Dante's Afro: The Hair Apparent

  • by September 11, 2013
“Go with the ‘Fro!” screams the front-page headline of today’s Daily News, announcing the winner of the New York City mayoral Democratic primary. It’s Bill de Blasio, with 40% or so of the vote.  While there could be a runoff, de Blasio has clearly snagged the lead.

It might seem insane to say that a head of hair, no matter how eye-catching or excellent, could win the mayoralty. But in this case, it’s true. The ‘fro knows.

Indeed, de Blasio was a fourth-place contender, a middle-aged white guy mired in a crowded field of liberals, pushing his not especially emboldening “tale of two cities” take on the effects of 12 years of Bloomberg rule.

Then his campaign launched the visually low-key TV spot featuring his 15-year-old biracial son, Dante, and D’s totally telegenic Afro. From that moment on, the de Blasio campaign, shall we say, gelled. The Afro started polling like gangbusters; wisely, de Blasio’s handlers chose to put all of his ad money into TV once the spot, and the kid, caught fire.



But I actually felt sorry for the son when I first watched  the spot. The word “pandering” came to mind. Dante, a big and obviously sweet teenaged kid, seemed nervous and tentative in the opening seconds while reading from a teleprompter in a kitchen; his eyes were unfocused at times.

Then the spot moves to quicker cuts to pound away at the candidate’s anti-Bloomberg talking points, which all  coalesce into this line: “He’s the only one who will end the stop-and-frisk era that targets people of color.”

That’s exactly the issue that the other candidates were too fearful to articulate so clearly.

Here’s the genius of the strategy: De Blasio is sensitive to the racial and ethnic boundaries that distanced Bloomberg from a lot of the diverse electorate, even if billionaire Bloomie did try to speak  (and wound up mangling) Spanish.

Finally, we get to the most powerful part of the spot, the ending -- just as viewers who knew nothing about de Blasio are starting to wonder why this soft-spoken kid with the charismatic Afro is getting so much air time.

We see a slow-motion walk down the street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with Dante  wearing a dark (“Brooklyn”) sweatshirt and a dark backpack, walking next to the candidate, a tall white guy in a suit. “Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker, no matter where they live or what they look like,” Dante says, in a voiceover. But wait, there’s more! Get ready for the money quote: “And I’d say that even if he weren’t my Dad.” Ba-dum-bum! 

What a home run, being able to talk about race in an organic, everyday way (by dint of being married to an African-American, Chirlane McCray, and having two kids with her) distinguishing de Blasio from the rest of the pack.  

Weiner talked about fighting for “the middle class” but never clearly stated that he meant a diverse middle class. The original front-runner, Christine Quinn, was tarred by her connection to Bloomberg’s elitism. And Thompson, the only black candidate, refused to come out as clearly against stop-and-frisk because he wanted the endorsement of the police and firefighters’ unions.

The timing was also essential: The image of Dante in his sweatshirt resonated in the summer of the Trayvon Martin trial. “Trayvon could be me” Obama said of the teenager out buying candy.  And the glaring injustice of  Zimmerman’s  (who executed his own stop-and-risk) getting off with no additional jail time, was fresh.

At the same time, the nation and the media celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, along with reviving the historical footage that offered its own civil rights lessons.

And the popular movie “The Butler” included an Angela Davis-type character with a ‘fro similar to Dante’s.

Most important, the hair was a natural part of the kid and his personality. It’s not as if he grew it for the commercial. He’s been rocking a ‘fro since third grade, he told DNAinfo, inspired by Huey from  the cartoon series “The Boondocks.”

So here’s the full-circle stuff: Huey, Dante’s hero, takes his name from Huey Newton, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party in the late ‘60s. Dante’s impressive cloud of hair comes to us via a cute middle-class kid’s love of comic books and an animated series based on the roots of black power.

But there’s another, less political, more absurdly commercial reason the follicles as focal point resonated so tremendously with TV viewers. Political spots are usually ugly (with stock photos and articles ripped from the headlines), and boring.  But de Blasio’s features a deep dive with an unusually interesting kid, and a surprisingly delightful tagline.

Come to think of it, the power of Dante’s end line itself springs from some heavy TV-commercial royalty.  Remember Sy Sperling’s  Hair Club for Men?   His ads were ubiquitous from the early 1980s to the 1990s.  After blathering on and on in his Brooklyn accent about doctors and studies, how did Sy end his ads? “I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.” 

“And I’d say that even if he weren’t my Dad,” says Dante, somewhat by way of Sy.

Way for de Blasio to go with the ‘fro. For him, diversity is not just business, it’s personal. Take it from his kid, and the cloud.

25 comments about "Dante's Afro: The Hair Apparent".
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  1. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, September 11, 2013 at 4:10 p.m.

    This campaign and the ad, was indeed an excellent political lesson. Let's hope people don't try to imitate it in order to imitate its success. Thankfully, imitate and genuine are exclusive to each other. I learned something from a presentation from James Carville way back; be as negative as you can during the campaign, but in the last week, people will remember if your last message was the most positive.

  2. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, September 11, 2013 at 4:26 p.m.

    Ok. So Lhota (who Barbara you might remember I jumped on his wagon when there was no band yet) has a fine counter for the Fall campaign.
    He gets his child to shave her head and do a bald commercial.
    The two cities idea was, of course, first done by Axelrod for Ferrer who had borrowed it from that great enunciator of class distinctions, John Edwards who broadened the pitch by talking about two countries, almost touching on the 47% later blurted out by Mitt Romney in a private moment made public by a telephone recorder.
    This mayoral election is probably the most important for the city since 1993 when squeegee men reigned supreme, the subway cars were festooned with graffiti, and small crimes were so ignored that large crimes (like murder) were three times what they are today.

  3. Dyann Espinosa from IntraStasis, September 11, 2013 at 4:49 p.m.

    For a West-Coaster, removed from the politics of NYC, this piece gave some insight into Bill de Blasio.
    It turned him from just a name into a person and gave me a context with which to better understand the election.
    (So glad to have Weiner removed from the media spotlight finally after a campaign that was akin to committing hari kari in front of us)

  4. Dorothea Marcus from Weichert Realtors, September 11, 2013 at 5 p.m.

    Great piece, Barbara. So glad you wrote about de Blasio, his ads, his family. I think they would be like the Obamas for NYC -- new generation, educated, cool, great kids, respectful marriage. Also interesting to read in NYT that de Blasio campaign put all its money into TV. No mail pieces at all. When I get those expensive shiny brochures, it always seems so wasteful to me. Maybe political TV ads are the ones which will still have an impact in the Internet age, especially since they're so easy to share online. Plus other big advantage de Blasio had was his height -- at the mayoral debate he seemed a foot taller than everyone else. Last night on NY1, his daughter Chiara gave him a very charming intro too...

  5. Barbara Lippert from, September 11, 2013 at 7:11 p.m.

    @Tom-- I loved the fact that Lhota's opponent, John Catsamidis, head of the Gristedes empire, ran print ads that looked like they were ads promoting canned specials and local produce. He also fell asleep twice during a debate!
    @Dorothea-- yes, meant to mention De B's height.
    He could hold Bloomberg like a moonbeam in his hand!

  6. Barbara Lippert from, September 11, 2013 at 7:12 p.m.

    @Dyann-- Yes, Spitzer left as gloriously as he came in, with his erstwhile sexting girlfriend showing up at HQ and , after his concession speech, flipping the bird at the media.
    At least Huma is free and clear to leave!

  7. A Brody from TECHmarketing, September 11, 2013 at 7:34 p.m.

    This was right on the money - all the way down to the comic book references. This is definitely a moment of cultural transformation - the children of Obama generation.

    Expect to see this theme WIDELY copied.

    (By the way I once wrote a Graphic Novel about the first white guy to "run" for chief in Africa and his biracial great great Brooklyn! Its called White Shaka....)

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 11, 2013 at 9:02 p.m.

    A Brody: Do your homework. You do not want to be associated with Shaka in any way. Great story. Very, very, very bad ending for the Zulus.

  9. STEVE CLIMONS from Crosssover Creative, September 11, 2013 at 10:53 p.m.

    Interesting spot and times in NYC. The question I have which I can't tell from this article Barbara is do you want him to win?

  10. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, September 12, 2013 at 7:47 a.m.

    Barbara will vote for Lhota, but she will send in an absentee ballot to avoid being stopped and frisked on the way to the polls. Reading the stuff above, it seems more a return of John Lindsay than the rebirth of Obamaism in NY. After Lindsay left, some guy running had a line "after eight years of charisma, let's try competence for a change." DeBlasio seems like a reverse of that given the well-managed city government of Bloomberg and Giuliani.

  11. Edmund Singleton from Winstion Communications, September 12, 2013 at 11:33 a.m.

    A natural Afro in a age of streaking dyed blond hair everywhere, what a welcome wind of fresh air or should I say fresh hair...

  12. Barbara Lippert from, September 12, 2013 at 12:14 p.m.

    @Tom. (or should I say, Thom?) very funny! I and @Steve-- I did not vote for De B. but he clearly had the winning ad.
    Don't know what I'm going to do now. And I have to say, walking around the city last Saturday, that Bloomberg had a vision and he executed it. The parks were blooming, (pardon the expression) the open spaces buzzing with people sitting at tables, like in Paris, and the bikes were working.
    That said, he was insensitive to minorities and the non-rich in general. Did a bad job with the schools.
    I can't stand Guiliani. Yikes.
    So I don't know whom I'm voting for. Just writing about the most memorable ad of the election so far.

  13. A Brody from TECHmarketing, September 12, 2013 at 12:39 p.m.

    Shaka is to the Zulus what Jobs is to Apple. Not perfect by any means, but their creator. It is also a great marketing story (if you don't mind a little blood and gore) about a guy who invented a better spear and then a whole new way to go to war with it!

  14. George Parker from Parker Consultants, September 12, 2013 at 5:05 p.m.

    @Tom & Barbara...
    Speaking of Lindsay, before Barbara was born, I worked on his re-election campaign. His first term was a shit storm of disasters and fuck ups... So we came up with the brilliant strategy that he should acknowledge this, and we did spots with him saying he fucked up (he didn't exactly use those words, but that was the gist of it) However, he had learned by experience and if given another chance, he would do better. So, New York gave him another chance... And he fucked up even worse! Just think, if Weiner had done this, he could be on his way to Gracy Mansion. Is this a great country or what?
    Cheers/George "AdScam" Parker

  15. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, September 12, 2013 at 9:41 p.m.

    george, that lindsay re-election spot was a truly great political spot........didn't know you were involved.....congratulations....

  16. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, September 12, 2013 at 9:42 p.m.

    did you get the idea from profumo?

  17. George Parker from Parker Consultants, September 12, 2013 at 10:17 p.m.

    Profumo actually went off and did a lot of very worthy charity work until his death. I think Lindsay went off and played tennis.

  18. George Parker from Parker Consultants, September 12, 2013 at 10:21 p.m.

    At least in those days, real agency people got involved, both Dems and GOPers. Now it's all "Consultants" who seem to specialize in nothing but attack ads. Wankers.

  19. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, September 13, 2013 at 7:31 a.m.

    Lindsay ended up pretty tragically in one of the Carolinas after giving the crabs to Florence Henderson, assuming her anecdote is the truth. Lindsay, though, was rare in that he had two great campaigns. He should have saved one for a Presidential run instead of being Mayor, but he had Rockefeller to share the GOP stage with in New York and was short a billion or two to compete. Would have had a fine career as Congressman and maybe ended up a judge. Instead he shared a shuttle flight once in the late 80s with me to Boston, on which he stared straight ahead in a fog presaging I suppose the stroke that put him down. I had thought David Garth worked on Lindsay, but the really great poster was actuallly written by Murray Kempton: "He is fresh and everyone else is tired." Don't know who the art director was.

  20. Barbara Lippert from, September 13, 2013 at 9:26 a.m.

    Thanks for the Lindsayana, George and Tom!
    I remember reading, shortly before his death, that he he earlier had had no health insurance, and that one of his friends had stepped up to pay it.

  21. Marie Lemerise from the tapestry group, September 13, 2013 at 11:53 a.m.

    Thanks for the back story on Dante's afro. The strong emotional pull of the TV commercial's ending seemed to tap a yearning for a devoted, loving family (regardless of race). The gesture at the end of the spot, dad's hand on son's shoulder spoke volumes. deBlasio stands tall symbolically as well in contrast to the low life Weiner, and Liu who cheated in a different way. And, wouldn't nearly every mom want a son like that at age 15 instead of a sultry, non-communicative boy who won't wash his hair? Small wonder then that deBlasio did well across all boros, income groups and ethnic groups. Only, we worry he cannot deliver. Is he all heart? NYC's mayor has to have some ruthlessness to run this great place.

  22. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, September 14, 2013 at 8:39 a.m.

    Even Chris Matthews admitted the other day that New York City's government has been incredibly managed over the last 20 years. Scarborough added that it may be the best government in the world. And it is the Mayor who accomplishes that. De Blasio is too much of a leftist ideologue to run a successful city. Better that he run De Troit.
    In ad news, it was reported that Axelrod did not get a cut of the media for the Obama campaign. That is an injustice. This guy was everything for Obama.

  23. Jim English from The Met Museum, September 14, 2013 at 11:53 a.m.

    As Barbara points out it's the sweetness of Dante that makes the spot work. Watching deBlasio walk down the street with his son I was thinking more of Mayberry, NC than New York, NY.

  24. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, September 16, 2013 at 7:54 a.m.

    debu kapa makes a very good point and reminds me of people i worked with who went to a meeting to make a point and eventually made it whatever the for family members doing spots......the classic in the field was al d'amato's mother doing a commercial (roger ailes may have written and produced it) for him the first time he ran after beating javits in a primary.....d'amato's negatives were off the chart, but his mother was so down to earth and human that he went on to win in the fall and lasted three terms.......

  25. Barbara Lippert from, September 17, 2013 at 10:36 p.m.

    @Jim-- you are so right! They seem to be an authentic, honest, funny family, and Brooklyn can be Mayberry in that case.

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