By Derek Rucker
February 26, 2017

For the first time, The New York Times is expected to air a television ad during the Academy Awards this Sunday. This is unexpected for the 165-year-old news company that has built its reputation on print and rarely ever advertised on television, but it comes at a time when the media giant is looking to affirm its brand equity around truth and assert its position as a trusted news source amid the current conflict between the White House and the media.

The TV ad spot, called “The Truth,” speaks to the current zeitgeist in which politics and traditional media have been cast as adversaries. The Trump Administration targeted The Times more than any other print publication, with President Trump slamming it for what he called “fake news” in several tweets.

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon intensified the media feud this week, saying: “If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

However, many Americans still trust the media more than Trump when it comes to truth on important issues, according to a new poll published by USA Today. It found that 52% said they trusted the media more the Trump, while 37% said they trusted the president more than the media. Upon closer inspection, the poll also speaks to fractures along party lines. The results were split largely along party lines with 86% of Democrats being more inclined to believe the media, while 78% of Republicans put their trust in Trump to tell them the truth.

Against this political backdrop, The Times’ ad is a bold statement with what appears to be a very opportune timing. The 30-second ad features black text on a white background with a chorus of voices stating conflicting views on “the truth” pulled from current events. The ad culminates with the message, “The truth is hard. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important than ever.”

The minimalist ad creates a visual impact that’s likely to stand out with viewers—it’s not the normal fare for a TV commercial—and it’s a powerful contrast amid the visual spectacle of the Oscars with its red carpet celebrity appearances, movie clips, and performances. “The Truth” is part of a multi-faceted Times’ campaign that includes national TV and digital ads, plus billboards in Los Angeles, Washington, New York, and San Francisco.

As reflected in the split along party lines in the poll on trust and important information, there is a reasonable chance that such a topical ad could be polarizing. Undoubtedly, The Times has calculated that risk and is willing to confront any fallout. One possible mitigating factor is that Hollywood has a reputation for being more liberal and pro-media, as evidenced by actress Meryl Streep’s politically charged speech at the Golden Globe Awards last month. Therefore, The Times’ ad might strike a chord with much of the Oscars’ audience and could further mobilize a base of like-minded people.

From a branding perspective, whatever risks The Times faces, it appears to be a savvy move that is earning substantial media attention already. It’s creating a buzz across channels that reduces the risk that it will get lost in the mix of Oscars hype and other news. This buzz may help add to what appears to be experiencing a period of strength for the media company. The Times reported adding 276,000 new digital news subscriptions in the fourth quarter of 2016, more additions than in 2013 and 2014 combined.

“The Truth” ad campaign also calls to mind The Times’ legacy and its brand equity as a trailblazer in news reporting and a champion for freedom of the press. In 1971, for example, in what became known as the “Pentagon Papers Case,” The Times and The Washington Post prevailed in a First Amendment case that went to the Supreme Court, on the media’s right to publish classified U.S. Department of Defense information on the origins of the Vietnam War.

Today, with ads like “The Truth,” The Times might solidify its reputation as a trustworthy source of news. As research from my colleagues at Northwestern University shows, trust is among the most potent elements of a company’s brand equity. This reveals the ad as both strategic and potentially impactful. David Rubin, senior vice president and head of brand for The Times, was quoted as saying, “There’s a national, and frankly global dialogue about the importance of facts and the truth and specifically the role quality independent, original journalism plays in that. The Oscars is a great broad showcase for us to continue that dialogue and discussion and the role The Times’ journalism plays in it and get people talking about the work we do.”

Derek Rucker is a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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