Goodwill Ads Seen as Politician Promos

New York Gov. George Pataki (search) implores businesses to relocate to lower Manhattan in a taxpayer-funded ad campaign. In Maryland, Gov. Robert Ehrlich (search) pitches tourism, energy-efficient homes and the state motor vehicle administration.

Across the country, governors and other elected officials often double as pitchmen: They appear in publicly funded commercials meant to promote their states, their agencies or a particular initiative they are spearheading.

But each time their faces show up in such ads, critics — usually from the opposing political party — question whether these "goodwill" commercials aren't also meant to feed their political ambitions by boosting their name recognition.

In their defense, the politicians claim they are just doing their jobs because they're considered the public face of the state or an agency and, therefore, are the best spokesmen for an ad campaign.

"It's a slippery slope between promoting a service and promoting the brand that is them," said Martin Kaplan, who studies political ads at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.

In New York, Pataki has been accused of abusing a $5 million, national ad campaign to sell himself for a future run for public office.

The campaign shows scenes of rebirth in New York City's financial district in lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center (search) stood before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Pataki speaks about "the heart of commerce, culture and community."

After the ad started running in the country's largest media markets and on national cable news networks, Democrats and other critics charged it was a campaign spot for Pataki. It was launched a month after the Nov. 2 elections, and around the time Pataki's name surfaced as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2008.

The ad's final seconds show Pataki before the Manhattan skyline, saying: "Discover your very own American success story. Build your business right here, right now, in lower Manhattan, where the only thing greater than today's success is our vision for tomorrow."

Todd Alhart, a Pataki spokesman, dismissed the notion that the ads are politically motivated. "The ads are meant to highlight the tremendous progress we have made in revitalizing and rebuilding lower Manhattan," he said, adding that the goal is to encourage businesses to create jobs in New York.

The same debate has raged over the past few months in Maryland, where another Republican running another historically Democratic state has appeared in radio and TV ads paid for with taxpayer dollars.

Ehrlich's appearances prompted a legislative committee to review how state laws regulate such appearances by government officials. His Democratic predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, also appeared in state-sponsored ads.

Still, Democrats assail Ehrlich.

"It's a shallow attempt to boost his name recognition and visibility because if you look at the ads, they're not about the state of Maryland, they're about Bob Ehrlich," said Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.

Ehrlich's aides maintain the ads are nonpartisan, public service announcements.

Governor's aren't the only ones popping up in state-funded ads.

In West Virginia, Attorney General Darrell McGraw, a Democrat who this year narrowly defeated a Republican attorney, ran an ad this month urging cancer patients who use drugs like Taxol to call the office's consumer hot line to determine whether they are eligible for refunds stemming from lawsuit settlements.

"The attorney general's office wants patients to have every chance at life," an announcer says as the screen shows a toll-free telephone number and then a graphic that says: "Attorney General Darrell McGraw. Law Enforcement That Works for You!" McGraw then appears and says, "We enforce the law to protect you."

Evan Tracey, president of TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group (search), an ad tracking company in Arlington, Va., said advertising right now makes sense for public officials with political aspirations.

"They have a sort of forum that's all to themselves," he said. "They're not competing with a lot of political ads. There's no downside to getting out there right now."

That is except, of course, the onslaught of criticism that doing so invites.