BALTIMORE – David M. Johnson knows how to convince people.
The 65-year-old spent the majority of his adult life as an advertising executive in New York City, with clients such as Pepsi and GE Corporate. He’s even credited with coming up with Dodge’s, “Grab life by the horns.”
The experience showed recently as he directed a videographer, sound guy and two actors around a suddenly cramped apartment in Fells Point, filming an ad in support of Maryland’s same-sex marriage referendum. The semi-retired advertising guru who abandoned the skyscrapers and professional shoots of New York for a life in Baltimore now finds himself amidst one of the biggest political clashes in Maryland.
Despite being one of the most controversial issues in America, same-sex marriage has barely made a blip on the advertising radar in Maryland. Both sides of Question 6, the referendum seeking to overturn same-sex marriage in the state, have spent just over $6 million combined on advertising. That’s less than a tenth of the nearly $72 million that has been spent campaigning for and against the gambling referendum also on November’s ballot.
“That’s simple math,” said Derek McCoy, spokesman for the Maryland Marriage Alliance, a non-partisan interfaith coalition opposing same-sex marriage. “You reach more people the more money you’ve got. We’re nowhere close to being able to do that.”
Johnson couldn’t listen to the debate surrounding Question 6 and not do anything. So he started writing. The ad right now is only online, but he’s hoping it will find a way onto television.
“I couldn’t believe how many people didn’t know whether voting yes was in support of or against same-sex marriage,” Johnson said. “I wanted to change that. I want people to know, when they step into that ballot box, exactly what they’re voting for.”
A vote for the referendum is a vote for same-sex marriage.
Johnson’s advertisement focuses on this wording, asking people to vote “for love and marriage,” “for everybody having the same right to marry,” “for equality, for fairness, for religious freedom,” and “for question six.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley makes an appearance in the ad, as does Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo.
By contrast, the most recent ad from the Maryland Marriage Alliance focuses on a couple from Massachusetts where same-sex marriage is already legal. The couple warns Maryland families that “schools could teach that boys can marry boys” if this referendum passes.
Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a non-profit campaign working to defend marriage equality, came out with a rebuttal ad featuring a Maryland public school teacher, Pamela Gaddy, arguing that the referendum would not change the school curriculum.
“So take it from a teacher like me,” Gaddy says in the ad. “Values are taught at home. Not in my classroom.”
Marylanders for Marriage Equality has run six TV ads, featuring activists such as Julian Bond, chairman emeritus of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The campaign has spent nearly $4 million in ads, campaign finance documents show.
“The goal here is to let voters know the diverse support that Question 6 gets, and also that religious freedom is protected,” spokesman Kevin Nix said. “All of those ads talk about treating every Maryland citizen fairly under the law.”
Nix said it’s impossible to tell how successful the ad campaign will be until the results are in come Election Day. Even though The Washington Post’s most recent poll, published Oct. 23, shows 52 percent of likely voters supporting the referendum and 43 percent opposing, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, Nix said it will be a close race.
“The other side tends to inundate the airwaves with their ads in the final round of funding,” Nix said. “So we’ll have to wait and see how that plays out.”
Maryland Marriage Alliance has spent about $1.5 million on its three television ads, McCoy said – not even half of the other sides’ expenditures.
Though millions of dollars are being spent on advertising, there isn’t much political research to back up the ability of TV ads to change voters’ minds, said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
The benefit of advertising is to remind people who already cared about the issue and planned to vote to actually get to the ballot box on Tuesday, Eberly said. For those who haven’t made up their minds, the advertisements from each side tend to cancel each other out, unless one side clearly has more money and influence.
“If a vote is close, it isn’t necessarily wasted spending,” Eberly said. “If it gets maybe just one more of your supporters to turn out than would’ve previously, that’s positive. But people change their minds on things far more significant than a commercial or a big sports figure coming out and proclaiming their decision.”
Firefighter Tim Bennett, 44, and Department of Defense employee Nick Marulli, 54, volunteered to be in the “I’m For Question 6” advertisement directed by Johnson, the former New York ad executive. The couple is surprised by the lack of advertising so far on Question 6, especially in comparison to the ads on the gambling issue that have flooded the airwaves.
Bennett is hopeful Johnson’s ad will connect with people.
“It has to help to put a face to it,” Bennett said. “I’m not sure what impact this ad will have, but presenting the issue with a positive response might show people this is a real issue that happens to real people. This is our future we’re talking about.”