They say the eyes are the window into a person’s soul. But when it comes to Rick Caruso, his negative political ads are. And the view isn’t pretty.
As a political consultant, I’m no stranger to the negative ad or the creative use of photoshop. Over the years, I’ve placed opposing candidates’ heads on the bodies of everything from frogs to puppies. But I wasn’t doing it to be mean. Instead, I was using satire to point out that one candidate was a “job hopper” and the other a political “lapdog.”
Using humor and metaphor in political advertising is fair game and even enjoyable to voters tired of the endless stream of repetitive ads that flood our airways every election cycle, turning Election Day into Groundhog’s Day.
There is, however, a line in political advertising candidates should not cross: Never take an image of a person of color and manipulate it into a grotesque, almost demonic figure— darkening and dehumanizing that opponent to the point viewers can’t even see their eyes.
But that’s precisely what Rick Caruso has done to Karen Bass in, not just one, but each of his attack ads. Perhaps he believes that if we can’t see her eyes, we won’t see her humanity, and it will be easier to vote against someone who isn’t a real person. But his mean-spirited attempt to obscure Karen’s humanity has only revealed his disturbing lack thereof.
It’s instructive to note that while Rick Caruso’s commercials are flooding our airwaves, there’s another negative ad against Karen Bass getting significant airtime. This ad, paid for by the L.A. Police Protective League, pulls no punches in its attacks on Karen Bass’s record. And yet, while we can argue about the accuracy and fairness of their attacks, even the police union was sensitive enough to leave Karen Bass’s image alone.
But not Rick Caruso. He feels compelled to go that extra step and deface her physical image too. You have to ask yourself: is Caruso’s argument so weak that it requires photographic manipulation?
I would like to believe Caruso’s team, at the very least, would have advised against such a depiction. Ripping a page out of the anti-Obama playbook and stoking latent racial fears for political effect will certainly backfire in the most diverse city in America. Good consultants would have warned him that it could open him up to accusations of racism and misogyny.
So why would Rick Caruso ignore their advice? After watching the endless loop of political attack ads against Karen Bass, I can only conclude that Rick Caruso actually wanted his opponent portrayed this way. After all, this is the same Rick Caruso who, as president of the L.A. Police Commission, called Congresswoman Maxine Waters a slur when she had the gall to question his motives for firing our African American Police Chief Bernard Parks.
Caruso’s scorched earth approach is deeply troubling when one considers the surprise electoral victory of another billionaire developer — a divisive candidate with no experience, decrying the failure of career politicians. And I don’t have to put Rick Caruso’s head on Donald Trump’s body for you to get the point.
L.A. is a city in crisis. From the scourge of homelessness to the spike in violent crime, from runaway home prices and inflation to the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to rage, Angelenos are understandably on edge. We are profoundly frustrated, desperate for change, and perhaps even willing to compromise our values to consider a mayoral candidate like Rick Caruso, who promises to “make Los Angeles great again.”
But, we’ve seen this movie before, and politicians govern the way they campaign. The only question is, can Los Angeles afford a sequel to “Trump Trashes America?”
John Shallman is an award-winning political media consultant who has helped elect dozens of Black elected leaders across California. He’s a crisis management expert and president of Shallman Communications in Los Angeles. Mr. Shallman is the author of the national best-selling book, “Return from Siberia.”