Candidates for local office discover local television

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article in yesterday's Today section about campaign advertising on cable television incorrectly identified a candidate for president of the Harford County Council. The candidate is Joanne S. Parrott.

The Sun regrets the error.

Playing (again and again) on a television screen near you: a cow mooing in support of Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, 30 people doing the wave for Baltimore County Council candidate Bill Chase, the stern visage of Harford County Council president candidate Sharon Parrent declaiming her accomplishments in a pulsating sea of neon blue.

What have we done to deserve this? And since when can people running for County Council afford to advertise on TV alongside used car dealerships and pest control companies?

Since cable, that's when.

Thanks to low rates offered by cable companies -- as little as $1.75 for a 30-second spot -- candidates for even the most obscure elected offices can now afford to advertise. And boy, are they taking advantage of the opportunity. Except for Baltimore City, where the lack of truly contested races in the general election has kept advertising budgets low, cable TV has become the battleground of choice for local candidates in Election '94.

"If you can think of a candidate, he's taken commercial space with us," says Paul Janson, general manager of North Arundel Cable Television, which serves the northern half of Anne Arundel County.

Most of the spots are wooden, low-budget affairs, rarely featuring the levity of Mr. Ecker's cow or the sense of fun that infuses Mr. Chase's spot. But they're everywhere on cable.

Until Election Day, predicts David H. Nevins, president of Nevins & Associates, a Baltimore advertising agency that works extensively with political candidates, "at least probably 25 percent of the ads on cable television are going to be of a political nature."

Which means that viewers in Anne Arundel County should soon be able to recite, by memory, the 30-second spots county executive candidate Ted Sophocleus has been running incessantly for nearly a month. It means Howard County viewers should become so familiar with County Council candidate Riaz Rana that he'll probably be approached for autographs at the neighborhood supermarket. It means the 30 people doing the wave in support of Mr. Chase now qualify as TV stars.

It also means that political campaigning for local office has evolved into a different animal. Bumper stickers are becoming an endangered species, while buttons are all but extinct.

It wasn't too many years ago that local campaigns didn't get any more exotic than lawn signs and balloons. Maybe some ads in the local newspaper, but that was it. Television, with its vast viewing area and big-bucks price tag, was the domain of candidates for federal or statewide office.

That started changing in the early 1980s when the first suburbs were wired for cable. Candidates soon began realizing how cheaply they could put their message on television. A trickle of candidate spots turned into a stream in 1990 and a full-blown flood this year.

Though the gubernatorial and congressional races continue to dominate the network affiliates, candidates for Baltimore County Council can make their pitches between episodes of "Wings" on the USA network. In Anne Arundel County, even candidates for sheriff are advertising on the tube.

Not everyone is jumping on the cable bandwagon. Some candidates believe the ads do more harm than good; others would rather campaign face to face or spend their money on direct mail. "Most of the cable ads I see I think are poorly done," says Ed Middlebrooks, a Republican candidate for state Senate in northern Anne Arundel County. "The ads I've seen, I thoroughly dislike. They look like somebody shot them with their backyard TV camera."

But plenty of other candidates are anxious to exploit cable television's reach.

"It's tremendous exposure," says Republican Anne Arundel County Councilman Carl "Dutch" Holland. "The coverage in my area went into almost 70 percent of the homes. It's a good deal for the price."

Produced on a shoestring by local ad agencies, the commercials have one mission: making the public familiar with the candidate's name and face. Even the most amateurish-looking -- or annoying -- commercial increases a candidate's name recognition, which is 90 percent of the battle.

Anne Arundel County Council candidate Tom Redmond, who is running against Mr. Holland, produced a spot for the primary that started with a test pattern's high-pitched beep.

The ads may have gotten on people's nerves, he says, but they seemed to work. "People would come up to me and say, 'I'd seen that dumb commercial of yours . . . It sticks in our minds.' "

"Anything that people watch or listen to is good, if you have the budget for it," says Neil Oxmon of The Campaign Group, a Philadelphia-based firm that has produced spots for Baltimore County Executive candidate Dutch Ruppersberger.

And if some of the commercials look as unpolished as those touting local restaurants and car dealerships, so what? That may make them more effective, says Neil Alperstein, associate professor of media and popular culture at Loyola College. "From an aesthetic point of view, I don't think they're bad at all," he says. "I think they're fairly decent and consistent with the level of commercial you expect to see on cable television. If somebody ** produces a commercial that is too slick . . . in terms of its production values, it has an air of falsity."

Pinpoint the audience

The lure of cable for local candidates is easy to understand. Because the city and each county -- or in some cases sections of counties -- has its own cable system, candidates can pinpoint their audience.

Why would someone running for Anne Arundel County Executive want to spend $1,000 to $1,500 a spot to advertise on a network affiliate when the majority of viewers at any given time live outside the county?

Mr. Sophocleus, who has probably used cable more than any candidate in Anne Arundel County, wouldn't dream of it. Instead, the Democrat is spending 20 percent of his campaign budget on cable advertising, broadcasting a dozen ads on five different stations as often as the cable operators will allow.

The average cost of those cable spots, he says, is only $6, including production costs. A 30-second spot on United Artists Cable of Annapolis, for example, runs from $1.75 to $15, depending on the channel.

Prefers direct mail

John Gary, his Republican opponent, is passing on cable in favor of direct mail. But Mr. Sophocleus believes candidates get lots of bang for their cable buck. For a single mailing to reach every household in Anne Arundel County, he says, costs around $20,000 -- about the total amount he's spent on cable this year.

Of course, cable doesn't reach as many viewers as the broadcast channels. But the audience it does reach is growing. About 70 percent of homes in Baltimore County are connected to cable; in Harford and Howard counties, that increases to about 75 percent. In Baltimore City, about 40 percent of the homes eligible for cable are hooked up.

Mr. Nevins, who also serves as spokesman for Comcast systems in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, believes the benefits of cable extend beyond simple economics. While it's impossible to accurately gauge the size of a cable audience -- there are no ratings to tell candidates how many people were watching when their spots aired -- surveys have shown that people who watch certain cable channels -- CNN, for example -- are more likely to vote in elections.

Nobody agrees on the effectiveness of advertising on cable.

In Baltimore County, neither Democratic State Sen. Norman Stone nor his Republican opponent, Russell Mirabile, is using cable. Both say they prefer the face-to-face approach. In Howard County, Democrat Mary Lorsung, running against Mr. Rana for the West Columbia council seat, also has decided against using TV. She'll concentrate on handing out literature door-to-door.

"I don't think cable is all that effective," says Ed Middlebrooks, who is running against incumbent state Sen. Michael Wagner in northern Anne Arundel County. "I think radio is better at getting the message out."

Sen. Wagner, who hasn't faced any real opposition since 1982, is broadcasting a commercial that trumpets his involvement with opening a hiker-biker trail around Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which sits in his district. While he's not sure how effective cable will be, he's anxious to give it a try.

"The last time I had an opponent," he says, "they didn't have [cable] television."

CORRECTION
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