As the race for New York City mayor ticked down to its final hours, a top aide to candidate Christine Quinn angrily ticked off the reasons why the one-time front-runner seemed destined to lose: there was what her campaign perceived as a tangible bias in the media. There was the fact that Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed determined to sabotage his supposed ally. And there was “The Ad.”
“That ad,” the aide said amidst last minute vote hunting. “Killed us.”
The ad, called “Dante,” actually began to air after Bill de Blasio started to inch up in the polls. But it kept on running, fueling de Blasio’s rise as the campaign eschewed mail pieces in favor of a blanketing the airwaves with the spot.
In many ways, “Dante” looked like many other political ads that run ad nauseum during campaign season. It featured family, street scenes of Brooklyn, footage of the candidate speaking with voters.
But its narrator was different. For one, he was a kid, de Blasio’s 15-year-old son Dante. For another, he is black, and sporting an oversized Afro. Looking directly into the camera, he begins by simply saying, “I want to tell you a little bit about Bill de Blasio.”
But what follows is a harsh denunciation of the last 12 years of the Bloomberg administration and not-too-subtle invocation of the fact that de Blasio’s opponents in the Democratic primary weren’t promising as clean a break with the current occupant of City Hall. The ad touts de Blasio’s plan to add taxes on the rich and his affordable housing plan, which promises to build or preserve 200,000 units, many times what his rivals pledged.
“He’s the only Democrat with the guts to really break from the Bloomberg years,” Dante says over shots of de Blasio talking to a multi-racial cast at a diner, and of parents crossing a Brooklyn street with their children. “The only one who will raise taxes on the rich to fund early childhood and after school programs. He’s got the boldest plan to build affordable housing.”
“The way this ad opens, it makes it very clear from the start that this is somebody who is not going to do anything like what Bloomberg did,” said Benjamin Bates, a professor of the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University. “He is speaking to issues of common point rather than of identity politics.”
Then comes the kicker. Dante doesn’t begin by saying, “Let me tell you about my dad.” He says “Let me tell you about Bill de Blasio,” and it is unclear why he would be doing that until footage of him, and footage of de Blasio at home with Dante and his wife, Chirlane McCray, reveals that he is the candidate’s son. And that the issue that has been roiling the city for much of the past year—the police department’s stop-and frisk policy—is one that hits close to the de Blasio’s home.
“And he is the only one who will end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color. Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker, no matter where they live or what they look like, and I’d say that even if he weren’t my Dad,” Dante says.
“It shows that in the public context and the home context, de Blasio is the same,” said Bates. “Someone who doesn’t believe that the color line exists.”
The spot was the brainchild of John del Cecato, a political strategist and partner in the consulting firm owned by David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s longtime political aide. A resident of the hipster bohemian East Village section of New York, del Cecato has said that successful political ads come down to a simple thing: character.
“What people vote on at the end of the day is ‘Do I like this person? Do I understand this person? And most importantly, do they understand my life?’” he told an interviewer recently.
Del Cecato was a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and joined Obama’s 2008 effort in the heat of the primary campaign in order to help with the campaign’s rapid response effort. In 2012, he produced “Firms,” for the Obama campaign, an ad which featured audio of Mitt Romney singing a way off-tune “America the Beautiful” over headlines about the Republican nominee shipping jobs to Mexico and hiding his investment income in off-shore accounts. It was, in the words of journalist Sasha Issenberg, “a masterpiece.”
Del Cecato signed on with de Blasio early, and said that he came to the campaign with several ideas for ads. Dante though had spoken up forcefully for his father at the campaign kick-off in January, even writing his speech himself and tossing aside the consultant’s talking points. He wanted to do so again, and it was decided that he would. And again, Dante tossed out portions of del Cecato’s script, rewriting it so that it sounded more authentic.
“Kids that age are incapable of insincerity,” del Cecato said. “You could ask a 15 year old to act a certain way or to say something they didn’t mean, but you are not going to get a response you like because they won’t do it. I think part of it was that he didn’t need direction, that he wouldn’t take direction and was going to say it the way he wanted. He is at the age where BS is not an option.”
Father and son are shown walking to school as early morning light cuts across the street, a subtle reminder that if elected de Blasio will be the first New York mayor with a child in public school, and a subtle reminder too that he does not come from the Manhattan power elite that has produced most of the city’s leaders (Dante drives the point home with a hoodie that says “Brooklyn” across the front.) It was not so much an appeal to African-American voters—although they were certainly part of the target audience—as it was an effort to frame a bigger, more inclusive vision for the city, to point out that police practices affect even those who don’t live in poor communities, and that everyone has a stake in living in a city with decent housing and decent schools.
Almost all campaigns use footage of family in ads when they can. Often it is the wife who speaks, and the kids are mere props. But what makes “Dante” unique is that it is not just the son who speaks—it’s that Dante says a lot more than just what kind of father his dad is; he speaks to a vision of the city, and so articulates the campaign’s key policy points in ways few others would be capable of.
“Politics works best when it is a cause,” del Cecato said. “When you have a bold proposal that you can rally people behind, that you aren’t going to be trimming your sails to fit the political moment but are really looking to empower people.”
De Blasio, he said, “wanted to communicate that he was a mayor who would work for every neighborhood.”
Del Cecato declined to say more, noting that there was still at the very least an election in November that the campaign had to get through, but did say that there was no ad-making wizardry involved.
“I would love to say that it was some technical trick, but really the power of the ad to me was in the messenger and the message and that is what made the ad. I made the ad, but Dante made the ad.”