CNN has over the years run all kinds of content: hard-news hours, documentaries, even a quiz show. Now it’s going to try animation.
The AT&T-owned cable-news outlet will on Tuesday launch a new promotional campaign for some of its biggest pieces of coverage of the 2020 election. In cartoon-y vignettes, a donkey and elephant – the traditional avatars of the Democratic and Republican parties – will grumble and poke each other in humorous fashion.
“Whoa. We need to be six feet apart when we argue,’ says the elephant to the donkey in one of as many as four spots that are planned for the initiative. “This is the closest we’ve been in years,” says the donkey. The pair will jockey in similar fashion in the other promos. CNN viewers will be reminded at the end of each of four different vignettes to tune in to network coverage of political conventions, Election Day results and other potential events. The shorts should be visible on CNN venues through early November.
“This is a little bit different from the promos you see for breaking news on CNN” or others that tell viewers what might be coming up on Anderson Cooper’s primetime show, says Allison Gollust, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of CNN Worldwide, in an interview. The two animal figures will also show up on social media and online, she says, “and if we do it right, they could be something that becomes iconic for CNN throughout our coverage of the next few months.”
TV networks typically like to run commercials from traditional advertisers, but that’s never stopped them from creating ads of their own to burnish their programming and mission. Some of those efforts can be as memorable as a spot from Apple or Coca-Cola, as anyone who recalls rock and pop stars shouting “I Want My MTV” on behalf of a nascent music-video network in the early 1980s might tell you.
Cable-news outlets, however, usually have a limited range of options, as they spend much of their time reminding viewers of their programs or their newsgathering abilities.And most lack the funds to place high-priced commercials for themselves in other venues. MSNBC has for several years captured segments of its reporters doing their job under pressure to tell viewers “This is who we are.” Fox News Channel last year in a bid aimed at advertisers told potential sponosrs that “America Is Watching” as part of an effort to talk about the broader crowd it sees turning in to its programming. CNN has a well-recognized and years-old effort featuring actor James Earl Jones reciting the words “This…is CNN.” It remains in use today.
Getting people to tune in to the year’s top political coverage is critical for TV-news outlets. Election years typically drive higher-than-normal viewership at CNN and its competitors – and ad dollars often follow. Though the TV-ad market has been hobbled by the nation’s coronavirus pandemic, CNN is still seen capturing $619.2 million in advertising this year, according to a June estimate from market-research firm Kagan, a unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Under Gollust, the network has on occasion veered into the non-traditional. In 2017, CNN responded to a growing antipathy from President Trump and his supporters with a campaign that underscored to viewers how the network took a “Facts First” approach to newsgathering and journalism. The commercials used the simple image of an apple, and a narrator who made sure viewers understood what they were seeing. They have surfaced several times since the initial effort debuted. When CNN worked to promote a documentary series on the movies, various anchors appeared to emulate Hollywood icons. Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper, for example, recreated a scene from the 1988 movie “Big,” playing a song on a large floor piano with their feet.
The new campaign attempts to inject a lighthearted note into a political-news cycle that is anything but. The elephant and donkey, while antagonistic toward one another, are depicted as longtime associates. They are more like Statler and Waldorf, the grumpy “Muppet Show” critics, than they are Montagues and Capulets, says Whit Friese, vice president and group creative director at CNN. CNN viewers who find the pair interesting will be able to see more of them via online banners found at various CNN sites, he adds.
The promos, created with animation studio House Special and ad-agency FIG, aim to draw attention to election coverage that could look quite different from the norm. CNN and other news outlets have already indicated they intend to scale back on-the-ground coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, slated to take place in August. Crowds, simply put, cannot gather during the current pandemic. And presidential debated between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden may also have new presentation guidelines.
“We might have had a show on the ground there in the past, but we will still do the show,” Gollust says. “I don’t think the consumer experience will be all that much different. It’ s just the way we pull it off will be different than we’ve seen in the past.”
Executives don’t believe CNN has aired animation in such a way, but the network has tested other interesting effects. In 2008, CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin was beamed in to a New York studio in “hologram” form to talk to anchor Wolf Blitzer about election activity from Chicago.