Back in the spring I bought a pair of shorts. Starting the very same day they arrived I was followed to every blog, news site and social-media platform by an ad for the exact same pair of shorts — brand, color, size and all. As I write this we are entering November and I just saw the ad in my feed literally ten seconds ago.
For about six months last year my entire online presence was besieged by an ad for shoe lifts. I’m 6’2”, so I didn’t buy them. The ad eventually went away. For a while. When it returned, instead of a white man modeling the shoe lifts, it featured a Black man. In other words, they were somehow capable of identifying one of my physical traits, and yet somehow not the one crucial to their business.
I get ads mis-targeted at elderly women interested in going back to college, vintage-car owners, and leather wholesalers. But the ones most off the mark are the political ones. They always seem like they’re trying to motivate me to act against my own interests by obviously lying to me. It’s a weird approach, but somehow consistent.
The perfect examples this election season are from a political action committee called Building a Better Portland (BBP). In case you’re not familiar, BBP wants Portlanders to vote no on Questions C (Portland’s Green New Deal), D (rent control) and E (restricting Airbnb-style short-term rentals).
Now, when I see slick ads like these, the first thing I do is wonder who could afford to make them. So I went to the BBP website, which has their address. Google tells me it’s the same address as something called Vitalius Real Estate Group, founded by apparent Bond-villain-in-the-making Brit Vitalius.
The Vitalius Real Estate Group’s homepage has two “Featured Listings”: condos going for $524,900 and $550,000. Also, according to the bio on his site, “Brit is in his fourth term as President of the Southern Maine Landlord Association.” And in case you really need it spelled out, “In 2018, Brit was recognized for his work leading the campaign which defeated Portland’s rent control referendum.
Money mystery solved, back to the BBP site. More ads. One of them, against Portland’s Green New Deal, features an old man standing in front of a pickup truck attempting a blue-collar persona. He explains that he “supports the environment” and doesn’t like “special interests.” But something about his shiny white hard hat, crisp and even whiter button-up, and the close-up of his beautiful, hand-crafted silver bracelet ruined his man-of-the-people vibe for me.
The ad identified him as Ben Walter, “Architect,” and so back to Google I went! It turns out ol’ Ben isn’t just an architect. According to the bio on his site, Benedict B. Walter is the president and founder of CWS Architects. His bio also states that he first came to Maine with only “forty-six dollars in cash.” There was no information as to how much cash he has currently, but probably enough to cover a few of his own special interests.
Another ad on the BBP site features a woman claiming the referenda’s proponents “never asked for public input.” It takes 1,500 voter signatures to get an ordinance on the ballot, which seems like a fair amount public input to me, but maybe she just doesn’t know any better? She’s credited as Mary Ernst, “Affordable Housing Advocate.” How noble! I could use some inspirational tales of righteous advocacy, so to Google I return!
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything about her. But I did find out some things about her husband, James Ernst. For instance, he’s the vice president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, so, you know, yikes. Also, he owns Sherwood Properties, in Westbrook. There are 13 Google reviews of Sherwood Properties, with an average rating of 1.6 stars. Ouch. The term “slum lord” is mentioned six times, and there are multiple complaints of cockroaches. Ew.
To be fair, though Sherwood Properties has 11 one-star reviews, it also has two absolutely glowing five-star reviews. One is from a man who has also given five-star reviews to Shaw’s Supermarket and Walmart. The other is from a woman named Anna Evanston. Now, look, I’m not saying Anna isn’t a real person. All I’m saying is that her one and only review is of Sherwood Properties, it is suspiciously flattering, and her profile picture is a stock photo that still has the watermark. Really.
So, these wealthy land owners and local moguls paid an ungodly amount of money attempting to convince us that they’re the exact opposite of who they are otherwise very proud to be. Will their ads persuade me to vote in their favor, against my own interests?
They’d have better luck trying to sell me another pair of shorts.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.