With cable campaign ads, to air is cost-effective CAMPAIGN 1994

November 06, 1994|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writer

Some are funny. Others are amateurish. A handful are downright annoying. They're campaign commercials -- and they're not just for gubernatorial candidates any more.

Television ads -- once the weapon of choice for just state and national contests -- are now a key tool in local political battles. In Howard County this election year, this has meant more than a dozen local candidates pitching their messages five, 10 and even 20 times a day directly into voters' living rooms.

At a cost of about $6 per 30-second spot on Howard's Comcast Cable, even candidates running for the lowliest of offices can reach as many as 48,000 subscribers.

Council candidate Riaz H. Rana appears on Cable News Network, telling voters he's the only one who is truly independent because, rather than accept contributions, he's spending $55,000 of his own money to win a $30,000-per-year job.

There he is again on the USA Network. And on the Headline News channel. And on the Lifetime Network. And on and on -- in a never-ending stream of messages.

This isn't the first year local candidates have advertised on local cable TV; several Howard County Republicans used it with some success four years ago. But it is the first election in which so many candidates have bought so much advertising time. And not even local campaign managers are certain what effect this will have on Tuesday's vote.

But those buying the TV time this year are relying on an updateversion of an old political axiom: It doesn't matter what is said as long as the candidate's name is prominently displayed.

Affordable repetition

"The first principle of advertising is repetition, and the beauty of cable is that the repetition is so affordable," said Carol Arscott, whose company, Mason-Dixon Campaign Polling and Strategy Inc., produced ads for several area Republicans. "Cable's penetration is tremendous in Howard County, so you know what you're buying."

Indeed, a couple days of concentrated viewing of local political ads on Comcast does leave some indelible impressions.

Every time state's attorney candidate Marla McLendon locks up criminals on TV -- her commercials show cell doors slamming shut on a deserving prisoner -- she not-so-subtly reminds voters that she's the only one tough enough to fight crime here. The 10th time around, the ad's drama wears a bit thin.

Up to Oct. 28, the last financial reporting deadline for candidates, Howard politicians had spent at least $43,000 to air such fare on Comcast. At $6 a half-minute, that translates into more than 7,000 commercials -- without including purchases of air time since then.

In the more populated eastern half of the county, Comcast Cable reaches 70 percent of all homes, said Robert Sinclair, president of the company that sells ads for the system. In the more rural West County, another 3,400 homes are served by Mid-Atlantic Cable, which only allows print ads on its community bulletin board -- at $5 a week for six lines.

For candidates, cable TV is cost-efficient -- it only targets Howard voters. Consequently, with only two minutes of local advertising per hour available on some cable channels, many local candidates booked their air time weeks in advance, Mr. Sinclair said.

More can be less

But what's filling that air time varies dramatically in quality.

Council incumbent Darrel E. Drown, for example, has put together possibly the slickest, most professional-looking ad among his peers -- one that shows him working with his constituents at a school, in a neighborhood and in his office.

By contrast, House of Delegates candidate Frank S. Turner appears to be trying to hit the hot issue of crime without expressing a position.

In one video of Mr. Turner campaigning, a voice track says, "I want a candidate who's tough on crime" and "I want a candidate who will stop sexual abuse and violence." There's no mention of what Mr. Turner would do about these problems before the ad concludes: "Frankly speaking, Frank Turner is the only choice."

Another of his ads uses the same video with a different series of statements about the need for strong leaders -- an inexpensive way of producing two commercials virtually for the price of one.

With less financial backing than incumbent County Executive Charles I. Ecker, challenger Susan B. Gray also has gone the bare-bones route with a simple, direct approach in her TV ads.

In a frequently aired commercial, she looks into the camera and warns viewers for 30 seconds of the evils of growth. The commercial cost less than $200 to produce -- and that may account for the spot's poor audio.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ecker has spent as much as $2,000 to produce each of his more highly polished ads, including a multicolored bar graph and a professional-sounding announcer.

But this definitely is not network TV -- as evidenced by the recent last-minute scramble to air an ad supporting passage of Howard's Question B, the referendum to change the county's zoning procedures.

Just 20 minutes before the low-budget commercial's creators were to complete its final editing, the voice track still had not been produced, said Sheva Farkas of Montgomery County, Ms. Gray's campaign manager and a former professor of communication at Ohio University.

"We just did it in my living room and got it done," Ms. Farkas said. "It was Laurel and Hardy making a commercial. Like hometown television, it was the only thing we could afford."

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