Kansas State Treasurer Jake LaTurner exploited an education savings program by making himself the focus of a $200,000 television campaign, says a political science professor who studies and collects Kansas political ads.

Like the four treasurers who came before him, LaTurner benefits from Learning Quest commercials airing in an election year, helping build name recognition and positive awareness. The ads have been a perennial controversy for more than a decade, since U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins used them as a springboard for her first congressional race.

The latest ad is different because LaTurner, his wife and kids appear on the screen for the entirety of the 30-second video. Previous ads have used actors to convey the importance of saving for college, with treasurers Jenkins, Dennis McKinney and Ron Estes appearing on screen for no more than 10 seconds.

Bob Beatty has watched more than 1,200 political ads dating to 1968 from an archive he maintains at Washburn University. An array of political figures, including Bob Dole and Sam Brownback, have donated their videos to the collection.

If you watch LaTurner's commercial without sound, he said, you would think it was a political ad.

"What LaTurner has done here is up the ante by featuring himself and his family," Beatty said. "He’s completely blurred the line between a Learning Quest ad and a political ad."

LaTurner said the purpose of his ad is to encourage people to start saving early. His office is required to promote the 529 savings plan, and no taxpayer funds are used for the ads.

The issue is personal for LaTurner, he said, because he and his wife both graduated with debt. He felt the commercial would have a greater impact if they shared their story, rather than paying an actor.

"We know what it’s like to grapple with those things," LaTurner said. "It’s something Kansans are dealing with every day."

Marci Francisco, a Lawrence Democrat and state senator who is challenging LaTurner in this year's election for the treasurer's office, said she wasn't concerned about LaTurner making the ad personal because the program is designed to help families. But she made a promise not to appear in a Learning Quest ad if she were elected treasurer.

"I would want to make sure we are advertising in a way to get Kansans to understand what’s available in this program," Francisco said. "People have questioned whether this is fair, so the easiest thing for me to do would be to focus on other Kansans."

Figures provided by LaTurner's office show Learning Quest has had an annual advertising budget of $1 million since 2007, with $465,000 spent on TV ads each year through 2015. Under Estes, the amount for TV ads dropped to $55,000 and $60,000 the past two years.

LaTurner used $200,000 for his TV ad to run from March 12 to April 30. He said he doesn't think it will have any impact on the election, but Beatty said the amount would be massive compared to money spent for a TV ad from a candidate for office. Francisco said she can't imagine being able to spend so much on a TV campaign.

"This ad jumped the shark," Beatty said. "Whether LaTurner admits or realizes it, any political observer or researcher will argue this is a tremendous benefit to him personally."

Other treasurers have had to answer questions about Learning Quest ads during an election cycle. LaTurner said the ads began in the late 1990s under former treasurer Tim Shallenburger, and Beatty said they first landed on his radar in 2004 when Jenkins began appearing in them.

Beatty said she benefited from four years of positive, widespread exposure through the ads. In his analysis, they were a deciding factor in her surprise win in the 2nd District race in 2008, beating Jim Ryan in the GOP primary and incumbent Nancy Boyda in the general election.

McKinney, a Democrat, was appointed to replace Jenkins as treasurer. Estes cried foul in 2010 when McKinney ran his Learning Quest ads into September.

"We followed the exact same schedule that Lynn Jenkins had followed, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary," McKinney said.

He also said it was obvious the ads didn't help him because Estes won by a 17-point margin.

"I think the political influence is overstated, because I got my rear kicked," McKinney said.

Beatty said the difference is McKinney is a Democrat in a state where the divide between registered voters is roughly 45 percent Republicans and 25 percent Democrats. The combination of Learning Quest ads and an "R" by your name is a massive advantage, he said.

From a cynical point of view, Beatty said, LaTurner's approach would have helped McKinney more.

"If (LaTurner) was a Democrat running this ad, the Legislature might go into special session to ban this practice," Beatty said.

Following the 2010 election, with Estes advocating for new restrictions, lawmakers imposed a blackout that begins 60 days in advance of the primary.

"I was proud to lead the effort with the Legislature to secure new guidelines prohibiting elected officials from using taxpayer funding to promote their name or likeness during the election season," Estes said.

Last year, Estes won a special session to fill the 4th Congressional District seat, benefiting from six years of appearing in Learning Quest ads. LaTurner was appointed as his replacement.

LaTurner's office said Kansas Learning Quest accounts contain $6.4 billion in assets. After the TV ads began airing this spring, his office said, Kansans contributed more than $13.7 million to their accounts.

"I’m going to continue to do everything I can to make sure Kansans are saving for higher education," LaTurner said.