David Guerrero
Jun 21, 2016

The Du30 phenomenon: How social media won the presidency in the Philippines

Despite being outspent by a wide margin, the new Philippines president captured voters because of his apparent authenticity and social-media savvy.

David Guerrero
David Guerrero

There was some puzzlement overseas following Duterte’s victory. His predecessor had after all delivered six consecutive years of economic growth—the highest in Southeast Asia. And the best performing stock market in the world over an eight-year period to date. A million overseas workers had returned home to better prospects. And not coincidentally, he had, according to Transparency International successfully tackled corruption in the country.

However, in pre-election surveys it was soon clear the ruling party would lose. So it was with nervous anticipation that the country's business community awaited an election-eve speech on the likely next president's economic policy. The French diplomat next to me explained that the name “Duterte” meant something in his mother tongue: ‘du’ meant ‘of the’ and ‘terte’ meant ‘hills’. Did the assorted grandees think the country was going to be run by someone 'of the hills?'

Perhaps what was most interesting—and likeable—thing about him was when he said "vote for me or don’t vote for me. I don’t care." But his constituency was outside the room. And the wishes of the economic elite didn’t matter too much at that point.

This populist bravado is what the people responded to. He stands for nothing if not authenticity. And every outrageous statement—and John Oliver captured a few of them on the eve of the election—seems to bolster that image. Although he has asked us not to take them too seriously.

In any case all that has given him an apparent degree of independence from special interests. He seems to represent the people. And while many traditional politicians were holding onto an old model of TV-led campaigns he was (despite being the oldest candidate) quick to exploit the power of social media.

Because while, according to CNN, he was outspent on TV advertising by all the other major candidates, he ended up with more votes than his predecessor—with a share of almost 40 percent.

Part of the reason is that the average age in the country is 23.5 and so 'millennials' are estimated to be 46 percent of the electorate. 'Free facebook' deals from the country's telcos mean unprecedented social reach: In total there are an estimated 44.2 million active internet users, 42 million active social-media users, and 36 million active mobile social users in the country. Facebook reported 268 million conversations about the election—leading it to call the 2016 Philippine polls the ‘most engaged’ elections in Asia Pacific.

After the elections, Duterte's spokesman thanked 14 million 'social-media volunteers'—across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. His online video reach was 21 million views, compared to just 3 million for the next best candidate. Duterte's Facebook page has gained 3 million likes since November 2015. And the candidate dominated all online polls.

In a just-published interview the director of his social media team, Nic Gabunada (a former country head of OMD), said they weren’t even able to spend their P10 million ($214,199) budget.

“We used live people, not bots,” he emphasized. “When we want certain things to trend on Twitter, we have our Twitter warriors who post like anything or keep the same post just to have a quick trend.” In some cases, they just copied and pasted messages.

Gabunada estimated there were around 400 to 500 volunteers, but each volunteer had his or her own network to tap.

“We were able to amplify in the sense that each one of the volunteers was handling groups with members of around 300 to 6,000,” he explained. “I think the biggest group had 800,000 members.”

Not everyone was happy with the tactics of the volunteers, of course: “We can safely proclaim the biggest loser in the May 9 elections: the truth.” wrote one commentator in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “Social media has not made people more gullible, but it has exposed how gullible people are. All it takes is a photograph and a paragraph to come up with an endorsement from an overseas Filipino worker.” 

But while your facebook newsfeed may not be the best way to get your news, the recent elections have proven that being big online can certainly go a long way to making the headlines. And with overall digital spend still below 10 percent in the Philippines this could have big implications for the way brands go to market in the country. Although not all of them will want to hit the news in quite the same way.

David Guerrero is Chairman and CCO, BBDO Guerrero

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