Stephen L. Miles is the master at name recognition


January 03, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Oh, that Stephen L. Miles, he's a winger and a dinger, ain't he?

Also, not to be overlooked, he is one very brilliant man in certain obvious ways. For instance, Stephen L. (the ''L'' stands for ''Laughing All the Way to the Bank'') now says he might want to be the next attorney general of Maryland. He says this only slightly less than two years before we're even having an election for the office, but never mind.

Before this, he was busy in other ways. He said he might want to be the owner of the Baltimore Orioles the last time Eli Jacobs hinted he might want to sell. Remember Miles and the last Orioles negotiations? Probably not, because the story was here for a day and got people talking, and then it went away.

But that was OK. It gave Stephen L. Miles a moment in the headlines. It kept his name in circulation when otherwise we might only hear it, say, 15 or 20 times a day on his television commercials and start to get Stephen L. Miles withdrawal symptoms, which are an irresistible urge to sue somebody, but a gnawing inability to remember his name.

Oh, those commercials of his: ''Let's talk about it,'' he says, in a line that's become a kind of municipal catch-phrase. We hear it in casual conversation now and something Pavlovian happens: We automatically think of Miles. Through this one, brilliant little line, he's ingratiated himself into our very language.

You can do that, you know, when you spend $750,000 a year in television advertising. Money will buy name recognition, no question about it. The saturation becomes a kind of gentle bludgeoning after a while. You don't even hear the message any more, but it's all right; it's the name that counts, repeated so many times it's become part of our very atmosphere.

The television commercials are brilliant -- almost brilliant, that is, but it's a big almost -- for another reason. Stephen L. Miles forever refers to himself as ''former assistant state's attorney Stephen L. Miles.''

He says this as though he was the No. 2 man in the office and hopes nobody realizes that he wasn't. In fact, every prosecutor who works under the state's attorney has the title of assistant state's attorney, meaning there are currently a few thousand former assistants wandering the landscape but only one of them trying to cash in on it commercially.

Could Miles cash in politically? Well, this is where we run into problems with television commercials and name recognition, and the nature of Stephen L. Miles' career.

As an attorney, those who've seen Miles in a courtroom have found him bright, glib, aggressive, quick on his feet. But his real reputation -- and the bankable factor in a political run -- has nothing to do with courtrooms and everything to do with commercials.

What is successful for a product isn't necessarily successful for a political career. Those who see Miles on television can admire his sales job even as they find his method less than palatable for a figure of responsibility. Miles has become one of those modern figures who is famous mainly for being famous. But that has nothing to do with how he conducts himself in a courtroom or in the world of politics.

Most voters simply don't know what Miles does in court, as they haven't been there. They know him merely as a pitch in a marketplace. And there's Miles' problem: He's in the wrong marketplace. On television, he's not competing with other lawyers. Most lawyers, disdaining TV advertising, don't even compete with him.

Miles' competition is with other advertisers: Fox Chevrolet year-end clearance sales, Please-Don't-Squeeze-the-Charmin, Purina Dog Chow vignettes. All of these spots, we judge by how amusing we find them. All exist in the same blurry media clutter.

In that rapid-fire electronic blur, a commercial has to be very amusing indeed to grab our attention. But lawyers aren't supposed to be amusing, and neither are attorneys general. They're supposed to be figures of respect. The problem with Miles has nothing to do with his intelligence or his legal skills, but with his selected playing field.

He's a commercial artist. He sells himself to us the way Purina does. Just as lots of us aren't exactly certain what the attorney general of Maryland does for a living -- quick now, is there one person in five out there who knows the actual duties of that office? -- so we're also fuzzy about the job Miles does.

We know him as a commercial product whose ads amuse us. Or DTC we know him as someone who hints he might want to buy a baseball team, but then disappears. Or we know him as a man who wants to talk about it, which makes us laugh, or a man who boasts of being a former assistant state's attorney, which makes us cringe.

Oh, he's a master pitchman, this Stephen L. Miles, a regular winger and a dinger.

In the building of his law practice (if not his political career) he does know how to get his name in front of us.

Which doesn't necessarily make him a legitimate candidate for attorney general.

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