Inquirer columnists Raul Pangalangan and Conrado De Quiros, in their respective spaces, warn of the danger of ad boycotts. We have seen ‘Willing Willie’ go off the air as a result of the pullout of the show’s major sponsors such as Jollibee and Procter & Gamble, who were reacting to the whole Jan-Jan crying macho dancing gyrating incident.
While some see this as a triumph of consumer (people) power, Pangalangan and De Quiros are wary that the same thing can be done by these large corporations for other issues, that would be detrimental to the people’s welfare. The example given is with the reproductive health (RH) bill; what if the Roman Catholic Church, through the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), pressures certain companies supportive of the RH legislation to pull their ads out of ‘pro-RH’ news and media companies? Wouldn’t this be an attack on press freedom, akin to the ad pullouts during Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada’s presidency, that led to the Manila Times’ temporary shutdown?
It is quite telling that Pangalangan and De Quiros are quick to lump the present ad pullouts with the MTRCB’s coercive intervention, which is a very intellectually irresponsible thing to do. They are unable to see the fundamental difference between
- people exercising their right to retain or part with their property; and
- people’s being threatened with physical harm for refusal to do what they’re told by the state.
It is taken for granted that big business has an infinite well of resources that would not run out no matter the public’s perception of these large companies and their products. As though Jollibee could advocate anything and that people would be subject to Tony Tan Caktiong’s whims ― which is a really preposterous premise implied by Pangalangan and De Quiros.
If the CBCP threatened people with the fires of hell if they continue watching, say, ABS-CBN, is there coercion involved, in a way that is realistic or legally meaningful? No, there isn’t. The CBCP can only sway the Catholic population to some degree. As we can see in the number of pro-RH bill Catholics who feel the opposite of a tinge of conscience in their support of this legislation, the CBCP’s powers are quite limited.
Let us not make the mistake of thinking that an electoral vote is the same as an ‘economic’ vote, that is, an exercise of consumer preference. In the latter, one’s abstention from voting holds weight as to the allocation of resources in a community. And in private board elections, an abstention can influence outcomes. But in the former, that is, government elections, one’s ‘abstention’ is meaningless, as majority wins regardless of how few people vote for the majority candidate. Moreover, one could not escape having to pay for whatever programs that government officials decide on which to waste coercive taxes; this contrasts with the free-market system of spending for what you want to spend.
So if, say, the MTRCB quote-unquote boycotts a movie they deem indecent, there is coercion involved; theater owners that dare show such a film can be subject to fines and imprisonment.
But if, say, a women’s book club with its own private members, speaks out against the film, people would be free to listen to their arguments and choose to watch all the same. There is no coercion involved.
A voluntary boycott is only as strong as the actual consumers who go along with it. So when Jollibee speaks up against ‘Willing Willie,’ the success of such a pullout is not automatic where people continue to buy Chickenjoy regardless. If most people resented Jollibee’s sanctimoniousness, this would be reflected in weaker sales, and Jollibee would have to be more careful about what it does with its funds.
A pullout of advertisers could also not be considered censorship, because news outfits are free to find other supporters with the same political or moral persuasions. In an environment of cronies, this might pose a problem, but that points to a different problem altogether (state control of resources).
It is blindness to the distinction between government coercion and private choice that leads to concerns over ad boycotts’ harmfulness to society. Such worries are baseless, and do not take into account that company reactions to public opinion such as the ‘Willing Willie’ ad pullouts are not successful in themselves. These corporate actions would have to reflect preferences and moral valuations of consumers, that is, the same people whom these boycotts and pullouts supposedly hurt.