Old-style love story has modern Philippines in a tizzy

Forty-one million tweets - a global Twitter record. At its peak, it drove 48,000 tweets per minute.

It was not the latest trailer of Star Wars, which had just 2.4 million tweets. This was for something more cliched, but with wide mass appeal: An episode of a love story playing out on a TV variety show in the Philippines.

The love story, called AlDub, has been the highlight of a three-month-old skit on the variety show Eat Bulaga. It features a young woman - Yaya Dub - who plays a maid, and a wholesome lad - Alden - who falls for her.

The story is a mish-mash of Cinderella and Romeo And Juliet. The boy can be with the girl only after he completes "tasks", laid down by the maid's grandmotherly benefactor, to prove his undying love.

The two seldom meet. They are often seen on TV in split-screen view, confined to exchanging cheesy, hashtagged love notes scribbled on notepads.

It is those few moments when they are physically together - the against-all-odds moments - when viewership spikes.

A week ago, more than 50,000 filled a stadium north of Manila to see the two cuddle, wave and put on a show for three hours in a special episode of the variety show.

Millions of Filipinos in the country and overseas congregated around TVs or followed the drama on their phones and computers, tweeting in record numbers.

Sociologists and marketers are now poring over this pop culture phenomenon to find out what makes it tick.

Experts say AlDub has been a huge success because it resonates with Filipinos pining for a return to old-fashioned values as a counter-balance to the crass culture that has become pervasive online.

The loose plot is based on the now anachronistic Filipino tradition of "pamanhikan" - a long, supervised courtship - and all the virtues that go with it: Respect for elders, loyalty, fidelity and a well-earned reward for hard work.

Beyond the storyline, the two lead stars appeal to millions because they come off as believable bearers of the values their show represents, unlike many other celebrities, who are regarded as caricatures of excess and superficiality.

"They are redefining what it means to be a celebrity: Not snobbish, but kinder, more approachable, more sincere, and morally upright citizens," said TV writer Elmer Gatchalian.

Yaya Dub - played by 20-year-old Maine Mendoza - caught on with viewers when, in a moment of TV magic, her cheeks flushed a deep pink as she fluffed her lines, while Alden Richards, a 23-year-old singer she had a crush on, smiled and waved at her when they were on Eat Bulaga.

That was their Cinderella moment. It was the spontaneity of her reaction that drew people to her and sparked the idea for the love story.

"She is the most refreshing thing to happen (in the Philippines) in a long, long time…

"We are gifted with this… frank, confident, risk-taking spirit who really believes that life would be so much less complicated if people would just say what they feel," psychiatrist Maria Elemos wrote in the online news site Rappler.

Ms Mendoza's back story has also been a point of interest.

She was a hotel trainee who became an Internet star with a series of short clips she posted on YouTube using a lip-syncing app called DubSmash. "It's the diamond-in-therough narrative," said sociologist Clifford Sorita.

The skit's format has also been tailored for new media. The segments are usually less than 10 minutes, so they can be posted easily on YouTube and Facebook.

For marketers, the stars' appeal is straightforward. McDonald's reported a 470 per cent rise in store sales after it rolled out the first commercial featuring the two.

This article was first published on November 1, 2015.
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