Manila Vanilla

What it's like to be a U.S. Fulbright scholar, basketball player, journalist, and the whitest man in Metro Manila.

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Location: Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

New Yorker by birth, shipped across the globe to the world of malls, shanty-towns, patronage, corruption, basketball and a curious burnt-toast smell that wafts around at dusk

Monday, April 21, 2008

PBA Mascot Update -- Condom na Condom!

We're almost a month into the PBA's new import conference, and it's been pretty uneventful to date. The imports are all solid, with a few recognizable names like Aaron McGhee, who was on the Hollis Price Oklahoma team that went to the Final Four, Darius Rice, who used to bomb threes for Miami in the Big East, and Randy Holcomb, who was one of those west coast players who was always listed in Street and Smith's as the conference's top gun, but you never got to see him play. But it's still too early in the conference to report many developments on the basketball end. If Saturday's Red Bull/Alaska game is any indication, however, that may soon change; Alaska's coach Tim Cone was ejected, Alaska's import Holcomb broke Rich Alvarez's nose on a flagrant foul, then Red Bull coach Yeng Guiao nearly attacked Holcomb before Red Bull won the game in overtime. We've only just begun...

But one of the wonderful things about the PBA is that even in the absence of interesting basketball, there are boatloads of other intriguing tidbits to focus on. Here, once again, I point to one of my favorite continuing themes in Philippine basketball: commercialism and, specifically, the PBA sponsors' mascots. Anyone who's visited Araneta this conference will have noticed that some old friends -- Mr. Softee, the Xtreme Magic Sing Mic Man and the Casino Ethyl Alcohol guy -- are M.I.A., but their replacements are charming. The first is the Yakult bottle. Nothing too weird here. Just a smiling bottle of yogurt drink to make your digestive system happy. As you can see, little girls in fuzzy tiaras go wild for live yeast cultures in their morning drinks.

But the real inspiration for this post -- and I apologize for being coy and holding the punchline for the very end; it's very un-reporterly of me -- is the cream-colored "L" thing. The consensus in the crowd is that it's a dead ringer for a condom. Its little mohawk looks like a reservoir tip. The first time I saw it, I was sitting a row behind Alaska reserve center Poch Juinio, and as it walked by, he yelled, "Condom na Condom ito!" Basically, "It's a condom!!!!!!!!!!" Later, I was informed that the "L" stands for Lacto-something-ol, and that it's a cousin of Yakult. Ask anyone at the Araneta, however, and they'll tell you it's a condom. Of course, the kids love it, too.

It also makes me wonder: Just how long will it be before the PBA accepts sponsor money from Frenzy or one of the other local condom brands and allows them to parade an actual walking condom around the games. Would it be a wrapped condom, or a giant, grinning, strawberry-flavored, rose-colored phallus? I'm going to give the league the benefit of the doubt and say that the higher-ups would have the good sense to protect whatever minuscule shreds of family-friendliness and dignity that it still has, but it wouldn't be the most ridiculous thing I've seen the league do.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Alaska Commercials

I've got plans to start posting much more regularly. Those sound like famous last words, but I've read a handful of alarmist stories -- here in the New York Observer, and again, in the New Yorker -- about the demise of print media, and since audiences are migrating online, I'm going to try to blog more often.

I'll start off simple with You Tube links to a couple Alaska Milk commercials. I had the pleasure of spending a conference with Alaska's PBA team, the Aces, last year, and whenever I manage to write something decent about Philippine basketball, much of it will be thanks to the access and information they provided me. Alaska recently came out with a fabulous new commercial starring their extremely telegenic -- when he's not flashing you -- star player, Willie Miller. Miller explains that Alaska has been involved with sports for a long time, since even before he was born, then they just let a 1974 TV ad do the rest of the talking. Let's watch it first, then review some of the highlights.

Some thoughts: 1. I'm not sure if this is as hilarious to people who don't know much Tagalog and don't hear the language spoken around them on a daily basis, but Cisco Oliver's Tagalog phrases are classic. "Galing mo!" -- you're good! "Masarap?" -- "Delicious?" He spits the words out like he accidentally got a mouthful of ants in his cassava cake.

Cisco Oliver, from what I've read, seems to be the prototype for the modern import in the PBA. Although commercial league teams had hired Americans to reinforce local squads since at least the 1950s, Oliver was one of the first high-scoring, loose-living, flamboyant black imports. I mention race here because there really is racial bent to local thinking towards imports. Teams that hire white players become the punchlines for jokes between players, coaches, sportscasters and other league insiders. From what I could tell, Oliver played on a lot of terrible teams and scored a ton of points, and for some reason was allowed to play even during All-Filipino conferencces. The same for an old-school bruiser named Billy Robinson who looked like the ex-wrestler the Junkyard Dog. I'll try to get to the bottom of this.

The Alaska boy! Even in his native language he sounds ridiculous. I've been trying to perfect his "Yeah" for the past three days. Promoting your product with a blond American boy seems antiquated, even in the light skin-coveting world of Philippine pop culture. Nowadays, advertisers tend to go for mestiza children who look only partly American or Chinese. Alaska, however, still has this Children of the Damned blond boy on their milk boxes, and it makes the company's name even more confusing, since Alaska has nothing to do with the 49th state. It's really "alas ka" -- "you're an ace" in Tagalog." But why name your product in the local language, then slap a foreign face on the box? It's a moot point, now. That boy is iconic, now, and the company has to keep him for brand awareness reasons.

All in all, kudos to Alaska for putting together a funny commercial. It sure beats the commercials from a year ago that featured animated maxi pads doing calisthenics.

Commercial number two is the Alaska girl basketball spot. I worked as a sports consultant on this shoot, trying to make the girls look like they knew how to play. The lead, Sara, was pretty good and easy to teach. In some cases, the directors actually had an easier time getting her to execute the basketball moves than to emote properly on camera. My favorite part of the shoot was when the director explained to Sara that he wanted her to "Jumujordan." He turned Jordan into a Tagalog um-verb. I think everyone wishes they could Jumordan.