- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

The Maryland tax guys are coming to get you.

The two mysterious men — clad in black suits, black ties and sunglasses — can be seen on 200 billboards, 200 buses and at nearly four dozen Metro stops all over the state.

The ads say only "Seek amnesty," leaving viewers wondering what the two ominous-looking men are up to.

They're the new hard-hitting spokesmen for the state's two-month tax- amnesty program that begins Saturday.

State officials are hoping the $1 million advertising campaign will help collect as much as $70 million from Marylanders who have been delinquent in paying their personal or corporate taxes.

Taxpayers who make payments by Oct. 31 won't have to pay any penalties, which could run as much as 25 percent of the amount owed or even time in jail.

"We're serious about this," Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said yesterday at the program's kickoff. "After the amnesty period is over, we're going to go after you. If you think I'm fooling, you're wrong."

The ads, designed by MGH Advertising and Public Relations in Owings Mills, Md., are a precursor — designed to pique Marylanders' interest — to a much larger advertising campaign that will begin Monday.

Two 30-second television spots have the tax guys — who are a cross between the characters in the movie "Men in Black" and the television show "Dragnet" — coming after tax delinquents at embarrassing public places like restaurants and golf courses.

"They are a humorous way to portray our own tax guys," said Michael Golden, deputy director of communications for the Maryland Comptroller's office. "When you see the spots, it's clearly tongue-in-cheek. We don't interrupt people eating at a restaurant or on the golf course."

At the end of both ads, Mr. Schaefer, donning his own sunglasses, says, "The clock is ticking, so do it now." The former Maryland governor is known for his "do it now" slogan.

Maryland held a similar amnesty program 14 years ago and collected $34.6 million, Mr. Golden said. The advertising budget then was $375,000.

The current ad campaign, complete with print ads in newspapers across the state, is expected to be seen 104 million times during the two-month stint, according to MGH Advertising.

The agency researched tax-amnesty programs from other states and their advertising approaches to find the most effective way to get Marylanders' attention.

The agency found the states that used a softer, lighter advertising campaign didn't have the same success as the states that used humorous or hard-edged advertising, said Michael O'Brien, executive vice president at MGH Advertising.

For example, New Jersey in 1996 spent $4 million on advertising during its 21/2-month tax-amnesty program, bringing in $359 million in delinquent taxes.

New Jersey's television and radio ads used Blondie's 1980s hit song "One Way or Another" to resonate the message that the state was "gonna getcha getcha getcha" if residents had not paid their taxes.

The first television ad that ran, filmed in black and white, featured character actor Henry Silva parodying a tough guy explaining the program.

The second ad showed a series of old movie chase scenes while the Blondie song played in the background.

"It created a lot of attention," said Steve Sylvester, assistant director at New Jersey's division of taxation, who headed the state's tax-amnesty program five years ago. "We tried to deliver a hard message in a humorous way."

That's exactly what Maryland officials are hoping for.

"The message clearly comes across in a humorous way," Mr. Golden said. "We do know what is owed, and we are seeking payment."

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