By: Joseph Spector, Gannett Albany Bureau

ALBANY – If you’ve seen a lot of ads in recent years to promote New York, there’s a reason why: The state has spent $207 million on them since 2012, records show.

New York has embarked on an aggressive advertising campaign under Gov. Andrew Cuomo to bolster its tourism industry and private-sector initiatives.

The state spent almost all of the $238 million allocated for the ads between 2012 and March 2015, records obtained through a Freedom of Information by Gannett's Albany Bureau found. The state took almost one year to fulfill the records request.

"In Governor Cuomo's first year, as part of his efforts to return the competence and function of state government, he revitalized the state's once robust business development and tourism efforts," Empire State Development, the state's economic-development arm, said in a report detailing the spending.

The state Legislature and Cuomo have agreed to include $50 million a year over the past five years for the campaign, and another $50 million is proposed for the upcoming fiscal year that starts April 1.

The spending, which includes ads for the "I Love NY" campaign, has drawn criticism from Cuomo foes, particularly the money spent to promote his Start-Up NY initiative, which creates tax-free zones for companies that move to New York or expand jobs.

In-state vs. out-of-state

Overall, the state spent $53 million on the Start-Up ads and marketing as of early 2015, including $44 million for the ads themselves, the records showed.

About $86 million was spent on TV and radio ads for three "Open for Business" campaigns and Start-Up NY, with 60 percent of the ads running out of state and 40 percent in state "in order to attract business from outside the state of New York while working to retain and expand businesses inside our state," Empire State Development said.

Business ineligible for Start-Up NY have been irked by the ads, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County, said. The state said more than 1,500 companies have enrolled in the program, pledging 4,000 new jobs over five years.

"Quite frankly, the folks already here and already paying taxes take a little bit of angst when they see a program advertised for a 10-year abatement and they’ve been here 100 years paying taxes," Kolb said.

Slow FOILs

The state has provided updates on the ad spending, but not without prompting. Gannett filed a Freedom of Information request on March 24, 2015, for the latest ad spending totals. The request was fulfilled Monday -- nearly a year later.

And Empire State Development only provided the spending as of when the initial FOIL request was made. So only spending up to March 2015 was provided. In 2014, the agency took a year to fulfill a similar FOIL request.
Cuomo has defended the ads, saying the money has boosted tourism and re-branded New York's business climate, which has been criticized for its high taxes and onerous regulations.

In November, Cuomo said the state would seek to increase its ad spending on the "I Love NY" program by $5 million -- bringing the total spending on the program to $50 million a year. He said that $100 million in overall tourism advertising in 2014 brought in additional $8 billion in revenue.

“Now, if we can get a return on investment where $100 million increases revenue $8 billion, I would do that every day,” he said in a video during the third annual state Tourism Summit near the Capitol.

New tourists

In 2014, New York's visitors increased by 8.2 million to nearly 227 tourists. Tourism is the state's fourth largest employer.

The campaign -- which have included pro bono guest spots by celebrities -- has sought to bring in tourists from out of state, but also to lure the 8 million people who live in New York City to upstate. So the ad campaigns have run mainly in-state.

During fall advertising campaigns, nearly $16 million was spent on ads, with 65 percent in-state, the records showed.

"These advertising campaigns are typically aimed at getting downstate residents to take fall weekend trips to Long Island and upstate," the report said.

BBDO, a New York City advertising firm, received nearly $11 million to create the ads, while nearly $16 million went to production costs. The state spent nearly $6 million on marketing events and sponsorships during the three-year stretch.

Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli last year criticized the ad spending, saying it lacked measurable results.

"If you're spending over $200 million on advertising, it would seem to me that they would have more metrics or ways to quantify what is the return on those dollars that are spent," DiNapoli said when he released the audit last May.