Candidates for local office discover local television

October 27, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

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?

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

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.

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