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Wise guy, eh? Rossi's new campaign ads play on mob theme

Posters from the Rocco Rossi Campaign for Toronto Mayor

Rocco Rossi's campaign is sleeping with the fishes.

One day after a poll indicated his already slim support was getting slimmer, the Italian-Canadian candidate for Toronto mayor gambled for attention with the launch of an ad campaign playing on Mafia stereotypes that asserts he has the "bocce balls" to straighten out city hall.

The campaign riffs on popular mob imagery with three black-and-white posters that evoke ads for The Sopranos. Mr. Rossi is depicted as a Mafia don, his starkly lit face floating above silhouettes of Toronto and the words in blood red: "Wise Guy," "Goodfella," and "Bocce Balls."

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A trio of radio spots airing on AM radio as part of the $100,000 effort to extend the tone and feel of the posters, with an actor adopting a stereotypical New Jersey-area Italian accent extolling the virtues of Mr. Rossi.

"How ya' doin'?" one radio spot begins. "There's this guy, running for mayor, Rocco Rossi? He knows the last thing we need is some same-old-same-old politician runnin' city hall. When he's mayor, he's gonna' give us the power to recall him! You know, kick 'im out if he don't deliver. How many politicians do dat? Now dat's bocce balls!"

At a press event Monday, which was overshadowed by a new poll indicating his support among voters had slipped from 9 per cent to 7.2 per cent, Mr. Rossi called the ads "bold" and "creative," and said tongue-in-cheek that he'd convened a few of his "associates" to ask their opinion. "'Rocco,' one of them said, 'I too play bocce. My favourite movie is Goodfellas. We're Italians. Be proud. Turn the stereotype on its head.'"

While Mr. Rossi acknowledged the stereotype had not yet been a factor in his poor performance, those who choose to play with mob images can get burned. Even as The Sopranos was acclaimed as one of the best shows in the history of television, its often brutal depiction of the mob life was frequently attacked by Italian-Americans for trafficking in ugly stereotypes.

Mr. Rossi, who noted the ads came out of Cundari, the communications agency headed by his Italian-Canadian friend and supporter Aldo Cundari, said he was unconcerned about a similar controversy bedevilling his campaign.

"I'm so incredibly proud of my Italian heritage, and all the attempts at feeling insecure that one characterization is supposed to tar a contribution of a wave of immigrants that's helped to literally build from the ground up, the U.S. and Canada, I think is people who have no sense of humour and who are insecure in their identity. I have no such insecurity and that's why I can make fun of it and turn the words into things that I think are positive."

Asked if those who might be offended are simply too insecure, Mr. Rossi replied: "It's only a problem if you allow it to be a problem, if you allow it to get to you, and it hasn't to me."

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A few members of Toronto's Italian community were left scratching their heads. "I guess some people are going to be sensitive and take it personal," said Connie Lamanna, the chair of the Corso Italia business improvement area. "I'm Italian. I don't know too many people who are portrayed in that light."

Frank Mastracci, who owns a textile shop on St. Clair West, said the ads were open to a variety of interpretations. "You can dig deeper if you want, like the ads say: 'I'm Italian, I kind of want to do things under the table.' " Still, to Mr. Mastracci's ears, the radio ads commit a sin worse than stereotyping. "His accent's from New York, so how does that help me? I'm from Toronto."

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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