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Cry for Me, Brazil, Popular Candidate Says

September 12, 2002|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIO DE JANEIRO — With five-minute video epics about poverty, death and redemption, the gruff leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is getting in touch with his feelings.

Two or three nights a week, the four-time presidential candidate and current front-runner sits in a chair and tells bits of his life story to the camera. He talks about shining shoes as a boy and reveals a painful humiliation his mother suffered when the family migrated from Brazil's rural northeast to the big city of Sao Paulo.

But most important, Lula weeps. And much of Brazil cried with him when he recounted a tragedy from his younger days, the day he arrived at the hospital with baby clothes as his wife prepared to deliver their first child.

"They told me, 'She died,' " Lula said, repeating the hospital worker's words with the same curt tone with which they were uttered decades ago. " 'And the baby too.' "

Remembering that gut-wrenching moment may have been personally cathartic for Lula. But it was also his opening salvo in the war of television ads that most analysts agree will play a central role in determining who is the next president of Latin America's largest and most populous nation.

For seven weeks before the Oct. 6 election, the major contenders are appearing three times a week on prime-time television, in a uniquely Brazilian mix of samba, politics and melodrama. All the air time is free, giving the candidates their best chance to reach the more than 100 million voters who will cast ballots.

Imagine the pressure of "sweeps week" in the United States combined with the anarchic give-and-take of a presidential race in its homestretch.

Most of the campaigns craft their free television time--from 10 minutes or so to 30 seconds--into quick-hit infomercials. The candidates are cast as the main characters in spots that borrow from the many elements in the great stew that is this country's popular culture, including the novela (soap opera) and the musical variety show.

In between talking heads and testimonials, viewers are treated to everything from country music jingles--"Jose Serra for president and jobs, jobs, jobs for the people!"--to children dancing on Rio beaches with party logos.

Serra, the ruling party candidate, was far behind in third place when the free commercial time began airing Aug. 20. Many here blame his mentor, current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, for Brazil's languishing economy. But Serra has made a stunning comeback thanks in part to his highly polished ads--one poll rated them second only to Lula's in terms of quality and appeal.

In one Serra spot, a series of upbeat declarations by his supporters jump-cuts into a musical routine staged at a factory, with dancers dressed in blue overalls, all singing the praises of Serra's strategy to eliminate the rampant unemployment in Brazil, "The Monday Plan."

"Today is Monday, a happy day," sing the "workers," whose ranks include the popular singers Chitaozinho and Xororo. "In a world of fear, if you have a job, that day is dear."

Center-left candidate Ciro Gomes, in a tough fight with conservative Serra for second place and a spot in the expected Oct. 27 runoff, attacks Serra in his commercial. The singing workers of Serra's ad appear in black and white, their happy song giving way to an angry rap.

"Eleven million seven hundred thousand unemployed," the rappers chant in staccato Portuguese. "Things have never been worse!"

Such songs are commissioned as part of an overall media blitz directed by some of Brazil's top marketing wizards, people such as Duda Mendonca, who years ago won the Gold Lion at Cannes (a prestigious advertising award) for a commercial selling eyeglasses.

Mendonca is a hired media gun who plies his trade for candidates across the political spectrum. Some of his first political work was for the right-wing candidate Paulo Maluf, who was running for governor of Sao Paulo. Among other things, the marketing wizard made Maluf switch to a more hip style of eyeglasses. Maluf won the election.

This campaign season, Mendonca has performed a top-to-bottom image make-over for Lula, the candidate whose very name strikes fear in the hearts of wealthy Brazilians and investment bankers.

The Lula of old was a man famous for exhorting crowds of thousands of workers to struggle--the iconic image of Lula is standing in an arena full of striking workers in the late 1970s, during Brazil's dictatorship, angry, defiant, a sort of chubby, Latin Lenin. Today, Lula cuts an avuncular figure, his graying beard and faint smile suggesting a wiser, mellower man.

"I think Lula needs to appear on TV that way he is in real life," Mendonca said in an interview last year, not long after agreeing to work for Lula and his Workers' Party, known by its Portuguese initials, PT. "When he talks with the press--serious, like a bearded frog--he isn't the Lula that his friends know. Lula is much more friendly and good-humored. This is precisely the image he needs to show. He needs to smile more."

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