The first TV ad for Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. debuted Sunday morning, and it's a smart one.
As is the case with most effective TV political advertising, overall, the words are not that important. TV is primarily a visual medium, and unless words involve slander or outrageous claims that can get a candidate in trouble, they mostly go in one ear and out the other, as the old saying goes.
On the other hand, one, two or three words or a perfectly-pitched short catchphrase skillfully linked to the right visuals can make a difference, because that kind of short verbal pop speaks to the way we watch TV -- with our brains in a place that is not given to parsing long sentences and complicated thoughts.
Ehrlich's producers seem to know that. The few words that are used in this first ad include some winners.
For the record, here is the total transcript (and note how few words are spoken in 30 seconds -- one of the reason I think this is overall a savvy production):
The words that matter: trouble, danger and work. The message: We're in trouble, and debt is the menace. But I'm the guy who save your job or put you back to work.
The badly wounded economy and middle-of-the-night, middle-class anxiety about losing jobs form the base of the mountain that Gov. Martin O'Malley and every other Democrat in this country up for re-election in November is running against. And they are all rightfully worried about how voters are going to react to it.
We are too close to November for anything major to change in terms of the economic misery in which this country remains mired while our Democratic president takes vacations and golfs -- and the smart Republicans are hitting economic fears hard, and then promising to turn things around.
That's why you see ads from Democrats like O'Malley touting their commitment to small businesses and praising entrepreneurs as the backbone of America and primary providers of jobs -- hardcore Reagan-Bush rhetoric from an earlier era.
But the real power of Ehrlich's ad, which debuted Sunday, is in the imagery and the overall look and feel of it.
Notice how bright, sunny and Chesapeake Bay blue everything seems. Talk about Morning in Maryland. I have to admit, for the several nice things I have said about O'Malley's ads, until I saw this one from Ehrlich, I did not realize how dark O'Malley's ads were. Just the color and pacing of Ehrlich's make you feel hopeful. That is a wise choice by his producers -- and skilled execution. Even Ehrlich's outfit of blue shirt (sleeves rolled to further emphasize the theme of being at work) and khaki slacks (the quintessential wardrobe of Mid-Atlantic Man) is a perfect match for the ad's color scheme.
The imagery of the red brick homes, blue water, blue-blue sky and green suburban sporting fields could be seen as mistakenly directed at what is already Ehrlich's suburban base, but I think for many Marylanders it also calls to our unconscious minds what we think of as the solid, secure, enjoyable middleclass life that many of us feel is being threatened or already lost by this wretched recession that the Democrats do not seem capable of taming.
The ad also features excellent word-image editing. The image behind Ehrlich as he announces that we are in trouble is the Capitol dome -- so you can take a hard shot at O'Malley without saying one bad word about him. The message is clear" We are in trouble because of who is in control in Annapolis today.
I could write all day about this 30 seconds of TV politics, but it's a holiday weekend, and I still have "Mad Men" tonight -- and I need to save a few brain cells.
The weakest moment in the ad: The look on Kendel Ehrlich's face at the end, as the candidate says, "Now let's get down to work," which we are supposed to hear as, "I can put you back to work."
The candidate's wife looks like she is a little too mesmerized as she gazes upon her husband's face. Those Nancy Reagan days are gone, even for Republican wives. Kendel's gaze looks forced. She would have been much better off looking at the kids or into the camera.
Let Kendel be Kendel in the next ad if she's in it. Otherwise, Ehrlich's off to a very smart start in his TV ad campaign.