Cable television advertising has come of age in the San Gabriel Valley this political season, with candidates' commercials squeezing into spots usually occupied by car dealers and pizza parlors.
The cable incursion represents a new trend in local campaigns for U.S. Congress, the state Senate and the Assembly, which traditionally depend on phone banks, mailers and precinct walking. But this year, attracted by the growing popularity and affordability of cable, at least five local candidates for state or federal office have added 30-second spots on CNN, ESPN and other channels to the mix.
The commercials' tone ranges from sentimental to strident. Production quality runs the gamut from semi-pro to Madison Avenue slick. As in most political advertising, the main idea is image-making.
In one commercial, for instance, state Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino) appears on the screen as a twinkle-eyed grandfatherly sort, musing about his days as a Marine in the jungles of the South Pacific during World War II. In another, he recalls the advice his revered father gave him. "My father was a very proud individual, very honest with a lot of dignity," Ayala says. "He was very good at giving us good advice, telling us that when we're talking, we're not learning anything."
South Pasadena Mayor Evelyn Fierro, who is running in the 42nd Assembly District, is shown striding through a park as she talks about her desire to reclaim greatness for California. "I want a California that is clean, where the air we breathe and the water we drink is safe and pure, a state where the people once again respect government and participate," she says.
But in addition to commercials that showcase such lofty sentiments, Ayala and Fierro are also running ads that lambaste their opponents.
So is Ron Aguirre, the Republican candidate trying to unseat Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-Baldwin Park) in the 60th Assembly District.
An Aguirre ad opens with a police siren and shows news clippings suggesting rampant crime in the San Gabriel Valley. Using an unflattering portrait of Tanner, he compares her work on bills involving fishing rights and video games with efforts by other legislators to deal with gangs, drugs and drive-by shootings, and his own pledge to be tough on crime.
John Eastman, who is running against Rep. Esteban Torres (D-La Puente) in the 34th Congressional District, manages to work attacks on Torres and a friendly hello into all three of his 30-second spots.
His ads open with people talking to the camera about Torres.
In one ad, the first person says: "I'm so disappointed in Congressman Torres."
A second person adds: "Congressman Torres voted to cut our Medicare benefits."
A third pipes in, "Congressman Torres voted to raise my taxes, but he made sure his own pay raise was exempt from cuts."
Then, a middle-aged woman sums it up: "The nerve of the man!"
At the end of the commercial, Eastman, coat slung over his shoulder, comes on the screen to say: "Hi, I'm John Eastman. Our Congress deserves a pay cut, not a pay raise. Help me repeal this huge congressional pay raise."
Eastman was among the pioneers of such advertising in the San Gabriel Valley four years ago, when he managed the losing campaign of Republican Charles House against Torres. But the cable ads in that campaign were much more limited, running only the weekend before the election, Eastman said.
This time, Eastman is putting a major emphasis on cable, spending up to $700 a day on ads he figures will reach 60% of the district's voters.
Chuck DeVore, a 28-year-old campaign consultant who wrote Eastman's commercials, said the spots were designed to look more homespun than the commercials on network television.
"It wasn't intended to be slick," he said. "We felt that people in the current anti-incumbent mood don't want someone who is slick and has big bucks. They want someone they can identify with." Thus, he said, instead of using trained actors, the ads employ campaign volunteers, including the woman who says the most memorable line in the spots: "The nerve of the man!"
"We're going to make her famous," Eastman said. "That's the 'Where's the beef?' lady of 1990."
(The volunteer is uncredited in the ad, but her name is Patricia Baker, and she lives in South El Monte.)
DeVore said the ads are playing on a number of cable channels but will run most often in the final days of the campaign on the news channels, where he believes most of the viewers are likely to be voters. "We may even go into MTV the day before the election, figuring (MTV viewers) don't have much of a memory span," he joked.
DeVore said the ads have been so effective that people are calling the campaign office to voice support for Eastman.
But Carmen Garcia, who is Torres' daughter and is managing his reelection campaign, said the ads may backfire.
"We have a lot of people calling us who are real upset," she said. "They say, 'I've seen the ads and they're horrible.' "