Ads were supposed to make Gascón’s challengers stand out. So why do they all look the same?

A grid of eight closeup photos of six men and two women
L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón’s 11 challengers in the March 5 primary include, clockwise from top left, Jeff Chemerinsky, Jonathan Hatami, Maria Ramirez, Nathan Hochman, Craig Mitchell, Eric Siddall, John McKinney and Debra Archuleta.
(Los Angeles Times)

The ads open with a stirring violin track, the subject striding confidently past the Broadway facade of the L.A. County Hall of Justice, or the Temple Street face of the United States Courthouse, or the Art Deco tower of City Hall.

A piano swells under the strings as the star greets first responders, working families or unhoused people.

For the record:

5:28 p.m. Feb. 24, 2024An earlier version of this story referred to Deputy Dist. Atty. Maria Rodriguez in once instance. The candidate’s name is Maria Ramirez.

The screen flashes to a drone shot of downtown, a quick cut to a closeup of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, and then grainy CCTV video of one of America’s most talked-about crime trends: the “smash and grab.”


If those commercials seem familiar, it’s because L.A. County’s 5 million registered voters are being bombarded with campaign messages that tend to follow a similar script.

The March 5 primary race for district attorney is the most crowded contest in the office’s 174-year history, with 11 candidates running to unseat Gascón as L.A.’s top cop. And yet, in a race defined by the struggle to stand out, the ads flooding YouTube, Instagram and Facebook feel almost identical.

The challengers include Deputy Dist. Attys. Jonathan Hatami, Maria Ramirez and Eric Siddall, defense attorney Nathan Hochman and Judge Craig Mitchell — all of whom have run ads that hit the same notes.

Former federal prosecutor Jeff Chemerinsky, Deputy Dist. Atty. John McKinney and Judge Debra Archuleta use the same music, sweeping aerial shots and crime video quick cuts, but skip the glad-handing and downtown power walk.

Experts say video ads are essential to reaching L.A. County‘s electorate, which is larger than the voter rolls in most U.S. states, including 2020 presidential deciders Arizona, Nevada, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The district attorney’s race has prompted the fundraising to match the office’s high profile, and candidates are pouring cash into their political spots.

The incumbent district attorney will have to overcome low approval ratings and concerns about crime. But with a field of 11 challengers, it has been hard for any of them to stand out.

Feb. 16, 2024

“If you’re trying to reach millions of voters, the most effective, cost-efficient way is to make a video and plaster it on social media,” said Hrag Yedalian of Blue State Campaigns, a political consulting agency that has worked with several local candidates, including Mitchell.


But Yedalian said that in the rush to produce content and avoid controversy, “a lot of these political videos are one of two things: They’re either really predictable or they’re boring — and they can often be both.”

There are only so many ways to frame up a power pose or repackage a viral cellphone video of a crime, and a limited selection of royalty-free classical tracks tagged “inspiration” on clearinghouse sites used by ad producers.

So in a field of 12 politicians gunning for the same job, some aesthetic overlap is inevitable.

But the L.A. ads are dramatically more alike one another than those for prosecutors in Manhattan, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Houston or Chicago — all major metropolitan areas with contested races and similar public safety concerns, in an election year when crime is a political bellwether.

For one thing, the local spots are much slicker.

“Being in the L.A. area, we’re held to a higher standard,” said Emrys Roberts, director of photography for Mitchell’s announcement.

The judge’s video, which was modeled on work for athletic brands, is now a finalist for the political advertising industry’s prestigious Reed Award.


“We looked at: What’s Nike doing? What’s Asics doing?” said Yedalian, who dreamed up Mitchell’s spot. “This is not a campaign ad; it’s a short doc about the realities of Los Angeles and what the judge is doing to combat it.”

In some ways, the ads for the district attorney’s race reflect the state of American political theater in the movie capital of the world, where rivers of campaign cash flow in and out of Hollywood every election cycle.

Contenders have already raised roughly $6.6 million, compared with the $4.3 million raised ahead of the 2020 primary.

Now, campaign finance records reviewed by The Times show, the candidates are racing to spend it.

Hochman has already spent $400,000 on TV airtime in the run-up to Super Tuesday. Hatami paid at least $10,000 to the director of photography who shot his campaign spots. And Siddall shelled out about $1,700 to rent emergency vehicles and related gear from Cop Shop L.A., the same concern that outfits many police procedurals and music videos.

But those outlays alone don’t account for the full picture.

“It’s not just, can you create a beautiful ad,” said Sarah Robinson of J&Z Strategies, who works with Siddall. “It’s can your message persuade a voter.”


Even insurgent campaigns now often spend tens of thousands of dollars on market research alone — totals that can equal or outpace what they spend on ads themselves.

L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón sailed into office in 2020 during a nationwide push for criminal justice reform. Now a large field is running to deny him a second term.

Feb. 1, 2024

“Our polling is our North Star,” Robinson said.

It’s the second reason the ads look so similar — they’re tailored to match data about what resonates with voters.

Siddall has spent about $50,000 on polling, campaign records show. Ramirez has laid out roughly $30,000, and Chemerinsky close to $40,000.

Polls show Angelenos are increasingly anxious about public safety, despite a dramatic decrease in violence across the electorate’s collective lifetime.

This election’s youngest voters were born in 2006, the last year Los Angeles County saw more than 1,000 homicides. A little more than a decade earlier, when many of today’s parents were in grade school, that number topped 2,500.

Yet, while violent crime hovers near historic lows, a combination of spiraling street homelessness, record-breaking overdose deaths and spiking property crime has left many voters saying safety is their top issue.


“If you look at any of the polls that have been conducted in the last six months, the top three issues are homelessness, crime and affordability,” Yedalian said.

Robinson agreed.

“We see this election after election — it’s always these big, stand-out messages,” the consultant said. “In 2018 it was healthcare; in 2020 it was the pandemic. [This year] we’re seeing homelessness, cost of living, and smash-and-grabs.”

Both organized retail theft and the proliferation of encampments contribute to a perception of lawlessness, polls show, regardless of whether they threaten everyday Angelenos or can be mitigated by the district attorney alone.

The sense that the top prosecutor should do more to fix those issues has helped drive Gascón’s current slump and swell the ranks of his challengers. Less than a quarter of voters now approve of him, according to a recent USC-Dornsife poll.

That gets at the third reason most ads look alike: They all share the same heel.

“Everyone is running not against each other, but against Gascón, so the throughline everyone wants is, ‘We want to be tough on crime,’” Yedalian said.

But while Gascón may be the man to beat on Super Tuesday, his challengers have yet to prove themselves the hero, either on-screen or in the polls.


“If you’re just getting the message that you shouldn’t vote for George Gascón ... that’s wasted money,” Robinson said.

Gregory Black, accused of killing three in a crash, had been released two years ago after a murder case was roiled by revelations a detective had bugged a lockup.

Sept. 29, 2023

It’s a point that cold-case prosecutor Lloyd “Bobcat” Masson exploits in his latest video, the forth in a series of DIY hits that feel more like a personal injury attorney’s ads than something for a political campaign.

“My budget’s a lot tinier, so there’s no way I’m going to be able to compete with mass advertising,” Masson said. “We wanted to do something with viral capability.”

Instead of a traditional ad, he and a pal put together a series of property-crime skits with just a car and two actors — plus an exhaust resonator meant to stand in for a stolen catalytic converter.

This week, he released a fourth video, this one set in the cleaning aisle of a corner store.

“Why are there so many choices?” an actor groans, surveying a shelf of spray bottles — all identical except that each bears the name of a different Gascón challenger. “They all look the same.”