“You do not know the harm that you have done to the Filipino mother’s psyche,” she said, angrily.

It was a lunch meeting. I had invited my friend, Mercy Abad, erstwhile President and General Manager of TNS-Trends. I wanted to plumb her brain about something, which I now forget. This was around year 2009, in a hotel in Makati, so sputters my memory.

I mentioned in passing that I created the ‘Gifted Child’ campaign for an infant formula, including the campaigns for all its variants. In an instant, I became a recipient of and reason for her anger.

She told me that she had just emerged from a nationwide qualitative study of mothers, a research project that was commissioned from abroad. What she discovered dismayed her: these poor mothers had a very low regard for their own milk. “It left a deep impression on me…and you made them believe that this formula is superior to breast milk.”

‘Dede lang’

“These poor moms think that by feeding their children with this milk, they will have higher IQ levels. I met a mom who used one measly teaspoon to make an 8-ounce bottle of milk,” because that was all she could afford.

Of course, I explained that no one had any intention of hoodwinking the poor mothers of this country; that it was presented as an alternative to breastfeeding for the more prosperous mothers who would rather not breastfeed. But you can imagine how my loud protestations quickly diminished into a mumble.
“Then there was a mother who resented her husband since he could not afford to buy the brand,” she continued.

That, I heard from my own staff. When I told the men who were working with me then that ‘breastfeeding is best,’ but that if their wives preferred the bottle, the cheaper brands were also fine. I added that they should take it from me – the creator of the campaign. Then they looked at me and guffawed.

They said that it would be unthinkable that their lives would be in danger, that they would get into trouble, not just with their wives, but with their in-laws, to buy anything less than the ‘Gifted Child’ brand. “Hindi puwedeng dede lang, at hindi puwedeng hindi gifted.”

There’s a lesson to this story, I promise. But allow me to put things into perspective: We asked the client to approve a campaign that talked about the products of the brand–Gifted Children. We had a generation of wonderful pianists, painters, chess players and geniuses whose common denominator was that they were nourished by this formula during that crucial stage of brain development. All aboveboard, a very legitimate message.

After launching the campaign, the cash registers rang loudly and incessantly for decades.

It could be said that the campaign is still running, using various permutations of the phrase “The Gifted Child” (which, even then, 20 or so years ago, was regarded as controversial. There were phases of the campaign during which we couldn’t use the phrase, when headquarters forbade us from using them.).
Why was the Gifted Child campaign so successful? What was the insight behind it?

The first wish of a mother for her child is that he or she is healthy. After the requisite counting of fingers and toes, the second desire of the mother kicks in: “Sana maging bright.”

While the campaign was a valid proposition to its intended market, the more prosperous mother, it hit a nerve with the poor. “Sana bright, para siya ang mag-aahon sa atin sa hirap.”

I enjoy going to the supermarket, and sometimes I’d stand around and watch people near shelves of products I helped advertise. I remember this young couple, they had just come in, cart still empty. First on her shopping list seemed to be an infant formula, and so she reached for the smallest tin of the brand and put it in the cart. The husband, who was pushing the cart, picked it up, looked at the price that was at the bottom of the tin. I saw him shiver. And then he put it down, back into the empty cart, like it was something that was hot to the touch.
While I have been demonized for it, the marketing lessons of the Gifted Child campaign are legion. One was that you could affect industry distribution – we shook the tree vigorously.

If you made the advertising powerful enough, the customer will dictate and demand. We essentially gave the power back to the customer and diminished that of the doctor; the mother was going to have her Gifted Child milk brand, come hell or high water, no matter what brand the doctor recommends.

And this is the bigger lesson I promised: If the battle is in the mind, it is something we can win.

Many of our challenges are really battles in the mind. While we cannot fix poverty, we can fix people’s perception of their condition, and we know that a people with hope can be of huge benefit to government.
If you want to extinguish bigotry, promote human rights, encourage breastfeeding, help stop drug addiction; if we want to get Filipinos to love listening to OPM again, or to sing the national anthem correctly, you work to change minds. Legislation won’t work. Banning, controlling, restricting by law never worked.
Respect the power of propaganda.

Advertising made mothers prefer breastfeeding. Advertising got people to smoke cigarettes. Reach for the implement when you want to reverse and repair; use propaganda to upend the bad in society.

The battlefield is in the mind, and the mind can change. As proof, I offer, facetiously: people can go from “Hosanna” to “Crucify Him” in just days.

I told Mercy that I was doing a breastfeeding campaign with the help of my students (this was when I was still teaching at St. Scholastica’s). She was elated and she wished me well, even wished me easy entrance to heaven:

“So good luck, Vince, and undo what you have done. St. Peter is very forgiving, anyway.”

The author is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists and causes, and co-founder of Caucus, Inc., a multi-discipline consultancy firm. He can be reached through vpozon@me.com.


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