The hotdog as a metaphor

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on September 30, 2010

Was publicist Gavin Anderson the idea guy behind the hotdog that generated headlines in the Philippines and frayed nerves among Secret Service agents in New York City last week? Mr. Anderson was hired by the administration of Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III to, presumably, generate interest in the Philippines among investors in the U.S., and wherever else news of Mr. Aquino’s visit there might be picked up.

Although Mr. Anderson came cheap-$15,000 according to Presidential Communications Group Secretary Ricky A. Carandang-critics of the administration rushed to pillory Mr. Aquino for spending the money, given the sizable communications staff at his disposal, which includes three cabinet-level officials. I’m pretty sure that three secretaries in the Communications Group isn’t such a great idea, but investing in visibility is.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether the investment paid off, at least in terms of visibility among U.S. investors. A search of The New York Times, for example, comes up empty for content mentioning Mr. Arroyo during the period of his visit. Of course, he was competing for visibility with other world leaders, some whose notoriety-such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-guaranteed broad coverage. Notorious and otherwise, the leaders had gathered to mark the 10th anniversary of the Millennium Development Goals agreement.

Given the competition for visibility, this trip probably wasn’t the right time to try to impress U.S. investors and potential tourists. It did, however, provide a perfect backdrop for sending positive messages homeward. Taking a jab at the president’s predecessor, however, seemed to be the priority. Spending $55 on a New York City sidewalk hotdog extravaganza is certainly admirable when compared to the $20,000 food orgy former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was castigated for last year.

The allegedly spontaneous fast-food chow down-and others on the West Coast-was likely also intended to strengthen the image of the president as an ordinary Filipino. After all, isn’t that why he speaks Tagalog most of the time as well (Although more Filipinos speak Cebuano than any other dialect, artificial or otherwise. Filipino was “assembled” from a variety of dialects, mostly Tagalog.), to show his connection to the people? In New York, he even had ketchup-rather than mustard-with his hotdog, demonstrating tight alignment with the average Filipino palate.

However, Mr. Aquino is already acknowledged to be a frugal, honest individual. Relentless focus on his frugal character may demonstrate commitment to his brand image, but it certainly adds nothing of value to the brand, and risks putting other positive attributes in diminishing perspective. The hotdog metaphor is a campaign tactic, not a confidence-building initiative. Mr. Aquino’s handlers should consider a shift from campaign mode to presidential mode, and focus on attributes that add value to the brand. Leadership, for example.

To illustrate, consider how the hotdog metaphor resonated back home in the Philippines. I monitored some banter on Twitter, and here is a select group of Tweets:

· Prospective updates: 1) “Pres now gulping bottomless Dr. Pepper” 2) “Down to his last two fries” 3) “Gets free toy from McDo-Times Square”

· President had SF burger then NY hotdog. Can’t wait for him to try California burrito. We’re all waiting for the update here!

· I can see press release/head now: “Aquino’s US trip nets $__ billion worth of investments” (value preferably higher than GMA’s)

· Psychologists note that kids use ketchup on their hotdogs. Adults use mustard. Guess what PNoy used?

· The President promises to bring home a hotdog/pizza franchise to create jobs for Filipinos all over

These examples suggest that the president’s hotdog metaphor didn’t resonate quite the way Mr. Aquino’s handlers expected, at least among the Tweeterati. Mr. Aquino’s handlers will look down their noses and suggest that the Tweeterati weren’t the market, and that Juan dela Cruz feels a new affinity for his self-effacing president. Well, maybe so, but probably not. Preaching to the choir generally produces few converts.

If the hotdog metaphor didn’t resonate the way it was intended and enhance the president’s brand, at least it didn’t damage it. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an opportunity cost associated with the misadventure. There is that leadership thing I mentioned. Then there is the fact that these are many real issues for the president to address in real ways. The MDG aid package Mr. Aquino received was important not only because of the funds it provides, but the expression of hope others have in this administration.

Job 1 should be living up to that expectation, and gimmicks won’t do the trick.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand . Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2010 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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