Pope Francis says he has come to the Philippines to help the poor, but the country’s biggest businesses and multinationals are also cashing in with a not-so-subtle hijacking of his image.
The pontiff is the most trusted figure for many in the Philippines, where 80 percent of the nation’s 100 million people are Catholic, and this week’s trip has generated a marketing frenzy for “Brand Pope.”
Images of a smiling Francis are splashed on towering billboards and full-page newspaper advertisements, stamped with logos of McDonald’s, Pepsi, Hyundai and myriad big local companies.
Gerald Bautista, a marketing strategist for 20 years who runs his own consulting firm in Manila, said putting the pope and a brand together has a hypnotic effect on consumers in the Philippines.
“He has no negative attributes, [and]gives 100 percent benefits in terms of credibility and integrity,” Bautista told Agence France-Presse.
“They [consumers]would subliminally think that the brand is good. Subliminally, it influences their choice when they go to a supermarket.”
Local luxury department store Rustan’s rolled out a two-page spread on the day of his arrival Thursday, with its logo on the shoulder of the 78-year-old pontiff.
A yellow ribbon, a symbol of allegiance to President Benigno Aquino 3rd and his late mother Corazon, who was an icon of democracy in the country, was also pinned on the pope’s collar. The yellow ribbon appeared to be digitally manipulated, with a presidential spokeswoman telling Agence France-Presse she was not aware the pope had worn the pin.
Next to the pope were photos of a spread of ornate jewellery with the pontiff’s image for sale, including a champagne pearl bracelet.
The ad also reminded readers that a former ambassador to the Vatican owned Rustan’s, masquerading its promotion as a “welcome” message to the pope.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, which is organizing the pope’s five-day trip, said it was unfazed with the pope’s image being used for commerce.
Asked if it was proper to profit from the pope’s image, conference spokesman Bishop Mylo Vergara said the decision to do so was “really up to” the businesses involved.
The conference has in fact signed on some of the Philippines’ biggest companies as official sponsors for the tour, allowing them to place their brands on welcome banners erected throughout Manila.
Francis would frown upon blatant usage of his likeness to sell products, according to Andrea Tornielli, coordinator for the Vatican Insider website in Rome.
“The reality is that the pope loves the poor so much, it would be much better that the money used for advertising be given to the poor,” Tornielli told Agence France-Presse.
Philippine Long Distance Telephone (PLDT), the nation’s biggest telecommunications company owned by business titan Manuel Pangilinan, is one of the official sponsors of the pope’s trip.
PLDT spokesman Ramon Isberto insisted the company’s motives were altruistic, pointing out it was providing free phone and Internet infrastructure so Filipinos could share information about the pope.
“This is not a money-making event for us… our main effort is to help every Filipino experience the Pope,” Isberto told Agence France-Presse.
Meanwhile, small business owners are also enjoying a surge in sales out of the papal visit, as they flood sidewalks and malls with a dizzying array of papal souvenir merchandise.
Filipino bishops did not put out guidelines on the use of the pope’s image for merchandising to give the poor a chance to make money, Father Rufino Sescon, from the organizing committee, told Agence France-Presse.
“[And] if we regulate, it might look like we’re the ones trying to make money off the pope,” he said.
Josie Rudavites, who runs a tiny stall outside one of Manila’s most popular churches, said daily sales had jumped 10-fold to P3,000 ($67) since she started selling badges and calendars with the Pope’s image.
“The pope is all the rage,” Rudavites, 36, who normally sells candles for praying at the church, told Agence France-Presse.
A customer at a nearby stall, Angie Nalang, said she had brought her 17-year-old autistic son to the religious market surrounding the church because he was desperate for a souvenir.
“He said he wants anything with the pope on it,” Nalang told Agence France-Presse, as her son picked a white T-shirt with an image of the pope smiling and waving.