On That BIR Ad

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Much has been said about the BIR’s half-page ads on paying taxes, mostly from doctors who see the ads as “unfair” to their profession. Lots of “two cents” shared on the matter, too.

But I’m not a doctor, a lawyer, or an online seller: I’m one of those people who do ads for a living (although I’ve never worked for the ad agency that made that BIR ad). So with all disclaimers engaged (these are my opinions, this POV does not reflect that of my employer, etc.), here’s what I think.

I think of ads as business solutions. Advertising is one of many ways to make businesses work better. Badly put, advertising helps businesses by talking to people to spread the word about the business. Whether that business is a commercial enterprise, a manufacturer, or government, it’s pretty much the same thing.

A business like a deodorant-making company would do that by showing you the big difference between stinky body odor, and armpits that smell nice. The mouthwash-making company dramatizes the difference between bad breath and minty fresh breath. People who buy into that difference would do what the business wants them to do: in this case, buy deodorant or mouthwash.

Government agencies that do advertising pretty much do the same thing. Like the Department of Tourism and “It’s More Fun in the Philippines,” which is a way to say that fun is a great intangible quality that you can have a lot of when you visit Philippine destinations. Back in the days when the MMDA would put up “Metro Gwapo” signs (or the deliberate use of pink signs set in some weight of Helvetica), Bayani Fernando wanted you to obey the rules of the road and thus live the principle of “urbanidad.”

Advertising (or some form of it) was extremely useful for both the DOT and the MMDA: it was the best way for them to communicate their message. For the DOT, tourism goes hand-in-hand with advertising. For the MMDA, it was a practical application of “out-of-home media.”

For those who enjoy advertising and revel in its history, its task is to use what is true about people and society, and to use those truths to inspire something positive. Whether it’s a fantasy world inside a Coca-Cola vending machine, or an Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandfather wrapping a Burger McDo “para sa paborito kong apo, si Karen,” ads use what’s true about what we feel about ourselves, and the world we live in. The end result: together (businesses and consumers), we want to make the world a better place in all ways, big or small.

This dishwashing soap makes it easy for you to wash dishes, so that you can spend more time with your family. This energy drink has all the nutrients and energy you need, so that you can do more work and be a better provider. And so on and so forth.

See, it’s not about seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses, or painting a fake picture of the world. The end result of advertising is about making changes – big or small – that will make people’s lives better. More coldly, the end goal of it is persuasion: to get people to do something they would not otherwise do, or to get people to buy something they would not otherwise buy. To get to that, though, we need to realize and recognize what people do in the first place.

Which brings us now to the BIR.

Was the BIR ad grounded in a strong insight? Yes: based on the reactions of people, some doctors, lawyers, and online sellers don’t pay the right taxes, or issue receipts. But it didn’t trigger doctors’ consciences to issue receipts or pay the right taxes. Rather, a bunch of doctors went up in arms over being portrayed as tax cheats. And for what, really?

Here we are: in the middle of the PDAF scams, Janet Napoles, Senators implicated in a scam that permeates government and involves billions of pesos in taxpayer money. Rightly or wrongly, all of this is part of the context where this ad was created, read, and scrutinized. BIR may be the tax collector, but it is the front-liner to a government that has a perennial problem with dealing with our taxes fairly and spending it honestly.

As long as there’s a problem on the end of the people and the institutions who make use of taxes, no amount on advertising can change that view. In short: it can’t be helped that the manner by which our taxes are collected is juxtaposed against the manner by which our taxes are spent.

We wouldn’t have (problems with) ads like these if we knew that our taxes were going to the right places. BIR’s form of persuasion is not in what your taxes can do for the country, but in shaming you if you’re not paying the right taxes. But shouldn’t be a point of improvement for the BIR to improve the way they collect taxes from doctors, lawyers, and online sellers? Shouldn’t the advertisement be, as a friend of mine put it, “Look at the wonderful things your government does for you. Do you want to keep it going? Pay your taxes.”

Was that the ad? No: the ad was a teacher burdened by a doctor who was not paying the right taxes. It was “pay your taxes,” full stop. Never mind that the taxes go into an endless cycle of corruption and waste, that taxes are almost never “felt.” Shame seemed to be a better way to push the message. How that gets people to do something they would not otherwise do is beyond me, but that’s just me.

We can only tell of this ad’s effectiveness by the time BIR reports its annual collection and if it hits its target; if it does, maybe it’s a good idea to eat crow.

But more importantly, taxation is a civic duty. It should come automatic to any civic-minded citizen. Like paying respects to the Flag or observing traffic rules or whatever, civic duties should be reflexive. We should know how much taxes we owe. We should know when to pay it. We should know how to, and we should know what to demand of those taxes.

The advertising should, if you will, be on the walls of local government units, Congress, the DBM, and even Malacañang: that when you graft from the taxes remitted by the people, you’re a burden to the entire nation.

Maybe, just maybe, the key takeaway is something else. Less about us paying taxes, or some doctors being offended, but something that underscores – in a very ironic way – our notions of civic and citizenship. Or lack thereof.

But that’s for another time.

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