Media critic David Zurawik on Gov. Larry Hogan new ad campaign that is part of a million-dollar-plus closing TV push. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video))
The Hogan campaign is about to unleash a million-dollar-plus final TV push that is as powerful, focused and skillfully crafted a political ad campaign as I have ever seen anywhere at the state level.
Consisting of two new ads focusing on African-American residents in Baltimore, one ad revisiting Hogan’s battle with cancer and another pair featuring Democrats in Montgomery County and on the Eastern Shore saying why they feel comfortable voting for Hogan, the package amounts to a closing argument for re-election in the final weeks of the campaign.
“Obviously, in politics anything can change, but as of now, this is pretty much how we hope to sum up the campaign,” Russ Schriefer, the strategist who created Hogan’s TV ads, said Tuesday.
The ads will air statewide on TV starting Monday, according to Hogan’s deputy campaign manager, Doug Mayer. And while he will only confirm a “seven-figure” buy, one broadcast industry source estimated that it could go as high as $1.5 million before Nov. 6.
Either figure guarantees the ads will be everywhere in the state on TV stations with the largest audiences. Two of the ads are already available in social media. Voters will have a hard time avoiding them between now and election day.
But even if you don’t want Hogan to win, you still might want to watch these 30-second productions to see the craft of political advertising executed at or near its highest level.
While much attention has been paid to the negative ads that Republican Governors Association super PAC ran against Hogan opponent Ben Jealous over the summer, late in May the Hogan campaign introduced a Schriefer-made, positive ad titled “Maryland Strong” that blew all the other ads running at the time out of the water. What set it apart in defining the candidate was the way it dealt with Hogan’s battle with cancer.
There was risk in bringing that up — it could have been very damaging it Hogan had seemed to be playing for sympathy or exploiting his 2015 bout with advanced non-Hodgkin lymphoma to get votes. Instead, that ad raised the topic by thanking the people of Maryland for their support “when Larry Hogan needed us.” It brilliantly created a sense of shared mission, a bonding between viewer and candidate around a profound aspect of life experienced in families of so many voters.
But the cancer was only briefly referenced in that early ad. Here, it is the total focus of two 30-second ads that will be seen in the final weeks of the campaign — one on TV and one online only.
The first, titled “Jimmy,” features Hogan talking about how he used to “do laps around the cancer ward.” One day, one of the patients, a young man named Jimmy Myrick Jr., called out to Hogan from his room.
Hogan and Myrick spoke often after that, the ad says, and after the young man died, Hogan announced at his funeral that the annual Governor’s Courage Award would now be known as the Jimmy Myrick Jr. Governor’s Courage Award. As Hogan says those words in the ad, he starts to choke up at the memory. It is pretty hard not to be touched.
“When he talks about his battle with cancer, it’s very often not about him. It’s about the people he met on the journey,” Schriefer said. “It’s about the doctors, it's about the people who stood by him, it’s about the patients.”
Schriefer said that’s what he liked about the relationship between Hogan and Myrick as he understood it and tried to portray it in the ad.
“He wasn’t the governor,” Schriefer said of Hogan’s relationship to the young man. “He was another cancer patient undergoing treatment just like Jimmy or Andrew.”
Andrew Oberle is a young boy who was also a cancer patient in 2015 and is now featured in a 30-second ad. But this one will run online only, not on TV, according to Mayer. I think that could be a mistake, as it is one of the most affecting of all the new ads.
Oberle became a pen pal of Hogan’s when he heard of the governor’s chemotherapy. And in this ad, his mother, Caroline, talks about the way she used the governor’s efforts as a patient to inspire Andrew.
The boy, the ad informs viewers, returned the favor by sharing some advice his mother gave him with Hogan.
“I know you’re going to be going through chemotherapy treatment,” Hogan quotes Andrew as writing. And as we hear Hogan’s voice saying these words, we see him receiving chemo in 2015.
“My mommy helped me write a list for you,” Hogan continues reading Andrew’s note.
The ad then cuts to Andrew reading his own note: “Remember to put the num-num cream on before they give you a pokey.”
The original note is shown with Andrew’s drawing of a syringe to illustrate the “pokey.”
I didn’t fully appreciate this when I wrote in June about the first ad that touched on Hogan’s illness. But what seems so smart to me now about embracing Hogan’s cancer treatment in these closing ads is that thoughts of our mortality and the reality of cancer for just about every family are one of the few things in these incredibly polarized times that we all share no matter what silo we live in. You don’t have to like Hogan to respect and honor what he and the patients featured in these ads went through.
“What’s the saying, ‘We’re all the same in a foxhole’?” Schriefer said when I asked him about my take on the power of these ads. “We’re all the same in the cancer ward.”
That might not work if he, like many members of his party, had sought to undermine the Affordable Care Act, but he hasn’t.
The two ads likely to generate the most conversation and perhaps some controversy, at least in this part of the state, are the two featuring African-American Baltimore men voicing their strong approval of Hogan.
The first, titled “Squeaky,” features Arthur “Squeaky” Kirk, of the Ruth M. Kirk Rec Center in southwest Baltimore.
The visuals are precise and eloquent. The opening shot shows Kirk on an elevated platform speaking to an audience in the street. Standing in the street listening is Hogan. It’s a tableau of respect to Kirk and humility on the part of the governor.
The final shot shows the two large men warmly embracing like a couple of pro football players after a victory.
In between is the testimony from Kirk on Hogan’s behalf, starting with what Kirk calls a “disconnect” between some people in office and the people who helped put them there.
“He won the election, and he sent me some help,” Kirk says of the governor.
“A lot of times he’s here, and nobody knows,” Kirk continues, speaking of Hogan’s presence at his center and presumably Baltimore based on the ad’s images of Hogan on the street. “We operate, man, off of friendship. So, that’s what it is. We making it work.”
And as the screen fills with the image of the two men starting to embrace, viewers hear Kirk saying, “You know, a white Republican governor. Hey, he acts like a regular human being to me.”
The Baltimore ad likely to generate the most discussion features Doni Glover, of BMoreNews.com., on the streets of Baltimore.
After 10 seconds of nighttime images of the 2015 uprising accompanied by Glover’s words about the pain he felt seeing the city burn, the media entrepreneur says, “Governor Hogan showed up. I remember seeing him the next day. Right here, right here on this corner. It wasn’t his first time in this part of the world.”
The ad closes with Glover saying, “Baltimore’s a nine to one Democratic town. So, it took a Republican to come here to bring the people together. That’s what I saw.”
I am guessing there might be a few Democratic politicians who won’t be agreeing with Glover’s characterization of who brought whom together the night after what Glover calls “the riots.” But the ad reconnects with and stirs up all that deep civic memory and strong emotions as it offers a narrative celebrating Hogan as a caring leader who rode in and helped rescue the city.
That’s strong stuff for just 30 seconds of video — especially when you can put more than a million dollars behind it in the closing days of a campaign.