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TV, social media flooded with ads in Baltimore mayor’s race. Which are working best? | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott presides over the council's first virtual meeting from the chamber on April 6.
Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott presides over the council's first virtual meeting from the chamber on April 6. (Kenneth K. Lam)

TV and social media are so packed with mayoral ads these last two weeks of the Democratic primary that some outlets can’t even get them all in during commercial breaks.

Saturday night at the conclusion of an inspirational “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020” TV special, Baltimore viewers watching MSNBC saw three straight ads for mayoral candidates: former Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, former Treasury official Mary Miller and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. To include all three in this highly attractive time slot adjacent to the program featuring LeBron James and former President Barack Obama, Comcast cut into the start of MSNBC’s 9 p.m. program with the ads.

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I was still on an emotional high from “Graduate Together,” so I watched the ads more as a viewer than a critic and let the ads flow over me without much of an analytical guard between me and the screen. I was surprised by some of my reactions, and it set me down a path of looking for the strongest candidate ads in these last two weeks of the campaign.

Mr. Vignarajah’s new ad, "City of Stories,” is his best to date.

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I am not crazy about the theme. Every city is one of stories, and New York and Washington surely have more stories than we do. But political ads are not about logic.

The production is filled with confidence, energy and empowerment from the opening shot of Mr. Vignarajah striding down a sidewalk smiling and waving at unseen persons as if he is already the mayor of Baltimore.

It’s a three-act play of Baltimore past, present and future in 47 seconds.

Act 1: Mr. Vignarajah shows respect for stories of excellence in Baltimore’s past as images of Frank Robinson and Billie Holiday fill the screen.

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Act 2: “But these days, we are more a story of perpetual mourning, of waste and wasted opportunities, setting the wrong records, making the wrong headlines," he continues as viewers see boarded-up row houses and a clip of former Mayor Catherine Pugh leaving a courthouse.

Act: 3: “But that doesn’t have to be our story,” he says as the ad pivots to the upbeat, as he tells young adults just like the ones in “Graduate Together” that they can change the stories and future of Baltimore through their words and acts. That’s an uplifting message.

On the down side, as I worked through Mr. Vignarajah’s lineup of social media ads, I was struck by how many include reports that aired on Sinclair-owned WBFF. It is hard to tell the difference between what WBFF calls campaign coverage and the candidate’s own advertising when it comes to Mr. Vignarajah.

But the candidate who has truly found a media groove down the home stretch is City Council President Brandon Scott.

“Unity Not Division” is the title of one ad now airing. It opens on a black screen with white lettering that says, “not a time to be divided.”

A voice-over tells viewers, “Health and safety start with trust. It’s why Baltimore is rallying around Brandon Scott for mayor. He’s insuring that our recovery works for everyone."

The triumph of Mr. Scott’s media campaign is the way it has managed to present his acts as an incumbent as evidence of experience, knowledge and commitment to social justice without letting Mr. Scott get tarnished by all the corruption and failures of the city government he is part of. He’s an insider selling himself as a reformer.

This is not all a matter of image either. Mr. Scott has used his office most recently to call out the Maryland State Board of Elections for delays in ballots being mailed to city residents for the June 2 primary. That’s a legitimate act of public service.

Mr. Scott also has a Facebook ad offering advice on filling out mail-in ballots. It’s done in the more informal style of social media, looking like a YouTube how-to video. As I said before, none of the candidates is more at home with social media than Mr. Scott.

Of course, he is showing viewers how to fill out a ballot for himself, but he is also showing them how they can do it for anyone.

I asked Marvin James, the candidate’s campaign manager, how he would describe the person in those ads.

“That person is a son of the city, a son of Park Heights, who understands citizens in Baltimore have been disenfranchised for years," Mr. James said. "While he is running for mayor, he understands the importance of lifting everyone, not only those who are voting for him.”

If that’s what voters are seeing on their screens when they watch the ads, that’s media money very well spent.

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

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