Critics slam New York's 'Open For Business' ad campaign as costly 'fluff'


Little more than half a year after Hurricane Sandy, New York is undergoing a storm of criticism over a business development advertising campaign that’s long on cost and short on reality, The American Interest blog reported May 5.

The cost

The Cuomo administration set aside about $140 million to fund the campaign. The governor’s office, according to the New York Times, claims that “the scale of the campaign is similar to that in other states.”

But other states whose tax, labor and regulatory policies have caused them to hemorrhage businesses are applying less costly tourniquets. “Connecticut is spending $27 million promoting its state, Michigan $25 million…California spent $50 million on a campaign to promote its state,” state operations manager Howard Glaser told the Times. All three  are less than $140 million. Combined.

The source

What’s prompted even more criticism than the cost is the source of all that money, namely, “ostensibly independent” state agencies that have functions other than paying for advertising.

A state official said the early stages of the ad campaign were partly financed by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which runs programs intended to reduce energy consumption and improve the environment, and the Dormitory Authority of New York, which supports universities and nonprofit institutions.

Last December, the Cuomo administration added another $50 million. The money came from the State Power Authority, which was created to generate and provide cheap electricity to lower bills for residents and business.

Last month, the state expanded the “Open for Business” campaign, using $40 million from the federal aid package intended to help New Yorkers recover from Hurricane Sandy, records show.

“These authorities should be lowering electric rates, building dormitories and otherwise doing what they were created to do, rather than being raided” to pay for the commercials and air time, former Westchester County state assemblyman Richard Brodsky (a Democrat, incidentally), told the Times.

The media buy

Half of the air time is being placed outside New York State, which raises the question of why half the air time designed to attract out-of-state businesses is running inside New York. Is there really that much business just across the state line in New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Vermont and Ontario up for grabs?

Critics also question the heavy network buys on CNN, CNBC and NBC. Geographically, a spot buy could bring heavier media weight to bear at lower cost in selected target markets. Demographically and behaviorally, there may be better media for reaching business decision-makers than across-the-board CNN.

The slogan

BBDO, the advertising agency for this campaign, has a history of creating strong and original advertising concepts. “Open for Business” isn’t one of them.

Wisconsin’s used it, to less than statewide acclaim.

So did West Virginia, until 2007, when it was withdrawn by popular demand.

The Message

The latest commercial (It’s not up on YouTube yet, so you’ll have to scroll down at the link to see it.), supposedly designed to attract small businesses, describes New York as a place “where small business is big business” and notes that it’s where “over 50,000 businesses were launched last year alone.”

This is true in a way, but a very strange way.

One of their examples, Steinway & Sons pianos, spent $875,000 for what was “the world’s largest solar-powered rooftop air-conditioning and dehumidification system” in 2009. That’s more than some genuinely small business make in years. Moreover, Steinway’s been in New York since 1853, which 159 years before “last year alone.”

Another example, Perry’s Ice Cream, does business in nine states, which is pretty big business for a small business.

Harvey Cohen, the political consultant who helped the present Governor Cuomo’s father win the governorship, and who’s now with the state government’s Empire State Development Corporation, says the campaign’s supposed to correct business relocation consultants’ “misconceptions.” True perceptions would be more like it.

“Yes they knew high taxes, yes they knew regulations, yes they knew right to work,” he said. So what, exactly, did they get wrong? Oh, “they certainly don’t know the new attitude brought in by the new administration,” as if attitude were all it took to change a real, objective situation.

To most other people, the campaign’s an expensive exercise in wishful thinking.

On NY1 television, Cuomo’s predecessor and fellow Democrat Eliot Spitzer said, “They’ve spent who knows how much money on TV ads that are fluff and a waste of taxpayer money.”

As far as Andrew Rudnick, CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership trade group is concerned, that’s a gross understatement. “New York’s business climate still isn’t competitive enough, in any objective sense of the word, for an ad to overcome,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think it’ll make a measurable amount of difference.”

Maybe Governor Cuomo and Mr. Cohen can take some solace from what Doyle Dane Bernbach founder Bill Bernbach told the Wall Street Journal in a 1965 interview. “Great advertising can make a bad product fail faster,” he said. “It gets more people to know it’s bad.”

No way is overtaxed, overregulated, closed-shop New York State a good product for small business relocation. But between the unoriginal campaign line and the overused testimonial technique (particularly for this category), no way is New York State in danger of running great advertising.

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