Candidates and U-M coach Jim Harbaugh: We're with him

Not many people pay attention to them. Lots of folks pay attention to him.

So it's no surprise that three of the four candidates battling for a spot on the University of Michigan's Board of Regents features photos of the popular and controversial head football coach Jim Harbaugh on their campaign websites and Facebook pages.

Political science experts said it's smart marketing.

"Every picture has a story to tell and the story they are trying to tell is, 'I'm plugged into the university and have a personal relationship with the football coach,' " said Eastern Michigan political science professor Edward Sidlow. The race for regent "is one of the lowest stimulus elections going. If people even make it to that end of the ballot, they have seldom studied the candidates and the issues and here's one thing that might help a candidate get remembered.

"It's not even really about remembering the name. It's about having the name prompt a memory — 'Wasn't that the guy who was with Harbaugh?' "

There's nothing illegal about the photos — and since U-M bans the use of its logos or colors in campaign advertising, standing next to Harbaugh is one way for candidates to link themselves to the university.

"Is it misleading? Probably so." Sidlow said. "Is there anything new about misleading the public in politics? No."

Harbaugh couldn't be reached for comment. It's not known whether  he's even aware of the photos on the campaign sites.

The candidates say they aren't trying to make political hay out of Harbaugh's celebrity. Instead, they are showing school spirit, they say.

The use of Harbuagh's image varies by candidate. Republican Ron Weiser's profile picture on his campaign Facebook page and the top picture on his campaign website are the same — a photo of four men, including Weiser and Harbaugh. Harbaugh is wearing a sweater and has a baseball glove on. Weiser couldn't be reached for comment.

Incumbent Democrat Denise Ilitch has a photo of herself and Harbaugh as her profile picture on her Facebook campaign page. Harbaugh is dressed up in a blazer and blue U-M polo shirt.

"Over the years, I have featured students, dignitaries and key Michigan moments in social media as a way to share my work as a regent and to gain input from the community and citizens," Ilitch said in an e-mail to the Free Press. "Coach Harbaugh is a symbol of U of M's spirit and this photo of him on my Facebook page is from an event at my home this summer where the board of regents honored those who helped raise over $35 million in student support and he, President Schlissel, Athletic Director Manuel, and many others were honored."

Incumbent Democrat Laurence Deitch takes a slightly different route. He has a picture of Harbaugh, former interim athletic director James Hackett and past football head coaches Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr on the bottom of his campaign website, under a section labeled "news."

"I’m proud of my work in setting the stage for Coach Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor," he said in an e-mail to the Free Press. "His passion, energy and drive for excellence exemplify what makes our university exceptional. We included his hiring in the news section of our website because that’s what it was: news."

Deitch said he's not looking for more support from Harbaugh.

"I haven’t sought his endorsement nor has he offered it. I would consider that inappropriate. Football is apolitical. It’s an important community builder, but this election is about a lot more than football.”

Republican candidate Carl Meyers doesn't have any pictures with Harbaugh on his website or Facebook page.

The university has a set of guidelines that bans the use of U-M's name and trademarks in political campaigns. The policy says candidates are banned from using any trademarks, including the Block-M, the official university seal, the Michigan Helmet and the Maize and Blue wordmark. They also can not "create a mark or image that is confusingly similar to a University mark or that misleadingly suggests association with or endorsement by the University of Michigan. For example, candidates and political organizations can not use a maize and blue color scheme throughout their campaign communications."

(2016 © Detroit Free Press)


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