Column: The six faces of Rick Caruso: What I learned from watching all of his endless ads
Those Rick Caruso-for-mayor TV ads — oy. I live in Orange County, and even I can’t escape them.
They appear incessantly on KCAL-TV Channel 9 during the nightly news. They pop up during L.A. Dodgers games on cable. They populate my YouTube feed while I stream videos by goth-soul crooner the Weeknd. Why, one just flashed by as I write this during KNBC-TV Channel 4’s 11 p.m. newscast, when all I wanted to see was the weather.
If I can’t avoid Caruso’s commercials, I can only imagine what y’all Angelenos must endure. Are those pitches permanently burned on your retinas yet, the way old television sets showed ghost images when you left them on for too long?
His campaign has spent over $11 million on airtime and TV advertising strategists as of April 23, according to financial disclosures — nearly 48% of the record-breaking $23 million-plus Caruso has already spent on an election that hasn’t even reached the June 7 primary. Nearly all the money comes from his own pocket.
I watched all 23 Caruso television and web promos on file with the L.A. City Ethics Commission, so you don’t have to. What emerges is a rich man trying on different personas to see which ones stick and which ones are as irrelevant as Joe Buscaino’s campaign.
I’ve identified six different Ricks, each more carefully crafted than the other.
Casual Rick is how Caruso introduces himself in two short Facebook videos uploaded the week he announced his candidacy back in mid-February. They capture him sitting in a chair in Echo Park, angled so the L.A. city skyline happens to loom over his shoulder at sunset.
“Hi, Rick Caruso here,” the Brentwood billionaire cheerily says, each time wearing the same light-blue sweater zipped down a bit to show how normal he is. The gimmick doesn’t work — Caruso‘s darting eyes betray a script, and he comes off as more wooden than the Santa Monica Pier.
Caruso then ditches the regular-guy shtick for a better act: Hopeful Rick.
Over the course of four commercials, he trots out iconic Southern California images — palm trees, the Hollywood sign, the L.A. skyline (again), the beach — and even the Statue of Liberty to play up a dream he says is endangered and that only he can save. All the commercials use the word “love” and make ample use of Caruso’s wide-toothed grin and boomer good looks. “My only special interests are you, Angelenos,” he declares, in a variation on Hopeful Rick — Cheesy Rick.
The candidate splits the difference between Hopeful Rick and Casual Rick with his Cool Rick series.
These three ads find Caruso straining to show that he’s more than just one of the richest people in Los Angeles, a mega-developer who’s trying to buy his way into City Hall. He can kick it with the commoners too!
One ad touts his nonna’s advice to “always give back” by airing shots of him laughing alongside children of color. Another features a recipient of his scholarships declaring that Caruso “helped uplift” all the working-class kids like herself who have gone through Operation Progress, the South L.A. nonprofit of which Caruso was a founding board member.
And if you still don’t think Caruso is down, another commercial scored with Latin jazz ends with Watts community activist Marc Maye declaring, “You’ve got my stamp, brother” — probably the only time you’ll ever hear anyone hail Caruso like that.
If those Carusos are too light for you during these grave times, there’s Serious Rick, who clamps down his grin to a tight-lipped visage to convey gravitas.
There is no talk of dreams. Instead, we see homeless encampment after homeless encampment, scary crime headlines ripped from this paper, shadowy criminals — and Caruso as the only hope to clean up the mess. He dons a suit and tie to announce his support of the recall effort against L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón.
And just in case you don’t get that Caruso will be tougher on crime than anyone, former Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton makes a cameo to praise him.
Bratton didn’t do it for free, though. Campaign finance records show he got a $4,397 Delta ticket and a $2,796 stay at the JW Marriott in downtown L.A. May we suggest a Spirit Airlines flight with a room at the Holiday Inn Express in Hawthorne next time?
Caruso at least knows that L.A. is a city of immigrants — he mentions his Italian roots multiple times. That’s one reason he channels Korean Rick, spending nearly $170,000 on three commercials airing on Korean-language channels.
The guy doesn’t actually speak Korean. Instead, as translated by my colleague Jeong Park, voice actors repeat in a dispassionate tone, nearly line for line, his English-language ads addressing crime, homelessness and his general coolness. Only the first ad offers an explicit overture to Korean voters. While English- and Spanish-language versions mention a crackdown on juvenile delinquency, the Korean one swaps out that line with a promise that Caruso “will protect our communities from hate crimes” — a smart move that shows he’s hiring the right consultants.
Caruso’s most interesting persona is Mexican Rick, which he can easily pass as, given his Hispanic-sounding last name and skin that’s browner than mine. He spent $884,000 on five Spanish-language ads, to uneven results. Most of them use a weird pocho neologism, with voiceover actors referring to Los Angeles as “L.A.,” even though the acronym sounds awkward in Spanish and isn’t really used by Latino immigrants.
He’s far savvier in a homelessness ad that’s word for word the same as its English counterpart, save for the opening graphics, where “Rick Caruso Homelessness Plan” becomes “El Plan de Caruso.”
That linguistic legerdemain leans on a long history of similarly worded revolutionary promises in Mexican history, like Emiliano Zapata’s El Plan de Ayala and El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, one of the founding documents of the Chicano student group MEChA. Here comes Inadvertently Woke Rick.
If this appeal to latinidad still doesn’t work, Caruso brings out the big gun for his Spanish-language commercial on crime: a guy who sounds just like the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame broadcaster Jaime Jarrín.
It’s not Jarrín, but lemme tell you: If I could nearly get fooled, my cousins and uncles have no chance. Well played, Rick — and well paid. Or should I call you … El ATM Muy Grande Rick?
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