Depending on who you believe, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown is either "Mona Lisa" or "Mary Tyler Moore." Gov. Pete Wilson is a "sober critter, anesthetic in his intensity," while Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi is "Western--a rugged individualist."
Televised campaign advertisements are the only contact many Californians have with their gubernatorial candidates. But what messages do these 30-second ads actually impart? The Times asked a political scientist, a scholar of popular culture and an ad executive to analyze the spots voters have seen in advance of Tuesday's primary.
Among their off-the-cuff conclusions: Republican physicist Ron Unz, who billed himself as the futurist candidate by showing viewers a computer microchip, did not succeed in communicating credibility; and Democratic state Sen. Tom Hayden's two 13-minute ads are, in some respects, not all that different from the traditional 30-second spots that he shuns.
Call it the image wars--or, as UC San Diego ethnic studies professor George Lipsitz puts it, "the battle of the caricatures." Lipsitz, who studies graffiti, rap music and other forms of popular culture, said the campaign ads strive to make candidates familiar by linking them to romantic, inspiring or frightening images that are already embedded in voters' minds.
"The entertainment functions of TV are taking over," Lipsitz said.
"Garamendi is 'Quantum Leap'-ing from the Peace Corps to jobs all around the state," Lipsitz said, referring to various images of Garamendi's past that are spliced together in the Democrat's early ads. "Wilson is doing an 'Inside Edition' expose of immigrants crossing the border--complete with live tape. Unz looks like a (late-night) infomercial. Brown is a cross between 'Mary Tyler Moore' and 'Little House on the Prairie.' And Hayden is 'Frontline.' "
On Tuesday, voters will choose, often basing their decisions solely on slickly produced TV images. Whether Brown is bashing Wilson on the economy or Garamendi is blistering Brown on the death penalty, voters would do well to look past the obvious to seek out hidden messages, analysts said.
In her ads, Brown makes California look bleak. The Democrat's commercials are stocked with grim, black and white images: abandoned businesses, empty parking lots and unemployment lines. But Brown appears in color, as a bright, cheerful solution to dark problems.
Wilson makes California look scary. A glowering mug shot of a serial rapist and footage of illegal immigrants running across the border are the backbones of his recent TV commercials. When the Republican incumbent faces the camera, he is somber, as if to say: Governing is tough, and nobody's tougher than I am.
Each analyst was struck by the differences among the candidates' personas.
The challenge for Wilson, all the analysts agreed, is to evoke the powers of incumbency and paint himself as a leader in his ads while somehow avoiding being blamed for the problems that have occurred during his tenure. That is why, in one ad, Wilson sits behind an official-looking desk striking what Lipsitz called a "state of the union" pose.
"He wants to look like the governor," said Lipsitz, adding that Wilson's ads reminded him of action-adventure films in which an outside menace is identified and vanquished. "Here are immigrants running across the border," he said, describing Wilson's immigration ad. "Wilson sends in the National Guard. End of story. 'Book him, Danno.' "
Franklin Gilliam, an associate professor of political science at UCLA, said Wilson's advertising strategy could be summed up in two words: "Straight fear." Why else, Gilliam asked, would his crime ad combine the face of serial rapist Melvin A. Carter with an ominous-sounding musical track and a narrator that sounds like a tabloid TV announcer? Why else would the immigration ad begin with the pronouncement: "They keep coming"?
"It's 'them.' It's 'they.' It's not 'us,' " said Gilliam, who said that while the economy falters, "Wilson has to make the issue (the candidates') capability to deal with the tough social problems that everybody thinks make California a bad place to live. The message is: He's the guy that can control (things). . . . He's tough enough to do it and he's experienced enough to do it."
But is he too sour-faced to do it? That was the question that occurred to Los Angeles advertising executive Paul Keye, who has created ad campaigns for products (Maxwell House coffee, Lone Star beer) and politicians (among them, he says, Wilson, when he ran for mayor of San Diego more than 20 years ago).
"Look at Pete Wilson's earnest, beleaguered grimness--he's a sober critter, anesthetic in his intensity. . . . He's gonna tell you how to make a watch, and you want to know what time it is," Keye said. At the other end of the spectrum, he said, is Brown: "This Mona Lisa smiling that little smile."
Brown's smile is by far the most photogenic of any of the candidates, the analysts agreed. Whether she is signing important-looking documents, pointing at charts or, in a biographical ad, hugging one of her grandchildren, she always looks great on TV: youthful, caring, determined--in a word, nice.
But nice--or nice-looking--is not enough. Brown's challenge in the ads has been to portray herself as unflinchingly competent, efficient and resourceful.
Gilliam agreed that Brown "has to prove she has the fiscal expertise on the one hand, but she doesn't want to be the stereotypical Hollywood cold corporate (female)." That is one of the reasons, he speculated, that Brown rarely speaks into the camera. For all her telegenic qualities, he said, her delivery can be wooden.
Instead of talking, Brown has come out with several versions of what Keye called "the busy lady spot"--ads that portray Brown in constant action against a backdrop of images of California's economic downturn. These ads, Gilliam said, have a single unifying theme: "California's in the toilet. These other yahoos at the helm are tearing their hair out, but I'm calmly righting the ship."
Brown's biographical ad provides a counterbalance--a warm portrait that traces the evolution of one of California's best known political families, involving viewers in what Lipsitz called a "made-for-TV-movie" version of the life of former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown's youngest daughter.
"Here's Kathleen Brown. This week her kids are growing up. Now she's going to law school. And here she is--her dad is watching her win her race for (the treasurer's) office," Lipsitz said, mimicking the ad's narrator. "Realizing her dream becomes part of the story. . . . And in a way, of course, your own dreams are being symbolically represented too. It's like: If she can make it, then California is a place of opportunity."
Garamendi, too, tells a romantic California story. The Democrat's biographical ad notes that he passed up a chance at the NFL to join the Peace Corps. Another spot shows him--in a plaid shirt, cowboy boots and work gloves--toiling alongside other Californians, loading lumber as part of his campaign to work a job in each of the state's 58 counties.
"He looks virile. He understands the working man and he's done a hard day's work in his life--which is something you don't ever feel about Wilson," Gilliam said. "He's saying, 'I'm the people's candidate. I didn't sit at Daddy's elbow.' "
Analysts agreed that these spots, each of which included the slogan "Working for California," did a good job distinguishing Garamendi from Wilson's "very country club, very corporate" look. But Keye thought Garamendi's "cut, hew and haul" odyssey was trite and unconnected to real issues.
"I don't know if he's running for the John Muir award . . . or for department of forestry," said Keye, who was more impressed by the candidate's most recent ad, in which he attacks Brown for her personal opposition to the death penalty.
The death penalty ad more resembles Wilson's crime ad than it does Garamendi's earlier spots. Garamendi sits at a desk. His work clothes have been replaced with conventional business attire. And the message, illustrated at one point with a shot of a police car's flashing lights, is starkly simple: Garamendi is tough on crime.
Sincerity was the hallmark of Hayden's two 13-minute ads. After viewing one, however, Lipsitz said that for all Hayden's carping about the flaws of the 30-second format, his longer opus felt a bit like "20 30-second commercials strung together."
"He wants to be the elder statesman, the nonaligned non-politician," Lipsitz said. "But like 'Frontline,' his ad has a constituency that thinks it's getting more complexity and more detail, but doesn't notice how much like other media its story is."
Unz, a political neophyte who spent more than $1 million of his own money on his campaign, had a lot to accomplish in his ads. With his youth (he is 32), inexperience (he has never held political office) and total lack of name recognition, he needed to find a way to present himself as a credible alternative to Wilson.
After viewing his TV ads, which feature Unz sitting on a rock and standing in front of his elementary school, the analysts thought that he did not succeed.
Gilliam marveled at the blandness of some of Unz's campaign promises. " 'I'll fulfill my oath of office.' 'I'll always stand firm.' I love this guy," he said.