IF presidential candidates Oscar Arias and Ottón Solís played chess, who would win? How about if they boxed? Do voters care?
While the victor of the Feb. 5 election is the only one who matters in the end, leaders of Solís’ campaign are betting that small victories in the boxing ring and at the game board will help boost their Citizen Action Party (PAC) candidate.
These face-offs are part of a series of commercials that mock National Liberation Party candidate Arias – who leads by a wide margin in the polls – and build buzz for Solís, a distant second.
The ads are so far the most creative of the election season and, along with dozens of others, have inundated the airwaves in recent weeks.
“LADIES and gentleman, with you, at my right, the challenger Ottón Solís,” an announcer
belts out at the start of the Solís commercial.
A boxer with a giant plastic head of Solís enters the boxing ring as people cheer. “And at my left… the defender of the crown, Oscar Arias,” he continues, as TV commentators in the background say the fight is the most anticipated in four years.
The spot continues with some punches exchanged between the two boxers before the commercial ends, asking, “Are you sure Oscar Arias is going to win? Ottón Solís. Go out and vote.”
In the second of these spots, the two bobble-headed candidates are playing chess. Solís makes a move, leaving Arias stumped. Later ads in the series feature plastic-noggined Arias sitting at his desk, or late at night in his bed, frantically studying Solís’ platform and scratching his head as someone plays the piano in a distant room of Arias’ sophisticated home.
THE ads are not only the most creative of the season, but also among the most negative ads in the campaign so far. January may bring a different story when candidates return from a required campaign propaganda break that starts today and lasts through Jan. 1.
With Arias receiving 45% of the vote in the latest polls, many negative ads have been directed at him.
Libertarian Movement Party candidate Otto Guevara runs a spot flashing Arias’ picture next to mugs of past presidents Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002), José María Figueres (1994-1998) and Rafael Angel Calderón, Jr. (1990-1994) – all of whom are under suspicion of corruption.
The words, “The traditional politicians have already had their opportunity. This time we need someone different,” appear on the screen, followed by Guevara’s dapper mug.
“In no moment were we attacking Arias. We were just showing the contrast between the two candidates,” said Danny Quirós, chief of communications for the Guevara campaign.
ARIAS, President from 1986-1990, responded last week to the relatively mild “attack” ads with an ad announcing that during the Christmas season he won’t countenance such negativity, instead focusing on how to create jobs and educate the country.
Although the ad insinuates things could get uglier in January, and rumors have surfaced as such, Liberation spokesman Luis París said they won’t.
Instead, the campaign will continue to have ads dominated by flag-waving, happy songs and the candidate jumping up and down with the message that Costa Ricans should “think big.”
París claims the Arias ad campaign has been a success, citing focus groups and surveys; however, Arias’ support in polls has barely fluctuated since the campaign began.
Although a survey revealed that many people don’t like the boxing/chess campaign, the idea of it is to get people’s attention, explained Solís’ campaign manager, Alberto Salom.
“One has to understand the political situation,” he said. “People are very incredulous and unexcited about the elections. Plus, the ad space is overloaded. So we have to do something different to get noticed.”
GUEVARA’S campaign tries to reach the public on various fronts. Some commercials feature the Libertarian candidate walking through rows of crops like a farmer and sitting on a front porch, with a family gathered around him as if he were a wise grandfather, listening to him explain his programs to combat drugs.
“We want to show Guevara as a normal person, so people see him as just one more Costa Rican,” Quirós said.
In a later ad, Guevara, who is in third place, becomes just one more construction worker, donning an orange vest and yellow hardhat and building a school. The ad is documentation of a Libertarian promise not to hold public rallies and instead to use the funds to build public infrastructure projects.
In 2002, the Guevara campaign changed its direction in the month before the election when party leaders realized voters wouldn’t give them the keys to Casa Presidencial, and began focusing on winning seats in the Legislative Assembly. Quirós said not to expect the same this year.
“Like our slogan, ‘con firmeza, hacia adelante’ (moving forward with firmness), we believe we will go to second round (of elections) and win,” he said.
While the Libertarians remain optimistic, the same cannot be said for other campaigns. Many ads for the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) focus on the party as a whole, rather than presidential candidate Ricardo Toledo, though he is usually present for flag-waving and running through the hills.
Likewise, at least one billboard featuring the face of Union for Change (UPC) candidate Antonio Alvarez Desanti has already been replaced by photos of him with his legislative candidates.
THE campaign ads of some of the less popular candidates are generally more simple, low-budget bits that feature the candidate reciting promises and visions.
By contrast, the Liberation/Arias campaign plans to spend ¢950 million ($1.9 million) on publicity; the Libertarians plan to spend ¢400 million ($810,000). PAC has spent ¢43 million ($87,000) so far, but data is not available as to their future spending.
The cost of a 30-second spot during the popular TV program 7 Estrellas is about ¢339,000 ($686), according to Quirós. Libertarians have also spent an additional ¢30 million making sure Guevara and his “con firmeza” slogan are seen throughout the country on 51 billboards. Arias follows Guevara in the billboard count with 41.
Most of the candidates or their representatives say they will not enter negative campaigns unless they are directly attacked. At the same time, Arias competitors are hinting that they will release big news in January that could hurt the leading candidate.
Salom noted that dirty campaigning late in the game contributed to Solis’ loss of the election in 2002. In December of 2001, a questionable “spam” e-mail alleging Solís was corrupt and involved in an illegal land transaction in 1980 was found to have originated from a phone line in Liberation offices (TT, Dec. 14, 2001). La Nación later reported that, according to documents and land-right exports, the transaction was normal.