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Young’s first buy: What digital campaigns tell us about Baltimore’s mayoral candidates | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young waves to supporters as he kicks off his campaign for mayor at a rally on North Avenue. October 26, 2019.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young waves to supporters as he kicks off his campaign for mayor at a rally on North Avenue. October 26, 2019.(Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Media campaigns for candidates are often filled with lies. But you can also find some hidden truths if you look deep enough.

In the last gubernatorial election, I was blown away by the TV ad “Maryland Strong” for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. It was a brilliant, feel-good production showing Mr. Hogan fighting against cancer and for the citizens of Maryland. It left me feeling this is a man of good character.

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But if you dove a little deeper into Mr. Hogan’s media campaign, you found an effort on Facebook and elsewhere to paint Democratic challenger Ben Jealous as a far-left radical using imagery that characterized him as a dark and dangerous figure.

The candidate who signed off on such media efforts was not a man of good character in my opinion.

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I have been spending a lot of time lately with the digital campaigns of the candidates for mayor, especially the three front-runners with the most money to spend on media: Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, City Council President Brandon Scott and Thiru Vignarajah, a former deputy attorney general of Maryland.

While Mr. Scott and Mr. Vignarajah have been running strong on digital media for months, Mr. Young made his first media buy with ads that debuted on Facebook on Feb. 7.

“That was our first time spending, our first buy,” Young campaign spokesman Myles Handy confirmed. “I know it appears to other people that we’ve started later than other candidates. But the mayor’s name recognition is really high, and quite frankly we have that luxury. We’re not trying to spend money to become relevant."

Mr. Handy said the campaign will be using “all forms of media” to reach voters between now and the April primary. And I will be watching. But so far, I am not impressed.

Mr. Young’s Facebook ads are static. When you click on them, they take you to his campaign homepage, which links to more pages with no video and even some grammatical errors.

On the page titled “Meet Jack Young," you will find this sentence, ”He ... was a vocal opponent of police violence long before what happen to Freddie Gray."

You will also find this, “Mayor Young worked as a sanitation worker and a nutritional worker before working his way up to manager the radiology film library of Johns Hopkins Hospital ... .”

Then there’s this post from Feb. 5 on Mr. Young’s campaign Facebook page: “A few weeks ago I shared my vision for Baltimore at Greater Baltimore Urban League Forum and today I wanted to share it for those who could not attend.”

But what Mr. Young shared are two columns of words that don’t track from one column of type to the next in terms of font, size, line of sight or content. So, you don’t get even a single sentence that’s all there ― just fragments. Thanks for sharing.

This might sound nit-picky, but these social media pages are your identity in digital space. And to me, they are a reminder of the careless, erratic way the city government Mr. Young now presides over operates in Baltimore on everything from water bills to police overtime accounting.

I wrote about Mr. Scott’s strength in digital media in January. His pages and platforms have only gotten better. His greatest strength is that it feels as if he actually uses digital media regularly. As a result, there is an authenticity to his voice that neither Mr. Young nor Mr. Vignarajah can match.

But Mr. Vignarajah has a couple of ads now playing on Facebook that are textbook in using digital in tandem with traditional media ― and his campaign didn’t even have to produce them. Each ad is a TV news report, one from WBAL and one from WBFF, about Mr. Vignarajah helping two squeegee workers find employment at the Charleston restaurant in Harbor East.

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Mr. Vignarajah is depicted in the reports as someone who can bring together the two Baltimores (those living a hard life on the streets and those living the high life in places like Harbor East) to create opportunities for ambitious young persons while solving an ongoing civic controversy.

You can’t buy that kind of publicity, but you can amplify it in digital media. Mr. Vignarajah’s team spent between $6,500 and $7,500 on Facebook and garnered a targeted audience of 550,000 to 650,000 viewers for the two ads, according to Facebook Ad Library.

No matter how great his name recognition, Mr. Young’s going to have to get a lot better in digital media to compete with that.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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