A candid and personal examination of the Philippine comics scene from a social, cultural, economic and business point of view.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Today's Filipino Middle Class and that Php 50 to 100 comic book

Let’s get straight to the point:

“While the Filipino middle-class shrank only a little between 1997 and 2000, there was at least a 2 percentage-point decrease in the population share of the middle-class between 2000 and 2003. The number of middle-income families actually increased from 1999 to 2000 but decreased from 2000 to 2003.

The percentage share of both the middle and high-income classes shrank between 1997 and 2000, as well as between 2000 and 2003, resulting in an expanding low-income class in Philippine society.

As of 2003, less than 1 in 100 families belongs to the high income class; about 20 are middle-income and 80 are low income. Thus, in a span of six years from 1997 to 2003, for every 100 middle-income families, three families were lost to the low-income category.” (Source: Dr. Romulo A. Virola, “Collapsing” Filipino Middle Class:Antipoverty? How about pro-middle class?” news article from the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper, December 16, 2007 issue, p. A14).

So its official. The above findings are from those of a respected marketing professional, Dr. Romulo A. Virola, who did an actual survey on the matter. The Filipino middle class has indeed shrunk while the lower income class increased and the size of the high income class reduced to LESS THAN one percent. This means that since year 2000 to 2003, rich upper income Filipinos had gotten poorer and pushed down to the middle or low income class, while many middle income Filipinos had also gotten poorer and pushed down the low income class. In effect, the low income class today is made up of ex-middle and ex-high income classes. The social pyramid just got a wider and fatter base. It is now 2008. The situation has not gotten any better. Since 2003, more Filipinos have left the country as OFWs and despiteall the government hype going on about an improved lifestyle for the average Filipino, the plain fact is, the quality of jobs and standard of living in the country has not improved.

However, working on the clichéd assumption that one’s poverty limits the development of one’s literacy, can one honestly say that EVERYBODY in the now enlarged lower income class are so feeble-minded, have mediocre tastes and standards, that they don’t like to read or avoid it altogether?

Before you answer, please remember that in the now enlarged lower income class there are ex-middle and high income class members included in the mix. These are Filipinos who have previously benefited from formal education in their former income class. It is thus inaccurate to make broad, sweeping generalizations claiming that today’s low income class don’t read or have the intellectual capacity to appreciate good, quality literary or artistic works.

Today’s low income “bakya” crowd is not as “bakya” and simple-minded as one would like to believe. Today’s “masa” is a totally different animal. It is a bastard. It has mixed blood. There is an obvious, if not significant, ratio within this inflated socio-economic class that still espouse the tastes and preferences of the high and middle income class. The problem however, is that there is a dearth of products in the local market that meet their economic means of purchase. Publishers, dealers and creative people still do not seem to grasp, understand or address this reality. They still cling to the old notion that this market will not appreciate artistically highfalutin’, graphic novel, “art book” level, “quality” work. Rather, they just stick to the old practice of targeting and selling thinly veiled, high-priced “bargain” books, or comicbooks, to the reduced middle to high income class who can afford them.Result: they jack up the price.

Of course, it must be stressed that the low-income class is not necessarily poor, but this trend maybe the basis when people (the middle class?) complain that they do not feel the impact of the economic progress that the country has achieved in recent years. The good news is that the ratio of the income of the richest 30 percent to that of the poorest 30 percent and the ratio of the income of the richest 10 percent to that of the poorest 10 percent has gone down.

In addition, the Gini coefficient has improved from 0.4605 in 2003 to 0.4564 in 2006, indicating an income distribution that is getting slightly more equitable. The bad news is that the income share of the families in the fifth to the seventh deciles has gone down, meaning that the income share of some of the middle-class families has shrunk.” (Source: Dr. Romulo A. Virola, “Collapsing” Filipino Middle Class: Anitpoverty? How about pro-middle class?” news article from the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper, December 16, 2007 issue, p. A14).

The income share of middle-class families has shrunk. There is a marked, declining market today for recreational, leisure, and entertainment-based products for the middle class. Thinking of putting up a Php 50.00, “entertaining” local comic book for the now reduced middle class? Forget it. Its not an important part of their expense priorities. Once more, Dr. Virola:

“The middle-income class may be defined as those families who, in 2007, have total annual income ranging from P251, P283 to P2,045,280. In terms of socio-economic characteristics, the middle-income families are those who meet all of the following requirements: 1. whose housing unit is made of strong roof materials; 2. who own a house and lot; 3. who own a refrigerator; and 4. who own a radio.

On the other hand, it is good to note that the middle-income class does not seem to favor a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. Its top expenditure items are 1. food; 2. house rent; 3. transportation and communication; 4. fuel, light and water; and 5. education. The expenditure items with the least shares are 1. nondurable furnishings; 2. alcoholoic beverages; (obviously the middle-class has no passion, despite Iza Calzado); 3. tobacco (which Lucio Tan may not like); 4. recreation; and 5. house maintenance and minor repairs.

The general population spent the most in the following expenditure items: 1. food, 46.58 percent; 2. housing and repairs, 16.80 percent; 3. transportation and communication, 7.52 percent; 4. fuel, light and water, 6.95 percent; and 5. education, 3.83 percent. The expenditure items with the least shares are 1. recreation, 0.38 percent; 2. other miscellaneous items, 1.04 percent; 3. tobacco, 1.19 percent; 4. household operations, 1.23 percent; and 5. household furnishing and equipment, 1.76 percent.”

(Source: Dr. Romulo A. Virola, “Collapsing” Filipino Middle Class: Anitpoverty? How about pro-middle class?” news article from the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper, December 16, 2007 issue, p. A14).

What is low-income, what does poor mean? There are three levels. Income class E is earning below Php 6,274 a month (or below Php 40.00 a day for each person in a 5 member family), income class D is earning between Php 6,274 to Php 9,100 (or a little over Php 40.00 to Php 60.00 a day for each person in a 5 member family), and income class C is earning at Php 9,100 to Php 20,000 a month (or a little over Php 60.00 to Php 133.00 a day for each person in a five member family).

In sum, the new poor, or today’s “masa” (2008), has a daily budget of Php 40.00 to Php 133.00 a day, a considerable portion of which is spent first on basic necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, water, electricity, and transportation. Do you honestly think the remaining extra change will be spent on a Php 50 to Php 100 “purely entertaining” comic book with no educational value whatsoever? How do you even begin to catch their interest, much less develop their continued patronage and “love for Filipino comics”, if your “art book” level graphic novel comic is priced from Php 50 to Php 100? You think this is cheap? Cheap for whom? Its cheap for your target middle to high income class audience whose numbers have been reduced and have a 0.38 percent expenditure for a recreational item such as a “purely entertaining”, non-educational Php 50-Php100 globalized Filipino comic book? Think again, please.

Your stories and art may be top notch. Your marketing, distribution and collection systems may be at place. But have you ever thought of the one factor that really matters at the end of the day: your customer? You know, the guy or gal who’s going to fork over some spare change for your product and keep your business going? Good stories and art will save the day? C’mon. You haven’t stepped into the ring yet, and here you are, slipping on the wet floor and hitting your head for a full K.O. It’s the price, stupid. That’s your first hurdle. This is the third world. We are not a “developing” country. We are a poor (yet happy) country. We’ve been that way since the mid-1960s when Marcos came to power. This is not America, Japan or Canada where you have a large middle class. Filipinos nowadays (even the very rich few) are price conscious. 80% to 90% of the population are poor. They look for value at a low price they can afford, that’s why flea markets, tiangges, ukay-ukays, value meals, discount coupons and tiendesitas are so popular. You want to start building an industry brick by brick? Start lifting that first heavy brick. Subdue your artist egos. Desist in your out-of-body experience as comics creators. Humble yourselves before reality. Change your lifestyles. There is so much warmth and sunshine to be had from diverse human interaction outside your internet laced artist’s studio. Don't limit your knowledge and "spider sense" within that small masonic circle of comics fans, creators and geeks. Stop polluting the internet with your homespun, kooky logic that’s usually based on bare conjecture and supposition like this one:

“There has been lots of talk that comics for the masses should be cheap, as cheap as 10-15 pesos because that is what the majority of Filipinos can afford. I disagree. If the majority of Filipinos can afford loads for their expensive cellphones, blowing peso after peso on trivial and unimportant text messages*, if they can blow hundreds of pesos a week on drink and cigarettes and pirated CDs and DVDs, they can afford a well done, well crafted 100 peso comic book. And the success of FK #1 seems to bear that out. xxx xxx xxx Let’s be honest. For every 1000 texts you make with your cellphone, how many of that, on the average, constitute messages that are truly important and essential? So important and essential that you need to carry it around 24 hours a day, allowing yourself to be contacted immediately anywhere you are at anytime?”

He may not realize it but this is precisely the argument why Filipino comics should be ideally priced within the “cheap” Php 10-15 range or below Php 50.00. Do you think majority of lower income Filipinos will blow peso after peso on trivial and unimportant text messages, drinks, cigarettes, pirated CDs and DVDs, day after day, week after week, if these were priced at an expensive Php 50 to 100 PER TEXT? Per softdrink bottle? Per cigarette? Per pirated dvd/cd with only one film? Of course not.

But let’s reverse the situation. Suppose ONLY Filipino comics were being sold at Php 50-100 cover price while text messages, drinks, cigarettes and pirated vcds and dvds are at a price that is less than Php 50-100 (which is actual fact by the way). What do you think your low income mass audience would prefer? The Php 50-100 Filipino comic? C’mon. Admittedly, the "12 in 1" pirated dvds and vcds are at Php 60 and Php 50 respectively in some upper income areas of urban Metro Manila (and in other few urban cities of the Philippines). But in the provincial areas where majority of lower income Filipinos live, they are at prices below Php 50 and can even be haggled lower at point of sale.

Since the 1990s, there have been locally produced "globalized Filipino" and foreign reprint comics priced from Php 75 to Php 100. Unfotunately, to this day, this sector is still stunted in the small-scale, cottage industry level. Why? Because this marginalized sector of "globalists" essentially cater to small (and shrinking) upper and middle income class market.

Let’s be honest. Majority of lower income Filipinos don’t even own expensive celfones. Most of them are second hand and are affordably priced within their budgetary means. True, taken individually, most of these text messages are trivial and unimportant much like the comics being produced nowadays by that Komikero and other so-called “indies” like him, BUT the paradox is that because these commodities are priced low and trivial, they have become a habit and considered invaluable to a great many Filipinos. The law of ubiquity.

Granted, most of the text messages are trivial and unimportant, but trivial and unimportant TO WHOM? For the lowly guy or gal sending and receiving these messages? Their messages may be trivial and unimportant to others but certainly not to the individual senders. So, its really not an argument whether the messages being sent are trivial or not. It’s a subjective and relative point that’s not even persuasive.

Not even his single most precious example of Filipino Komiks No. 1, priced at Php 100 can convince many of us to think otherwise. Where’s the specific hard evidence to support his bare contention other than the usual hearsay that we’re getting? There is none.

Remember the law of ubiquity: “it is in the distinct self-interest of the affluent to find ways of extending the new systems to include, rather than exclude, the less affluent.” Again, Alvin Toffler:

“The same proved true, as we’ve seen, in the early development of postal services. The industrial economy needed a way to send bills to, or advertise to, or sell newspapers and magazines to everyone, not just the rich. And today, once more, as fax machines begin to replace the industrial-era post office, similar pressures are accelerating the spread of the new technology.

There were 2.5 million fax machines in the United States in 1989, churning out billions of pages of faxed documents per early users were importuning friends, customers, clients, and family to buy a fax quickly, so that the early users could speed messages to them. The more faxes out there, the greater the value of the system to all concerned.” (Source: Alvin Toffler, “Power Shift: Knowledge, Wealth and Violence at the edge of the 21st Century,” Bantam Books, 1991 ed.)

Applying the above law of behavior science to comics publishing, given that 80 to 90 percent of Filipinos are low income “masa,” and you want even just a small portion of that to patronize your “well done, well crafted P100 peso comic book,” how can you even hope to do this when just from the price itself, you are already excluding them from the experience? You think in the long-run they’ll eventually change their minds and start gobbling up your P100 comic book? You honestly think they’ll do that with all the other alternative forms of entertainment around that are a lot cheaper?

But hey, this is all just “talk” anyway, right? Let’s see the market decide then. Let’s have reality be the judge. Go ahead. We’ll be sitting here munching our popcorn while you guys do another “sold-out Filipino Komiks No.1.” Good luck to all of you and hope the comedy show is a success.

It always is.


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