Ad Watch: Beyond The Five Boroughs – Primary Edition

Written by Morgan Pehme on . Posted in AdWatch.

So much attention has been paid to the New York City mayoral election that critical primary races across the rest of the state have played out largely under the radar. In this installment of Ad Watch, City & State and our panel of experts analyze commercials from candidates running for the mayoralties of Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, as well as for Nassau County executive.


Title: “What It Takes”
Candidate: Tom Richards
Produced by: SKDKnickerbocker (New York City/Washington, D.C.)
Length: 30 seconds
Description: Incumbent Mayor Tom Richards, running for his first full term in office, appears with various demographics of constituents as a voice-over touches upon several areas where Rochester is “making progress” under Richards.

Pros: This is a kitchen-sink ad, packed with issues and images aimed strategically at appealing to the largest possible swath of the electorate, since the campaign likely does not have the resources or need to produce and run multiple more targeted spots. Richards comes across as an affable, grandfatherly figure who relates easily to his diverse array of constituents. The shot of Richards with his popular predecessor, Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, who is unidentified in the ad, is subtle yet effective in conveying continuity between their administrations.

Cons: It is said that “promise is the soul of advertising”—and thus the greater the promise you can make to your audience, the more effective the sell. The boldest claim this ad makes is that Rochester is “making progress” under Richards, which is pretty faint praise—though perhaps the most the spot can credibly claim given Richards’ relatively short time in office and the realities on the ground in Rochester. This ad ticks off a bunch of improvements and investments being made in the city, though the spot is careful—or clumsy—not to say explicitly that those advancements can be attributed directly to Richards’ mayoralty.

Expert Opinion: “A bit wordy and packed with a checklist of unobjectionable items that
no doubt poll well from Mayor Richards’s record (jobs, schools, affordable housing, antigun violence plan), but it does the trick. In a clean, no-frills way it conveys a strong incumbent playing it safe, which is what he needs to be doing.”

—James Freedland, Managing Director, Metropolitan Public Strategies


Title: “Introduction”
Candidate: Lovely Warren
Produced by: Internally by the campaign
Length: 2 minutes 35 seconds
Description: This Web spot is the introductory video from the campaign website of mayoral candidate Lovely Warren, the president of Rochester’s City Council. It provides a brief overview of Rochester’s history before segueing into Warren’s vision to revitalize the once-proud city.

Pros: For an in-house ad, this spot has professional level production value and makes good use of archival footage.

Cons: Other than the candidate’s being from Rochester and having a family, this ad provides no information about her qualifications, nor does it put forward an argument as to why she should replace the incumbent mayor beyond the fact that the city has fallen on hard times—a deeply challenging predicament Warren presents no concrete solutions to reverse. Providing specifics is key to persuasion, but this ad foregoes any attempt at winning over the voter, taking the viewer on a walk down memory lane (to a past that is probably too old for anyone but seniors to actually remember) that ultimately comes across more as a downer than the uplifting message the ad seeks to convey. Lastly, using one’s cute kids as a campaign prop can be effective, but not when the child is portrayed looking off, confused and eager for the ad to end.

Expert Opinion: “Introductory spots like this should rely on some combination of bio and critique of the current officeholder. This ad does neither. Instead it comes off like a long, warmed-over lesson on Rochester’s decline with no solutions offered to reverse it other than ‘togetherness.’ The viewer is left wondering who Lovely Warren is and what office she’s running for.”

—James Freedland, Managing Director, Metropolitan Public Strategies


Title: “City on the Move”
Candidate: Stephanie Miner
Produced by: McKenna Pihlaja (Washington, D.C.)
Length: 30 seconds
Description: Miner, the incumbent, lays out her accomplishments as mayor, concluding,
“It hasn’t always been easy, but it is definitely worth it.”

Pros: This ad makes a compelling case for Miner’s re-election by concentrating on her specific accomplishments instead of relying on platitudes. It acknowledges the ongoing difficulties the city is facing—showing Syracusans the mayor is not out of touch with their concerns—but in a way that inspires optimism and reminds the audience that progress is already being made.

Cons: Though a bit of a nitpicking point, Miner’s makeup and wardrobe is a little bit too glamorous in context; for instance, the pearls and purple blouse she is wearing when strategizing with the cops belies the plausibility of the scene.

Expert Opinion: “This spot works well by matching Mayor Miner’s forward-focused message about Syracuse’s future to the pacing of the imagery. By having the mayor do the voice-over herself, coupled with action shots, she comes across as hands-on and personable. While it unsurprisingly steers clear of anything controversial, it’s effective for an incumbent whose goal is smooth sailing to re-election.”

—James Freedland, Managing Director, Metropolitan Public Strategies


Title: “Ourselves Alone”
Candidate: Pat Hogan
Produced by: Unknown, campaign did not respond to multiple inquiries
Length: 30 seconds
Description: City Councilor Pat Hogan talks about the grave challenges Syracuse is facing, but says that the city does not need Albany’s help, insisting instead that it can rise again on its own if its people join together.

Pros: In theory, this sickness-to-cure ad could be effective, starting with the woes of the city, and then transitioning with a positive music change to the uplifting spirit Hogan will channel as mayor. Its script, which is somewhat reminiscent of a locker room pep talk, could fire up some viewers.

Cons: The most glaring misstep of this ad is that the candidate is never seen, a particularly glaring omission in a spot where the candidate is the narrator. Although the candidate’s voice is folksy in an appealing way, because we never see Hogan, we ultimately can’t connect with him. Moreover, since the candidate is largely an unknown, the fact that we don’t learn a single thing about him, other than that he is running for mayor—a point that is not well reinforced by the ad, and easy to forget—the ad basically has no positive impact. On the contrary, it could actually have a negative effect on the viewer, because it’s awful slogan—“Ourselves Alone”—runs contrary to the message of “togetherness” it is trying to convey, and instead stresses “alone”—a feeling that most people viscerally want to avoid.

Expert Opinion: “With no visual of Pat Hogan or any mention of the incumbent, it’s unclear how this spot helps the challenger. The slogan “Ourselves Together, Ourselves Alone” is also distracting; it sounds like a women’s health book from the ‘70s meets a militant separatist group.”

—James Freedland, Managing Director, Metropolitan Public Strategies


Title: “Progress in Buffalo”
Candidate: Byron Brown
Produced by: Murphy Vogel Askew Reilly (Alexandria, VA)
Length: 2 minutes 12 seconds
Description: People from all walks of life make and hold up signs saying “PROGRESS” while talking about ways Mayor Brown has improved the city.

Pros: This extremely slickly produced Web spot is so effective that it could genuinely double as a spot to persuade people to move to Buffalo. As good as any commercial run by any candidate this election cycle, this sparklingly well-filmed ad dazzles with one high production value nuance after another from the parade of people pushing recycling boxes to the building being demolished in real time behind the speaker praising Brown. Artful touches like when the shot switches to the perspective of the surveillance camera demonstrate how much thought was put into every second of this ad.

Cons: None, except for the fact that it can’t be run on TV because of its length—though a version could likely be cut back to 30 seconds if needed.

Expert Opinion: “Barack Obama, prepare to take a lesson: THIS is what a ‘hope’ ad should look like. Smart, creative work, visionary imagery and expert production make this ad not only effective but artistic and (the almost impossible-to achieve) uplifting. Even the music is excellent; in tempo, tone and editing. We see the future in the kids in the opening scene who begin echoing the message of ‘progress.’ The soft warm light feels like dawn, and the day (and our outlook) brightens in each frame. We see America in this ad, with every drop in the melting pot, telling a story of hard work and hope—no accusations, no promises and clearly real people, not actors or stock photos. By the time Brown shows up and we realize this is a paid political ad, the case is already made. I found myself doodling ‘progress’ on a napkin watching it. I’d vote for any one of these people. It’s hard to get people to watch a two-minute ad, but this ad makes it easy.”

—Chris Miller, Partner, BrownMiller Group


Title: “Byron Brown’s Buffalo”
Candidate: Bernie Tolbert
Produced by: Unknown, the campaign did not respond to emailed inquiries and does not appear to have a phone number
Length: 30 seconds
Description: After a voice-over talks about the problems plaguing “Byron Brown’s Buffalo,” challenger Bernie Tolbert promises to turn around the city, because “This is not Byron Brown’s Buffalo—it’s ours.”

Pros: The statistics provided about Buffalo under Byron Brown are damaging and do make the case for a change.

Cons: This sickness-to-cure ad is not terrible, but its effectiveness is severely undercut by its poor production value. In an age of inexpensive prosumer HD cameras, putting out an ad that looks like it was shot with an old camcorder is simply inexcusable, particularly because it conveys the sense that the candidate is an amateur—an impression not likely to win over any donors on the fence about whether to put money into challenging the incumbent. Color correction and better sound recording and mixing could have helped salvage this ad to a degree, but not enough to overcome the deficiency of its DV image.

Expert Opinion: “This ad attempts to blame the opposing candidate for Buffalo’s economic outlook, but instead uses unclear images, overacted narration and an unpracticed monologue from the candidate to leave the eye weary, the mind confused, and the viewer hoping that the guy in the commercial doesn’t end up in charge of anything. It’s hard to gather much from Tolbert’s statement other than that he’s a retired FBI agent. How this qualifies him to run Buffalo is left to the imagination. Even the ‘regular guy’ scene in the final six seconds leaves one unsure whether he’s giving an awkward demonstration of how to throw a football or if he’s pretending to fly a space ship. This goes to show that a poorly produced ad can squander the opportunity presented by the most salient of issues.”

—Chris Miller, Partner, BrownMiller Group


Title: “Counting”
Candidate: Tom Suozzi
Produced by: Murphy Vogel Askew Reilly (Alexandria, VA)
Length: 30 seconds
Description: Suozzi asks Nassau County kids to try to count to 2 billion as an illustration of the immensity of the $2 billion in new borrowing the incumbent Ed Mangano has left for future generations to repay.

Pros: This ad humanizes a wonky statistic to great effect. Artfully it ties the $2 billion in borrowing to the repercussions for Nassau County’s children while driving home the immensity of that number with the light touch of kids counting. By placing Suozzi in a classroom as he speaks to the camera, it also positively connects him with children and education in the mind of the viewer—a happy bonus. That Ed Mangano’s name comes up on screen next to a chubby, comically flustered kid who somewhat resembles the county executive could have been unintentional, but given how carefully put together the rest of this ad is—down to the playful font—it’s hard to conclude that such a deft touch was by chance.

Cons: None.

Expert Opinion: “This ad is smart and focused. Generally, putting little kids in political ads comes across as gimmicky, but not in this case. The $2 billion amount hits an important issue with Nassau voters, and effectively uses very likable kids to pull off the connection. Due to a strong message presented in combination with good messengers, I give this ad an A.”

Thomas Doherty, Partner, Mercury Public Affairs


Title: “Where’re All the Hacks and the Cronies?”
Candidate: Adam Haber
Produced by: Sway (Washington, D.C.)
Length: 30 seconds
Description: The first half of the ad dramatizes a future where Haber is Nassau County executive, and an old machine hack is outraged by the change from business as usual. In second half, Haber explains how he will bring about this future.

Pros: The concept of this ad is clever and skillfully hones in on an issue—cronyism—that is all too familiar to Nassau County voters, and one that makes a good case to elect an outsider like Haber. The actor playing the hack sells the role convincingly and makes the commercial genuinely entertaining—a rare feat for any ad. Another upside of the spot’s setup is that it portrays Haber already in the role of county executive—the first shot is of Haber’s name and title on a door plaque—which in a subtle way acclimates voters to accepting him in the seat.

Cons: The weakest part of this ad is the candidate. Haber’s voice lacks power, and the shot of him in a merlot-colored long sleeve shirt, holding an upscale disposable coffee cup, does not instill confidence that this will be the guy who have the fortitude to finally drum the hacks and cronies out of office.

Expert Opinion: “This ad is way too gimmicky, and the message gets lost. I remember a guy eating a big bagel or a donut. The fact that I’m left thinking about what some guy was eating says it all. Haber would have been better off talking about his business experience to draw you to conclusion he is the man to stop the political shenanigans.”

—Thomas Doherty, Partner, Mercury Public Affairs

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