only to fire her over a week later.

The offer by Duterte, the Philippines’ most popular president based on opinion surveys, was a move to push her off the glass cliff, but she took it anyway. She even enumerated her recommendations for the country’s drug problem despite the obvious setup.

Some of Robredo’s recommendations in her 40-page report included giving more powers to the Anti-Money Laundering Council to go after dirty drug money, an overhaul of the composition of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs, as well as a detailed survey method for government to have a data-driven approach in eradicating the drug problem.

With a comprehensive list of recommendations, she gave Duterte’s drug war a score of “1 over 100” as the program seized only 1% of the total supply of illegal drugs in the country.

While she presented concrete steps, she was portrayed by Duterte as uncooperative, with then-presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo commenting that Robredo “wasted” the chance “to make the campaign against illegal drugs better.” 

Ateneo de Manila University lecturer and sociologist Ash Presto explained that Duterte had been pushing Robredo off this glass cliff to divert the public’s attention from his failures.

“Duterte had been using Robredo as the perfect scapegoat for the failure of his policies, especially during this pandemic. He had constantly criticized her to prevent her from succeeding,” Presto said.

This pandemic, Robredo has been running programs on a limited budget. While her programs had been considered a success, she was unable to go all the way to her end goal due to limited resources. An inspired network of volunteers had to bridge the gaps.

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Mesh these invisible hindrances with “hypermasculinity that pervades Philippine politics” and a sinister disinformation campaign, Presto said that this ultimately led to the public’s tainted image of Robredo as a weak leader.

Palaban si Robredo (Robredo is a fighter), but the disinformation campaign launched against her had been successful in tying her to the ‘dilawan’ narrative, which now represents hypocrisy and being condescending,” Presto said.

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Yellow to pink

The odds have been stacked against Robredo, but an inspired bunch has stacked bricks to create her “pink bridge” to the presidency.

It was the volunteers who suggested to ditch the now vilified color yellow and instead embrace pink. This was a critical moment for a campaign that had yet to find its form then.

Hindi namin naplano ‘yung kulay kasi alam ‘nyo naman kung gaano ka-belated ‘yung aming decision. Pero ito kasi ‘yung naging kulay ng volunteers…. Lagi namin sinasabi, kami ay nakikinig sa taumbayan. Na kung palagay nila ito ‘yung kulay na magsi-symbolize ng sama-samang aspiration para mapalitan na yung klase ng pamumuno na meron tayo ngayon, gagawin namin ‘yun, Robredo said.

(We did not plan for the color because the decision to run was belated. But this was what the volunteers were using. We always say we listen to the people. If they think that this color symbolizes our collective aspiration to change the kind of governance we have, then we will do it.)

People decided how the campaign would look like. Robredo’s campaign team ran with it.

But what’s in a color anyway?

Supporters said it represents a new kind of politics, competence, and inclusivity, while yellow is linked to the Aquino family’s legacy.

Others associate the color with a type of feminism. It’s not the “feisty” feminist, but still delivers a clear message of change.

The slogan “kulay rosas ang bukas (the future is pink)” has sprouted. Again, Robredo’s campaign team ran with it. But what does this even mean?

Experts have warned that front-runner Marcos’ message of unity can be understood better, especially during these polarizing times, as opposed to a “pink” future.

But for political analyst Arjan Aguirre, the pink brand’s meaning is all up to the people.

“The color pink effectively rebranded Leni. The meaning is up to those who believe in her, it doesn’t need to be imposed top-down, since the color choice emanated from below,” Aguirre said.

“Through this ‘empty signifier,’ Robredo is allowed to be her. Is it messy to have lots of people defining it? Yes, but that’s okay. It only tells you that her image is relatable to various sectors of society.”

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Shifting images

Volunteers are free to come up with materials. While this strategy has given life to Robredo’s campaign, it also gave rise to some issues.

Slogans like “Husay at Tibay” (competence and strength) and “let Leni lead” were among the first to emerge from volunteer groups. These were then accompanied by various campaign materials that played up Robredo’s competence and tended to compare her accomplishments with other candidates.

While effective in highlighting Robredo’s track record, it also gave way to heated debates which often led to name-calling by some supporters.

Robredo’s team then had to push for the “Mas Radikal ang Magmahal” or radical love to discourage supporters from engaging in toxic social media behavior.

“‘Yung supporters namin siyempre dine-defend kami. Para sa akin kasi hindi siya magiging productive kung ‘yung mga supporters namin mag-aasta troll din,” Robredo said in an interview with Sharon Cuneta. (Our supporters have been defending defending us. But for me, it won’t be productive if our supporters end up acting like trolls as well.

Other supporters also felt that Robredo needed to be more “relatable.” For this, volunteers with public relations backgrounds stepped in to soften her image. Robredo was asked by supporters to do the “hadouken,” a signature pose from video game Street Fighter. She also wore a pink Happi costume, a garment worn in some Japanese festivals.

Some supporters didn’t find it amusing, while others found it too “forced.”

Alam ko na when I did it may mga hindi matutuwa, pero sa akin, (it’s a) small price to pay ‘dun sa joy na maibibigay ko dun sa magri-request na grabe iyong sinasakripisyo para lang makatulong sa amin,”Robredo said in a DZRH interview last February 2. (I know that some will not like what I did, but it’s a small price to pay for those that I’ll give joy to, the people who requested it who sacrificed a lot to help us)

Meanwhile, her guesting on social media star Mimiyuuuh’s YouTube channel earned praise from supporters, as it gave a glimpse of Robredo’s softer side. There, she cooked lugaw or porridge with the YouTube star and effectively addressed trolls’ use of the “Leni lugaw” narrative, where Robredo was belittled for serving lugaw during her sorties for the hungry.

Are too many chefs spoiling the broth?

For Aguirre, a people’s campaign is and has to be “messy.”

“It’s understandable that we encounter these issues because this is the first in recent history that the messaging is coming from the people. Let the people appropriate and modify her image. If it gets too out of hand, which I don’t think it will, the campaign team can always step in,” Aguirre said. 

Robredo’s campaign team led by former senator Bam Aquino organized the Robredo People’s Council, an organizing mechanism that relays the intended messaging to the volunteers or the “Kakampinks.”

This effort led to another prominent slogan, “Gobyernong Tapat, Angat Buhay Lahat.” (An honest government uplifts people’s lives).

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Yellow still here

While supporters have started to “democratically” create Robredo’s image, past messaging techniques are still played up.

“It’s still quite classical, Liberal Party campaign, talks of change and reform, it still tends to read PNoy (late president Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III),” said political analyst Cleve Arguelles.

Arguelles explained that Robredo’s messages are reminiscent of Aquino’s “Kung walang korap, walang mahirap (there’s no poverty if there’s no corruption).” While the intent is good and there is nothing inherently wrong with the message, it may not be “responsive” to the current political landscape.

“When Aquino decided to use that campaign message, people were dissatisfied with Gloria Arroyo and she was identified as corrupt. But Duterte enjoys a high approval rating,” Arguelles said.

Sociologist Jayeel Cornelio agreed with Arguelles’ analysis, noting that Robredo is taking a jab at the popular Duterte.

Is Robredo’s “gobyernong tapat, angat buhay lahat (An honest government leads to improved lives)” a rehash of Aquino’s message?

“When you say that you want a just government, it’s another way of saying that this current government is corrupt. That’s targeting the current regime,” Cornelio said.

As opposed to Marcos’ message of “babangon muli (we will rise again),” there’s no target.

While it can be argued that Marcos is taking a swipe at Duterte, Cornelio explained that it is vague enough for people to not attribute the downfall to Duterte.

Cornelio also cautioned that since the Robredo campaign is run by volunteers, the responsibility to not be condescending also falls on them.

“Nobody likes to be called dumb, right? And when we talk of ‘educating’ someone, it still comes off as condescending. Supporters must find a better way to convert voters,” Cornelio said.

More to do

As the campaign season heats up, Robredo and her team have a lot of catching up to do.

Rebranding her is only the first of many excruciating struggles for the Robredo team, according to a campaign strategist who requested anonymity.

The source, who usually handles celebrities and social media influencers and now moonlights as a political strategist, said that Robredo needs to “learn from Marcos’ tactics, minus the disinformation operations.”

“People are aware that she’s competent, even the people that hate her. But people also think all candidates are qualified in their own respective ways. So now, it’s a matter of selling a compelling story,” the source said.

The political strategist noted that Marcos is successful in “infiltrating” the mundane moments of Filipinos’ lives.

“Bongbong is using his son Sandro for this. Cutesy, heartthrob image, fun, seemingly non-political videos on YouTube, it’s effective because these are videos that people watch during their breaks,” she said.

In 2021, Filipinos spent an average of 4 hours and 15 minutes on social media, 22 minutes higher than the 3 hours and 53 minutes posted in 2020, figures of advertising firms We Are Social and Hootsuite revealed.

“Will this cutesy strategy work for Robredo? It won’t, it’s not aligned with her brand, it will look forced and her current supporters will be turned off. I suggest that her celebrity supporters do those for her. She has really big celebrities supporting her, they need to show more kasi hindi ko pa sila ramdam (I don’t feel them).”

Robredo’s biggest show of force, so far, is in bailiwick IloIlo, where celebrity supporters staged electrifying performances.

Vice presidential candidate and Senator Kiko Pangilinan brought in the megastar powers of his celebrity wife Sharon Cuneta. Edu Manzano, Cherry Pie Picache, Precious Lara Quigaman-Alcaraz, Gab Valenciano, and Ogie Diaz also showed how celebrities can cheer further an already fired-up crowd.

“The videos of these celebrities in IloIlo are powerful, but they need more content for people who weren’t there. Robredo’s team has pushed it, but they need to push even more in digital executions,” the political strategist said.

A campaign jingle is also essential for voters’ recall. JK Labajo and Bituin Escalante performed “Para sa Masa,” a patriotic pop song of Eraserheads; Rivermaya’s “Liwanag sa Dilim” was played as Robredo went up the stage; Ely Buendia closed the rally with Eraserheads classic songs like “Alapaap” and “Ligaya.”

Robredo’s volunteers have various original songs, most prominent among them perhaps, “Kay Leni Tayo,” already with Bisaya and Hiligaynon versions.

But while the original songs are catchy, classic tunes may prove to be more effective.

“She may also need a familiar jingle. People don’t have affinity for original music, unfortunately. So that’s another tactic that her celebrity supporters can do. Marcos has a new version of the familiar Bagong Lipunan. Robredo also needs a familiar, yet fresh tune.”

As for platforms, Arguelles said that Robredo may need to find ways to translate her messaging for programs into more concise, simpler terms that have emotional impact.

“A typical Filipino gets off from work at 5 or 6 pm and he will never say ‘let’s go and listen to a candidate’s 10-point agenda,’ or their plans to exit the pandemic,” he said.

The latest Pulse Asia survey revealed that only 16% of respondents said they will vote for Robredo, while Marcos enjoyed the confidence of 60% of respondents.

Is the gap too wide?

“Marcos cannot rest on his laurels just yet. In 2016, Robredo’s numbers started really small, but she won in the end. It’s still anybody’s game,” Cornelio said.

“No social movement or political change ever began from the majority…Social movements rest on the courage of the minority, and the rest will follow.” – Rappler.com

Ralf Rivas

A sociologist by heart, a journalist by profession. Ralf is Rappler's business reporter, covering macroeconomy, government finance, companies, and agriculture.