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First Ad Blitz in N.Y.C. Mayor’s Race Has an Unlikely Star: Obama

With the pandemic transforming New York City’s mayoral race into a mostly virtual affair, the best way to connect directly with voters would seem to be through television ads. Yet so far, the airwaves have been silent.

That will change on Tuesday, when Shaun Donovan, the former Obama and Bloomberg administration official, kicks off the first television ad campaign of any significance in the contest.

Mr. Donovan’s team is describing it initially as a “six-figure” campaign, but the ads will be spread across the next several months through the June 22 mayoral primary — potentially watering down the impact of the ad buy.

Mr. Donovan also has less money than some of his better-funded rivals, who can be expected to spend far more once their ads begin hitting the airwaves. Still, this is the race’s first television advertising purchase, according to AdImpact, an advertising analytics firm.

As New York City faces economic and health crises of profound gravity, Mr. Donovan, a Democrat who served in the Obama administration as budget director and housing secretary, has sought to focus voter attention on his experience in Washington.

His first ad campaign hits that theme, beginning with former President Barack Obama extolling Mr. Donovan’s virtues after he had nominated him as the White House budget director in 2014.

“Shaun’s just one of those people where he sees a problem, and he will work to solve it,” Mr. Obama said then.

The 30-second ad then progresses through images of President Biden warmly embracing Mr. Donovan, and Mr. Donovan meeting with Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Throughout his campaign, Mr. Donovan has seemed to distance himself from former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, for whom he ran the city’s housing department. The commercial continues to reflect that distancing, with Mr. Bloomberg making a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.

Part of Mr. Bloomberg’s face can be seen in an image of Mr. Donovan on Marine One with Mr. Obama and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as they respond to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy.

The ad, produced by the Win Company, will run on cable television in all five boroughs. The campaign is betting that this first direct mass communication with voters will enable Mr. Donovan to better define the narrative of the mayoral campaign and achieve greater name recognition.

Mr. Donovan has yet to break through to the front of the pack in this year’s race. He has about $900,000 in cash on hand, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, compared with the $6.7 million that the Brooklyn borough president, Eric Adams, has on hand; the $5.8 million that the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, has on hand; and the $3.8 million the former Citi executive Raymond J. McGuire has at his disposal.

“I represent real change,” Mr. Donovan says, speaking to the camera from in front of a row of brownstones in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Lefferts Gardens, not far from his Boerum Hill home. “But the change candidate usually has the least experience. I actually have the most.”

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