CNN is throwing something new at people who have tried to portray it as a purveyor of so-called “fake news.”
In what may be one of the most distinctive and unorthodox promotional campaigns from the Time Warner cable-news outlet since Ted Turner launched it in 1980, CNN will push back against the portrayal by critics and members of the Trump administration that it dispenses made-up stories to the public in deliberate fashion. A new branding campaign gives the network a new slogan: “Facts First.”
At a time when President Trump and his representatives have been caught in many instances of giving out inaccurate information and details, “CNN has never been more relevant than we are now,” says Allison Gollust, CNN Worldwide’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, in an interview. “There’s a conversation happening around journalism and media and the First Amendment,” she says. “It’s happening right now. We felt compelled to participate in that conversation with a brand campaign that reminds people who we are and what we do and why we do it.”
What a difference a political cycle makes. Not too long ago, in 2010, CNN suffered while critics charged its content was too middle-of-the-road or plain-vanilla, in contrast with what was being delivered by Fox News Channel or MSNBC. Now, after scrapping “Piers Morgan Tonight” for newsier primetime programming and colorful non-fiction documentaries and docu-series, the network sometimes finds itself on defense when its reporting has spice, and fact-checks Trump administration policies and pronouncements.
The campaign launches as new concerns rise about the public’s ability to ferret out real information from manipulated stuff. A recent Pew Research survey found that 51% of technologists and scholars surveyed think the current “information environment” will not improve, owing to bad actors using “new digital tools to take advantage of humans’ inbred preference for comfort and convenience and their craving for the answers they find in reinforcing echo chambers.” Some even contemplated “a future information landscape in which fake information crowds out reliable information.” Pew Research said 49% of those surveyed felt technology and human desire would help solve the problem.
One of the promos, which start appearing on CNN today, shows a stark picture of an apple on the screen, while music plays. “This is an apple,” says a narrator. “Some people might try to tell you that it’s a banana. They might scream ‘Banana. Banana. Banana.’ over and over and over again. They might put ‘banana’ in all caps. You might even start to believe that this is a banana. But it’s not,” counsels the voice. “This is an apple.”
The “Facts First” slogan “speaks to what differentiates CNN, particularly from our two primary cable-news competitors,” says Gollust. Fox News Channel presents conservative-leaning opinion in primetime and on some other programs, while MSNBC relies on progressive minded hosts in the evening. “Each of them take a point of view. They do it very well,” says Gollust. “They sometimes start with a point of view and go from there. We start with a fact.”
CNN plans other executions of the concept in a similar vein, says Gollust, and expects to use its own air as well as other networks operated by Time Warner unit Turner to get its message out. “We don’t have a separate media buy campaign for right now, but hopefully that will come in the weeks and months ahead,” she says. The campaign is expected to be CNN’s main one “for the near term,” she adds.
The spartan commercial, crafted with the ad agency Figliulo & Partners, is devoid of the usual CNN trappings. There is no “This…is CNN” delivered in the resonant tones of actor James Earl Jones, no reminder that CNN is “the most trusted name in news,” and no sign of the network’s most recent slogan, “Go there” (Gollust says it will return at some point in the future, and promos featuring Jones will still air on the network).
Launch of the ad campaign suggests that even CNN, which typically portrays itself as the least partisan of the three main cable-news networks, can be politicized. With that in mind, CNN has done three audience surveys this year, says Gollust, and its research shows that its brand remains strong. People who did not like CNN probably still feel that way, perhaps even more strongly, she says. But “the percentage of people who are looking for news and information grew, and they found they like CNN. Our numbers among Democrats and independents have gone up.”
Other media outlets have tested similar positioning. New York Times Co. hired hot ad shop Droga5 to launch a stark and resonant ad for its flagship newspaper that relied on copy lines such as “The truth is our nation is more divided than ever,” “The truth is alternative facts are lies” and “The truth is we need a full investigation of Russian ties.” The ad debuted during ABC’s broadcast of the Oscars in February.
“We see that there’s a national dialogue going on about facts and the truth,” David Rubin, senior vice president and head of brand for The New York Times, told Variety at the time. Once people understand “the role that journalism can play, they are much more likely to seek it out and to support it.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post uses a new slogan these days: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
CNN has been considering a new campaign for months, Gollust says. “People wanted to go out and make the point of why we do what we do, and what journalism is and why it’s important, why facts are important when people seem to play fast and loose with the truth,” she says. “It’s important to say what we stand for.”