Furor over a man in briefs

This is my column today.
(Photo taken from www.getitfromboy.net)

When I heard that Romulo Macalintal, big-shot election lawyer of the President of the Republic and of many other influential people in this country ranted against billboards last week, I heaved a major sigh of relief. Finally. Someone with clout in this country who is not known for calling attention to himself has spoken out against those monstrous monuments to consumerism that pollute our cityscape. I was about to sing paeans of praises to the man. Perhaps those things will finally get obliterated from the face of Metro Manila.

Obviously I find billboards—okay, not all but many if not most of these billboards—a bane on our existence. They are serious threats to public safety. They can topple over during typhoons and natural calamities and kill people as they have done so in recent past. They also distract motorists on the road. Given the fact that heavy traffic has become a regular fixture in our lives and given the abysmal state of traffic discipline in this country, we need distractions such as gigantic pictures of naked men and women on the road like we need another Estrada presidency in this country.

There are billboards that try to be clever and funny. To be fair, some do work such as the ads of a certain optical store chain. I kind of like that one of a buffed man with a tattoo on his back spelled “I love Rudy” instead of “I love Ruby” because the tattoo artist had an eyesight problem. One wishes we had more of these billboards—the ones that crack people up and relieve tension although jokes do have shelf lives and the novelty of these billboards do wear off. The problem is that most of these ads that try to be cute end up as trite and hackneyed—or as we say in Tagalog, korni. Take for example those series of ads hawking jewelry. Instead of jewelry, models are photographed wearing substitutes such as a string of sausages for a necklace and mosquito coils for earrings.

Many of these billboards offend artistic and moral sensibilities. Take that ad that says “nakatikim ka na ba ng kinse anyos?” (literally, have you tasted a fifteen year old?), which many claim as tacit endorsement of pedophilia. I think there’s still a long-standing debate on that one but I am sure it continues to make some people’s blood pressure shoot up to the stratosphere every time they come across the billboard.

And then there are billboards that seem sloppily produced—with lots of texts and pictures in them that it would require someone to actually stop and focus on them for minutes to comprehend them—they look like whoever put them up simply had a printout magnified to fill a canvas. Of course most people don’t have the time (and I think the inclination as well) to actually stop their cars in the middle of EDSA to gawk at some poorly-conceived billboard; which, if we come to think about it, really makes these billboards all the more pointless. But then again, who knows what kinds of people are given licenses to drive on our roads? Someone like Jason Ivler continued to drive a car with diplomatic plates on it despite the fact that a warrant of arrest had already been issued against him.

I’ve written about the need to regulate billboards in the past and I am doing so again now because I’ve noted how they have become more and more pervasive. There was a time right after typhoon Milenyo struck when they were torn down and there was public clamor to eradicate them from our thoroughfares. But as can be expected in a country where business interests prevail over other interests—including public safety—the billboards were restored. Now they are back with a vengeance. And with elections in the offing, we expect more billboards—and most of them ghastly and hideous—to mushroom all over.

I dread the return of the billboards of a female representative of a district in Manila which showcase her in various poses—as educator, plumber, nurse, etc—all of them as hideous as the last one. I was in Sta. Rosa over the weekend where I noticed that provincial officials of Laguna have started a contest as to which one can come up with the most number and the biggest billboard ever.

And it’s really not just the content of the billboards that is objectionable. We’ve noted this new trend where size and quantity have seemingly become important considerations. While driving at EDSA for example, it seems not enough that one is already pummeled by those giant billboards mounted on the sides of the avenue, they also had to put smaller but numerous billboards on the island in the middle of the avenue! There’s just no escaping them because these smaller billboards are on every post.

So I was happy to note that someone like Macalintal finally spoke against billboards, or so I thought. But as it turns out, he was simply against one billboard; or if we may be allowed to ascribe more meaning into his advocacy, against billboards that represent “an intentional and blatant disrespect for family values.” The particular billboard that earned his ire was that giant billboard at the Magallanes Interchange featuring ABS-CBN actor Jake Cuenca wearing nothing but a pair of Bench briefs.

As in the controversy over that “nakatikim ka na ba ng kinse anyos” ad, Makalintal’s complaint is bound for oblivion. That billboard is not going down if the protest is anchored on moral grounds. As it is, we’ve been told that that particular billboard actually got the nod of the regulatory agency responsible for approving billboards.

This is the problem with advocacies that are anchored on moral reasons. They become subject to debate, which in this country means a contest as to who can shout the loudest or talk the longest. People do have different yardsticks over what is morally offensive or not. Inevitably the issue becomes convoluted and confused and simply gets shelved unresolved as people get exhausted and move on to more controversial issues.

Take for example the particular billboard in question. There’s a lot of discussion on whether that billboard is offensive or not. People can’t decide whether Cuenca is wearing skimpy or scanty briefs—to many, they pretty much look like ordinary briefs compared to say, thongs, or string bikinis. And the makers of the product are correct in one aspect—the product in question is an underwear—there is nothing inherently wrong with wearing one.

There’s this whole discussion about how Cuenca’s pose adds malice to the billboard— some people have described the way the actor is reclining as “provocative.” I personally don’t see how that pose is considered provocative —he is just reclining on a bed or couch. He’s not even touching himself or doing anything slightly suggestive. Unlike some ads showing people in languorous or suggestive poses. I am not saying that the billboard in question is benign and that the people who find something immoral, sexually suggestive, or naughty in it are wrong—I am also alarmed about the growing sexualization in Philippine advertising. What I am saying is that this is the problem when issues of morality get into the picture, we all get stuck in the static rather than in the substance. I think billboards simply should not be allowed on major thoroughfares, period. Or at the very least, they need to be regulated in terms of what size they should be, how many should be allowed in one particular area, etc.


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