[OPINION] Public opinion fools? 

If the Pulse Asia survey is to be believed, the next president of the Philippines will be another Duterte or another Marcos. And Vice President Leni Robredo has as much chance of winning the presidency as a Pinoy basketball team would have to become NBA champion.

Pulse Asia, as is well known, is a professional research firm to which, along with Social Weather Station, politicians, the media and “investors/speculators” turn for clues on where the electoral winds are blowing.

Neither research firm makes any claim to infallibility. They’re simply saying that “current readings of the opinions” of their “respondents” indicate — given a margin of error — who among “presidential prospects” they either “prefer or perceive” to be leading a race that “hasn’t even formally started.”

Note the words and phrases enclosed in parentheses – which indicate a virtual raising of eyebrows, as in, “sez who????”

For the sake of full and fair disclosure, let me admit that I have spent most of my life “reading the minds” of people — no, not as a psychic, but much like a psychologist understanding the way people think — their attitudes, beliefs and perceptions, the better to harness or influence or even change these for a specific purpose.

For many years — in fact, longer than most people have been alive — I have been actively involved in communications vehicles that influence how people think – how they behave, what they buy, whom they vote for in an election.

At an early age, I worked in radio, the movies and television all of which, whether we like it or not, have a profound influence on the attitudes, beliefs and perceptions of people.

Small wonder that as a provincial urchin relishing 25-centavo double features showing Hollywood Westerns and Tarzan movies, I was convinced that all American Indians were savages and natives of Africa spoke Tagalog. It took maturity for me to realize that the “savages” were dispossessed native Americans and the Tarzan “Africans” were actually Pinoy extras who merely followed the instructions of directors who didn’t know any better.

I also spent many years in advertising and PR — doing such things as making kids believe that if their parents didn’t raise them on Milo or Nido, they were not loved enough, and convincing voters that certain politicians were the hope or the bane of the country.

In sum, I have been a professional “influencer” of the attitudes, beliefs and perceptions of people. To better appreciate what I do, allow me to cite an example.

When Nestle decided to produce Milo in the Philippines (to meet high demand), the company conducted comprehensive product tests to ensure that it would match the high quality of the imported product. But when the locally-made Milo was finally distributed, the consumer feedback was that it was “inferior in taste” to the imported brand.

As creative director of the account group servicing Nestle, as well as president and CEO of the ad agency, Advertising & Marketing Associates, I had to recommend a way around the problem, short of dumping the batches that were already in the marketplace.

I deduced that the regular Milo user would have noticed that the locally-made Milo was darker in color and different in texture from the imported product. She could have wondered if it was “genuine,” would have taken a closer look at the label, and would have found out that it was made in Cabuyao, Laguna.

Like the provincial urchin who believed that all Indians were savages, I put myself in the shoes of the typical Pinoy consumer and concluded, as most Filipinos did at the time, that the Philippine-made product was “inferior” to the imported one. This we know as a “colonial mentality.”

Also aware of the fact that “taste can be as much in the mind as on the tongue,” I deduced that the colonial-minded Pinoy, after tasting the local Milo, would “confirm” the preconception that it was, indeed, “inferior” to the imported kind

I recommended preempting the negative perception — triggered by the darker color and different texture — by taking the problem by the horns, in a manner of speaking, and converting the same qualities into a positive, with the claim: “Now, Milo tastes richer, more chocolatey — like Nestle’s chocolates.”

I theorized that the consumer, perceiving the difference in color and texture as proof of its being “richer, more chocolatey,” would “confirm” that preconception upon tasting the product.

That solved the problem! The Philippine-made Milo took off and continued to dominate the market in its product category.

What I did was simply to use an existing consumer bias to our advantage.

Bias is a factor that professional research firms like Pulse Asia and Social Weather Station are familiar with. Commenting on his own column on the 2022 presidential race, my friend, Business World columnist Oscar Lagman, wrote in a social media post:

“Social Weather Stations’ July 2020 National Mobile Phone Survey revealed that 51% of Filipinos think it is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth.

“Pulse Asia President Ronnie Holmes admitted late last year that fear cannot be ruled out as possibly influencing survey results.

“Because of the prevailing atmosphere of fear, survey respondents may not be expressing their real preference for president.

“Strategists of the 1Sambayan might would do well to not place significance on results of polls during this election period.”

In other words, both research firms are, in effect, telling the readers of the research to consider the possibility of bias in the findings of the presidential “preference” polls.

That, I concede, is a good attempt to set the polls in perspective. Unfortunately, this may not have been good enough to clear the enhanced bias that the research — by its mere publication — may have caused.

The onus is not on the researchers alone. Creating bias is the craft of communications practitioners who are also political consultants. It is also, sadly, a function of media, whether unwittingly or otherwise.

Bias is created with news stories fed to the media. That bias may be an enhancement of existing biases due to positions of influence or political prominence (such as being the daughter of the incumbent president or belonging to a politically powerful family).

The process of further enhancing the bias is achieved by means of a public opinion poll using a respondent base chosen selectively or applying a methodology designed to deliver pre-determined results or, as Pulse Asia’s Holmes avers, a research study that may be influenced by fear.

At any rate, the possibly biased research study can be used to further enhance the bias, which will be manifested in a follow-up poll.

This process is much like building blocks — biases on top of biases — and operates even more effectively against a backdrop of intimidation or ignorance among voters or a huge campaign war chest or a biased media or powerful political machinery or all of these combined.

To say the incumbent administration is capable of all of these is an understatement.

To say that the public opinion polls may be used to fool public opinion is equally an understatement.

And, finally, to hope that the public opinion falsehood won’t work in a democratic country like the Philippines is a fool’s hope — because, unfortunately, it works!

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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