Spare us the sanctimoniousness

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

The giant billboards showing members of the country’s rugby team wearing nothing but briefs and smug expressions on their faces have been removed from their strategic perch near the Guadalupe Bridge. The Metro Manila Development Authority also removed other billboards on EDSA last Monday, purportedly because the billboards in question were put up either without the necessary permits because they were morally objectionable. The billboards of Phil Younghusband (he is shown without a shirt on) and Angel Locsin (she showed off her leg) hawking canned tuna was one of the casualties of the newfound vigilance and sudden attack of moral righteousness on the part of our authorities.

Okay, I know that I have written many times in the past about the need to clean up our cityscape of those giant billboards. Why am I not happy?

Let me make myself clearer. As I wrote in this space last Monday, I am four-squares behind the campaign to remove all pesky billboards on EDSA and other major thoroughfares. Those giant billboards represent a real physical hazard. They can fall down during strong winds and kill or hurt people (such as what happened when typhoon Milenyo visited us a couple of years ago). They can fall down on structures as what happened when tarpaulin shreds from a billboard interfered with the electrical cables of the metro rail trains. They filter sunlight, they collect grime and dust, and they mar the landscape. They also distract motorists.

In a country like ours where traffic signs are regarded as suggestions and where people reinvent and circumvent traffic rules, distractions are the last thing motorists need.

Many of those billboards just do not make sense and are so badly done; hideous beyond words, in fact. There are just too many of those darn billboards that violate our sense of aesthetics, which incidentally should have nothing to do with the state of dress or undress of the models hawking whatever products in those billboards. I’ve seen billboards that showed some skin but were done so tastefully, one doesn’t even notice the nudity. On the other hand, I’ve seen billboards that would pass the Taliban’s strict guidelines as far as skin exposure is concerned but are nevertheless trashy because the artistic standards were set below sea level.

So yes, I am happy that we are at least reducing the number of billboards on our thoroughfares. But I am not happy at the way our authorities have turned the issue into a moral one; why, many of our leaders have suddenly had an attack of sanctimoniousness spewing all kinds of gibberish about what is sexy and artistic.

Let me cut to the chase and say this: Our dearest politicians, before you open your mouths to criticize the artistic merits or moral implications of specific billboards, please make sure that you do not currently have, never had in the past, or does not intend to have in the future, a billboard proclaiming that you are your constituents’ messiah, all the while promising all kinds of false hopes to the people. Please also make sure that come Christmas, Valentines, Mothers’ day, fiesta, and during All Saints’ Day, you will not plaster every electric post in your area or hang from every tree and window tarpaulin banners containing sophomoric greetings complete with a cloying photoshopped image of yourselves flashing your pearly whites. Otherwise, please do all of us the favor of shutting up.

I would rather have ten giant billboards of Anne Curtis and Angel Locsin, or what the heck, even half naked good looking guys rather than those self-serving billboards of politicians boasting about whatever little they have done in the name of public service, or worse, promising Utopia. Politicians’ campaign billboards, particularly during elections are the worst, but you get the drift.

So yes, I am happy that we are removing billboards in EDSA but I am aghast that our authorities are singling out billboards that they have deemed “sexy” and consequently, immoral or at least promote immorality. Oh please, spare us the sanctimoniousness. There are far too many other examples of immorality in this country with far graver implications than the sight of men in their underwear; the mitshubishopand sapariscandal, for instance, or the ZTE scandal.

By all indications, the current preoccupation with removing “sexy” billboards is a populist move that is temporary. Therefore, we can expect these billboards to be replaced with other billboards, probably of people who are fully clothed to appease the moralists in this country. As usual, people won’t care if they pose serious hazards in terms of safety, or if the ads indulge in false advertising, or if the products being pushed are harmful to children or the environment. All they care about is that their notions of what is moral and acceptable prevail.

In fact, if it were not for the fact that billboards in general represent another kind of pollution, we should be thanking Ben Chan (the man behind Bench underwear) for taking our minds and eyes off the stink and the dismal condition of the Pasig River. There’s another obscenity our leaders are not doing anything about.

For example, my heart sank when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s election lawyer Romulo Macalintal joined the chorus of people condemning those Bench underwear ads Monday morning on television. In so many words, he said pictures of men and women in their underwear should not be allowed as billboards and then went on to pontificate about how underwear advertising should be done. I suggest Mr. Macalintal stick to lawyering because his opinions on advertising and social messaging were sadly off the mark.

Why should ads about underwear show people wearing underwear, was the oft-repeated question. Well, why the heck not—they are underwear for crying out loud. Why can’t we follow the example of Michael Jordan who hawked underwear by simply slinging one on his shoulder? Because while it may have worked for one Jordan ad, we cannot prescribe the same approach for all advertisements—can you imagine if all ads about underwear showed all models simply slinging underwear over their shoulders! And surely, there are already more than enough superheroes that wear their underwear over their pants. Why do they have to be sexy? Oh for crying out loud, we’re no longer in the Middle Ages when underwear was supposed to be just another layer of clothing. It’s supposed to be about feeling sexy inside and imagining that one looks like, well, the members of the rugby team even if one had a 42-inch waist. It’s supposed to make one feel good about one’s self. It’s supposed to be about self-esteem as well.

So yes, I hate the fact that billboards hinder our appreciation of whatever little is left of the Metro Manila landscape. I hate the fact that while traveling in the North Expressway my appreciation of the idyllic farmlands of Central Luzon is often rudely interrupted by a giant billboard selling fried chicken or hog feed. But guess what, I hate even more attempts at censorship and efforts to curtail freedom of expression under the guise of keeping intact the moral fiber of Philippine society.


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