As much as media’s future is digital, TV advertising continues to play an outsize role in local and state elections. A great TV ad played in heavy rotation can still define a candidate and establish favorable name recognition like almost no other political tool.
The primary for Maryland governor is just over two weeks away, which means Baltimore TV is full of candidate ads. And more are on the way.
But even with three of the nine Democrats in the race buying TV time in Baltimore, the most powerful ad by far belongs to a Republican who is uncontested in his primary and ahead of any Democrat in early polls for the general election: Gov. Larry Hogan.
I sat down to write about what the ads for Democratic candidates are saying in terms of imagery and rhetoric, and there is plenty of meat on those bones. But Hogan’s is the ad that blew me away.
This is not an exercise in fact-checking. Sun political reporters are writing about the ads in terms of accuracy. This is about messaging and advertising execution. It is an attempt to help separate one candidate from the other based on what they are paying money — lots of money — to tell voters about themselves.
I am only rating ads airing Baltimore, which is why I am not reviewing a new ad from State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., themed as “Take That Trump,” which ends with a kiss between Madaleno and his husband, Mark Hodge. It is only airing in Montgomery County and on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” in the Washington market. The ad is decidedly one-dimensional, but based on the way it cut through the clutter and all the free media it generated for Madaleno, I’d give it a B-plus. You can read a Sun political review here.
Let’s start with the worst and work our way up to Hogan’s ad, which ends on notes so strong they are as much poetry as politics.
Rushern Baker’s “Block by Block” Baltimore ad: D.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III is one of the Democratic front-runners who has been buying TV time in Baltimore. But he should have saved his money rather than spending it on the spot he has directed at Baltimore voters. It’s 30 seconds of empty rhetoric and generic images that mostly suggest how disconnected the candidate is from the profound problems here.
As viewers see a signature Baltimore rooftop shot of row houses, they are told in voiceover, “This is a great city. We should be rooting for every part of Baltimore to thrive.”
The camera then comes down to street level to show a man driving a car down a street lined by row houses. He is looking out at the houses as he drives.
“I’m Rushern Baker,” he says. “In Prince George’s County, I created the Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative to revitalize struggling communities.”
Cut to a montage of him in hard hat on a work site and then more shots of him at various tables talking with groups of people.
That’s followed by images of smiling people in urban settings, as he says again in voiceover, “We can do it in Baltimore, too. Implement bias training for police, while reducing crime in tough areas. And creating new job opportunities. We’ve got to do it — block by block, street by street. Because every community deserves to thrive.”
Problem visually: You can’t hide the fact that Baker is an outsider, but you don’t want to emphasize it with this shot of him driving into the city and looking out the windows at the row houses like somebody in a tour bus. But that’s the visual message at the top of the ad. It’s the first impression, and it’s a bad one.
As for having the candidate driving through the city and looking out the car window at row houses, ask failed Baltimore mayoral candidate David Warnock how that theme worked out for him.
Problem rhetorically: Where to start? If bias training is the best you have for police-community community relations here, you have not been paying attention. We have senior commanders who think laws don’t apply to them. We have a culture of racism, violence against citizens and secrecy that feels as if it rivals the“Serpico” era of New York City in the 1960s and ’70s. We need bias training, but it is just a start — so just a start.
The rest is all blah, blah, blah: “Every community deserves to thrive,” and “We should all be rooting for it to thrive.” Forget bromides about rooting for Baltimore and what every community deserves. Give us something concrete that might make our lives better.
Honestly, as a 27-year resident of Baltimore, I find this ad insults my intelligence.
Jim Shea “Vision and Leadership” ad: C.
The challenge for Shea’s TV producers is to make him look less like a corporate lawyer and more like a man of the people. They have successfully taken some of the boardroom out of his image by getting him out of a suit and into shirtsleeves, a sweater or just a blazer (no tie). But he never seems totally at ease in any of the settings the producers put him in during this 60-second ad except at what viewers are led to believe is his corporate desk. And he’s wearing a business suit in that shot.
The are a lot of wasted visuals in this ad: a shot of sunshine over a block of buildings that has no connection to the narrative, close-ups of Shea talking, a screen split into five vertical panels that are presumably all supposed to be showing some aspect of mass transportation, but it is not clear what.
The camera spends too much time on Shea, and he simply does not fill the screen with the kind of energy and dynamism that TV demands of an older candidate.
Memo to image makers: Don’t ask Shea to do stuff like share fist bumps with young people. I’ve watched him in debates, and he looks engaged, dynamic and vital. Here you make him into too much of a grandpa — especially in the shot with the little girl talking to him about a rainbow. Don’t try to soften him.
Ben Jealous “Running” ad: B-plus.
This is a well-crafted ad. Solid pacing and a lot of information succinctly presented.
The first 15 seconds are textbook in speed-dial biography. The next 15 seconds are deft in offering shorthand TV definitions that viewers can absorb and hang onto: “Ben Jealous — community organizer, civil rights leader, job-creating investor, … Marylander of the Year by The Baltimore Sun. …”
And Jealous looks comfortable in the urban settings in which he is placed: on a stoop surrounded by smiling faces, a street corner embracing someone, walking purposefully toward the camera on a city street.
On the minus side, during the last 30 seconds, Jealous speaks too much in the language of Washington politicians, a largely distrusted and even despised lot. He says he wants to build a “robust, inclusive and sustainable economy.” “Robust” is a word that defines political buzz talk to me. Really, save it for yuppie wine reviews.
And he wants to stop “mass incarceration.” That’s a term that means different things to lots of different people. He needs to be far more specific about what exactly he wants to stop or start when it comes to crime and punishment, because that is one big problem in Baltimore. We’ve heard all the political buzzwords here, and things only get worse. Say something real to us if you want our votes.
Bottom line: Jealous looks good in this ad but sounds like a politician.
Larry Hogan “Maryland Strong” ad: A.
This is the only ad with a real narrative from beginning to end. It’s simple, clear and the producers hit hard at the very start: Things were bad in Maryland before Hogan, and now they are so much better. I’m not saying whether that’s true, just that the ad does a great job of selling it.
The shifting tones, colors, rhythms and rapid-fire images used to drive the narrative of bad-before/great-now are masterful.
(It should be noted that the facts used to support the narrative, though, are dodgy. Check out Sun reporter Erin Cox’s excellent analysis of that here.)
Where this ad truly starts punching emotional buttons is down the home stretch starting just after some very dark imagery used to evoke the uprising in 2015 in Baltimore. The message here is that Hogan stepped in and brought order to a situation that was spiraling out of control.
“And when we needed a leader, Larry Hogan was there,” a narrator says, as an onscreen headline states, “Baltimore crisis thrusts Gov. Larry Hogan into national spotlight.”
Then comes the knockout pivot :“And when Larry Hogan needed us, we returned the favor,” the narrator says as the screen fills with video of Hogan receiving chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Talk about creating a sense of shared mission, of bonding viewer and candidate around a profound aspect of life experienced in families of so many voters. Bringing up Hogan’s battle with cancer is a tricky thing. It’s a powerful part of his story, but he doesn’t want to look like he’s playing for sympathy or exploiting his own health problems. Instead, he reminds viewers of his illness by thanking them. It’s brilliant.
And just in case there are any questions about ongoing health concerns, the ad ends on video of Hogan awash in sunlight crossing the starting line in what appears to be a charity run.
“Together, we’re stronger than ever. Maryland Strong. Larry Hogan. Governor,” viewers are told.
I reached out to Russ Schriefer, the strategist identified by Hogan’s campaign as creator of the ad, to ask why they chose to buy TV time on the eve of an uncontested primary. Why not save it for the general election?
Schriefer, a partner in the Annapolis firm of Strategic Partners & Media, said there were two reasons: “One strategic, the other practical.”
In terms of strategy, he said that while the Democrats are in the media talking about their records and plans for the state, Team Hogan wants to make sure “the governor remains in that space … that he’s heard and part of the conversation.”
On a practical level, federal regulations mandate that stations sell political ad time at the lowest unit rates to candidates just before primaries and general elections.
“It’s cheaper now,” Schriefer said. “And the governor being the frugal guy that he is ...”