When the director yelled, "Action!" Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. gripped a pair of hedge clippers, gave the movie camera a quick grin, and, as he started pruning, delivered the punch line to his latest tourism ad: "Do other governors do this? I think not."
The gag in this slickly produced TV commercial, to air in mid-September, is that the governor will come do your chores so you can get out and enjoy Maryland.
The reality is that the Republican governor will be entering a lot of Maryland homes in coming months, through television and print advertising and a series of Internet upgrades that will add his photo to the top of every state agency Web site.
The effort is part of a broad strategic communications initiative, headed up by a former GOP advertising executive from Capitol Hill, that Ehrlich is undertaking to better market Maryland -- and himself -- to the public.
"This is using pictures, and time-tested marketing techniques, to get out the governor's message," said Ed Blakely, whom Ehrlich recently named as his director of strategic communications, a new post. "This is how you conduct politics nowadays."
The marketing blitz blends the $2.7 million TV advertising campaign with carefully staged media events, public service announcements in print and on the radio, Web redesigns and coordinated personal visits to the state's largest businesses. One element central to all of them is the governor himself.
Democrats, especially, have questioned whether the taxpayer-financed effort is primarily intended to benefit the state or the governor's drive for reelection in 2006, which has otherwise been focused on fundraising.
But in interviews last week, Blakely, Communications Director Paul E. Schurick and state marketing director Dennis Castleman defended the effort as a sound strategy to "brand" the state as a place that's inviting to tourists and responsive to its citizens. Ehrlich, they said, has an essential role in pitching that message.
Blakely compared his use of Ehrlich to Lee Iacocca's ad campaign for Chrysler cars in the 1980s. The auto giant replaced pictures of chassis and chrome with the image of its solid corporate chairman promising that his company's cars were the best.
"He transferred his good will to the product," Blakely said. "The governor has the ability to be, and by all rights should be, the public face of the State of Maryland."
In January, Ehrlich's face became the centerpiece of the advertising campaign to promote Maryland as a destination for tourists. The ads caught the attention of the governor's Democratic rivals when, in addition to appearing in other mid-Atlantic states, they started airing on cable stations in Maryland.
Castleman said there was no plan to put the spots up in Maryland -- it was merely the result of a decision to run them on nationally televised cable broadcasts.
But it was not lost on the governor's political adversaries that, just like Iacocca, Ehrlich would not only be cultivating interest in his product but also in himself.
Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett said he believes the commercials are so blatantly self-serving that they are "tantamount to election-year campaigning." He joked that the tourism ads "probably ought to have an authority line on them."
There are serious concerns with any state-funded marketing effort that so prominently features an elected official, Leggett said.
"I have not seen any market analysis that says tourism will be positively impacted because you have the voice and face of Bob Ehrlich in them," Leggett said. "What you are supposed to be selling is not the governor, but the state and its waterways, its environment, its parks, its tourist attractions. If you're selling the Chesapeake Bay, show a picture of the bay."
Still, Ehrlich's team regards the governor as an ideal pitchman for the state.
Standing among a crew of 35 from a Baltimore-based production company in a quiet golf course community here, Schurick described the governor's budding acting career as a proven method for such marketing. He recalled that when he served in the administration of former governor William Donald Schaefer (D), television and radio ads were as de rigueur as Schaefer's trademark publicity stunts.
Blakely -- who produced campaign commercials for Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and John E. Sununu (N.H.) before working as a political adviser to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) -- said that although the intent of these TV spots is to increase tourism, "we're not denying that there's some political gain."
Castleman said he has seen signs that the ads are achieving their stated goal: There has been a 6.3 percent increase in requests for tourism brochures, he said.
The commercials represent only a small fraction of a marketing effort that Blakely envisions and is starting to roll out. He says he is borrowing from the communications strategy of the Reagan White House, which used imagery to attract TV coverage and market both the president and his ideas.
To some extent, Schurick said, politicians across the country have engaged in similar practices. When California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to unveil a recent plan to reform the corrections system, he did so from the guard tower of Mule Creek State Prison and then posted video of the event on the state's Web site. In North Carolina, so many political leaders were using public service announcements as a means to get their name and voice on the radio that the legislature contemplated banning them.
The difference in Maryland, Schurick said, is that this effort is being orchestrated on a grand scale, by a dedicated team of marketing experts.
That has led to carefully staged events starring the governor, such as the signing of legislation aimed at cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. For this, Ehrlich's team brought in the Pride of Baltimore clipper as a backdrop and had a film crew capture footage of the governor, with orchestral music and with American flags waving in the background.
Last week, for the release of a report highlighting problems on the Atlantic Coast, Blakely had Ehrlich take a boat tour.
Blakely also has arranged with Ehrlich's scheduler to coordinate his trips with opportunities to drop in on large businesses. He then calls ahead so the visits can be publicized in company newsletters. On Aug. 6, when Ehrlich needed to participate in a USO event for troops at Fort Meade at noon, Blakely arranged for him to visit Computer Sciences Corp. in nearby Annapolis Junction at 12:45 and the Dixie Printing and Packaging Plant in Glen Burnie at 2.
"The governor wants to change the perception that the state is not friendly to business," Blakely said. "One way for him to do that is to get out there, get him into the internal newsletters, talking about his vision."
At the same time, Schurick said, the state aims to present itself more like a corporation, with uniformity to everything from the fonts used on state letterhead to the appearance of agency Web sites. Over the next few months, visitors to state Web sites will notice that they have the same format -- with a bar along the top that includes photos of Ehrlich and Lt. Gov Michael S. Steele and a link to "the five pillars" of the governor's philosophy, Schurick said.
Communications professor Richard E. Vatz of Towson University calls this "smart politics." It makes sense, he said, "for a politician to use whatever persuasive tools maximize his ability to market his agenda positively."
The only question for taxpayers, political science professors say, is whether the effort primarily benefits the governor or the state.
Because there is no clear answer in this case, said James Gimpel, an associate professor of government at the University of Maryland, Ehrlich can only be viewed as "doing what all successful governors do, which is to capitalize on his position to get the message out."