Ad Watch: 2013 New York City Mayoral Primary Edition

Written by Morgan Pehme on . Posted in AdWatch, Campaigns/Elections.

In this installment of Ad Watch, City & State and our panel of experts look at one of the television commercials from each of the candidates for New York City mayor who has released one to date.

Title: “City of Opportunity”
Candidate: Bill Thompson
Produced by: Campaign Group (Philadelphia, Pa., and La Jolla, Calif.)
Length: 30 seconds
Description: In part a biographical spot, in part an issues piece, this ad shows Thompson promising to restore the “city of opportunity” that enabled his own family to succeed.

Pros: As intended, the commercial quickly affirms Thompson’s outer borough credentials and connects him with the city’s immigrant population.

Cons: The words that are shown in the ad are either too small, as in the case of the litany of areas covered by Thompson’s plan, or projected behind him, so that the candidate’s body obscures the full word, as in the case of opportunity and neighborhood. Even Thompson’s name is in too small a font, given that just as many voters will likely view the ad on the Web. Beyond these issues, the ad feels very generic and does not strike any particularly resonant chords.

Expert Opinion: “This ad justifies why voice-over professionals charge top dollar. I have to assume that having Thompson talk to a camera in front of a green screen was a budget-based decision. Unfortunately, this well-intended ‘American Dream’-type ad comes off like he is selling an economic plan. The script is weak, the candidate is distracting (Read: Stop moving!), and the B-roll is blurred in the background while we hear an impassionate account of what seem like visionless ideas. Even the picture and line about his grandparents immigrating to America from the Caribbean makes it seem like they just returned from a vacation. —Lynn Krogh, political consultant, The Casale Group

Title: “Manny’s Law”
Candidate: Christine Quinn
Produced by: SKDKnickerbocker (New York City) and Mark Guma Communications (New York City)
Length: 30 seconds
Description: The mother of Manny Lanza, a young man without insurance who died because he was denied medical coverage, gives a first-person testimonial explaining how Quinn passed “Manny’s Law” so her son “didn’t die in vain.”

Pros: This ad is undeniably powerful, particularly the last line: “I love her for that.” That the last line comes after a poignant beat during which the camera stays patiently on the speaker makes it all the more impactful, since ads rarely allow even a millisecond to digest them emotionally. The turning of the page in Manny’s mother’s scrapbook to show Quinn’s name and picture along with her son’s is a subtle, moving detail.

Cons: The audio on the line “She refused to let another family suffer” is equalized differently from the rest of the ad and is a little difficult to hear.

Expert Opinion: “The facts of this case are sad, and you never want to see a family face a loss like this. That said, one can only assume that this ad is aimed at women and Hispanic and black voters, two groups with whom Quinn is underperforming. That’s fine and makes sense, but the ad leaves Quinn vulnerable on the healthcare front. Her poor record consisting of severe budget cuts has led to the closure of multiple hospitals and therefore access to healthcare, particularly in the outer boroughs. Quinn has done nothing to help the root of the problem and can actually be blamed for making it worse. Cue de Blasio.” —Lynn Krogh, political consultant, The Casale Group

Title: “Powerful Voices”
Candidate: Anthony Weiner
Produced by: Penczner Media (Washington, D.C.)
Length: 30 seconds
Description: Speaking directly to the viewer, Weiner lays out some tenets of his campaign before making the argument that “powerful voices” in the city are conspiring to prevent his populist agenda from coming to fruition.

Pros: The way the music drops out when Weiner begins to speak about the “powerful voices” trying to stop him successfully changes the ad’s pace and draws the viewer in to his point. That the montage of clips of Weiner campaigning consists nearly entirely of women embracing or cheering him on is a nice touch, given the nature of his troubles. The subway bell that sounds at the end of the ad when the N and the Y are illuminated in Weiner’s logo is also an artful flourish.

Cons: The very first word the candidate utters—“I”—strikes the ear as annoying shrill and starts off the ad on the wrong note. Otherwise, this ad is not flawed in and of itself, but given the overexposure of the candidate, it would have seemed more logical not to make Weiner himself the focal point of the ad, and instead allowed his supporters to make the case for his election.

Expert Opinion: “This would have been an okay ad four years ago, before the sexting scandals that forced him out of Congress and drove his mayoral poll numbers down near the single digits, but now it just feels empty. He hits all the current buzzwords and phrases, right down to paraphrasing/poaching President Obama’s line about fighting for ‘the middle class and those struggling to get there.’ But trying to portray himself as a victim of ‘powerful voices’ is beyond disingenuous; it projects an inability to recognize and be responsible for his own actions, which torpedoed his political career. If he really wants to get back in the game (if that’s even possible at this point), he’s going to need more authenticity and less poll-tested pablum.” —Doug Forand, Founding partner, Red Horse Strategies

Title: “Dante”
Candidate: Bill de Blasio
Produced by: AKPD Message and Media (Chicago/New York City)
Length: 30 seconds
Description: A Brooklyn teenager lays out the reasons why de Blasio is the progressive choice for mayor—a teenager who turns out to be de Blasio’s son.

Pros: Ads that play to the emotions of viewers are hard to pull off, but this one does so adeptly. De Blasio’s son, Dante, comes off as likable and sincere, which makes his straightforward articulation of de Blasio’s positioning as a foil to the Bloomberg years and “a mayor for every New Yorker” believable. The woman nodding her head eight seconds into the ad, coupled with de Blasio appearing to reach out to the crowd, effectively helps to reinforce the tenor of the ad.

Cons: What amounts to a reveal for most viewers—that the speaker is de Blasio’s son—is slightly lost at the end of the ad, since we don’t see Dante when he says it and the audio trails off a bit. The on-screen image reinforces the point, so it’s not a total misstep, but perhaps it would have been better to amplify the last line slightly more.

Expert Opinion: “It’s a solid ad, and Dante deserves credit for delivering it well. The last thing Bill de Blasio wants is to be seen as the candidate of Park Slope privilege, so he’s smartly showing the diversity of his family while talking about issues that matter to working families and people of color. He clearly highlights poll-tested issues—taxing the rich, affordable housing, stop-and-frisk—but having his son deliver the message and showing him in his home family situation makes him a more authentic candidate to address these issues. —Doug Forand, Founding partner, Red Horse Strategies

Title: “Giving Back”
Candidate: John Catsimatidis
Produced by: The Victory Group (Tampa)
Length: 30 seconds
Description: A series of New Yorkers give testimonials fleshing out the candidate’s bio and singing his praises.

Pros: The appearances of former Gov. George Pataki and Luis Fortuño, the former governor of Puerto Rico, effectively establish his credibility as a candidate. The range of speakers hones in on the various demographics and ethnic groups the campaign is trying to target, and is particularly well oriented to the Republican primary electorate.

Cons: Several of the lines are vague and difficult for the viewer to easily discern their takeaways, most notably the line uttered by the candidate at the end of the spot. Some of the deliveries could be tightened up too: For instance, former Sen. Serph Maltese’s eyes drift down when he’s speaking. It would also have helped if Father Francis Gasparik were more easily identifiable as a clergyman by sight.

Expert Opinion: “There is far too much crammed into this ad and not much said that is compelling. The 11 surrogates each get so little airtime that I had to watch it multiple times to catch who they are, and I still cannot remember what they all said. That Catsimatidis gives back to the city is not enough of a rationale to elect him mayor. The ending is the strangest part: Catsimatidis says, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’ What exactly is ‘it’? Run for mayor? Give back? Either way, this ad does not add up.” —Anat Gerstein, President, Anat Gerstein Inc.

Title: “Serious”
Candidate: Joe Lhota
Produced by: Wilson Grand Communications (Alexandria, Va.)
Length: 30 seconds
Description: The ad casts the Democratic primary as a “circus,” and offers Lhota’s serious record of achievement and leadership as an antidote.

Pros: A crisp, succinct spot with a clear message, it gels with recent polling showing that New Yorkers are embarrassed by Anthony Weiner, who is quite deliberately shown first in the ad. The photos of the Democratic candidates (de Blasio in handcuffs, Quinn with bunny ears, Thompson with an awkward expression, and Liu’s big grin amid a sea of reporters) all hit the mark. A classic sickness-to-cure ad, the voice-over pillories Lhota’s opponents without tarnishing the candidate by having the attacks come out of his mouth.

Cons: The image of Central Park with the skyscraper under construction is not bad, but could probably have been improved upon. Perhaps the Freedom Tower rising would have been superior, particularly given the candidate’s association with 9/11.

Expert Opinion: “This is a smart ad. It combines three strong elements: (1) The tried-and-true practice of using known media outlets to establish credibility; (2) A great, timely hook that dredges up the embarrassing circus on the other side of the ticket; (3) It positions Lhota as the presumptive Republican nominee and the only rational candidate that the voters can elect. The tag line sums it up nicely, too. For everyone that gave Lhota credit for getting the subways up and running post-Sandy, the messaging also reinforces what they believe.” —Anat Gerstein, President, Anat Gerstein Inc.

An earlier version of this story appeared in our print edition on Aug. 19, 2013.

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