'The Truth Is Hard,' Says The New York Times' First-Ever Oscars Ad

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This Sunday, The New York Times will debut its first-ever ad to run on the Academy Awards. The simple, black-and-white typographic spot lays out, line by line, a litany of conflicting statements, anchored by the three words, "the truth is" -- "The truth is alternative facts are lies. The truth is the media is dishonest. ...The truth is a woman should dress like a woman. The truth is women's rights are human rights" and so on.

All the while, voiceovers of various people proclaiming their own notions of truth play out in the background. Images and sounds begin to spill over each other at a rapid pace, creating a cacophonous pile-on of information -- until the sound cuts out and the screen goes blank.

Words, now in bold, reappear accompanied by simple piano notes: "The truth is hard/the truth is hard to know/the truth is more important than ever." The ad then closes on the logo of The New York Times.

The spot is part of the publication's first-ever brand campaign in a decade, created out of Droga5 New York. The Oscars version, running nationally, will sub in a pair of lines tailored to Hollywood viewers: "The truth is celebrities should keep their mouths shut. The truth is everyone has the right to speak their mind."

"Picking a program that was high-profile and that would get people talking made sense for us," said New York Times Senior VP-Head of Brand David Rubin. "If one of our objectives was to insert ourselves in the debate that's going on that, frankly, we've been a part of, a high-profile media buy made sense."

And why a new brand campaign, now? "There's a national dialogue going on now about facts and truth and how does one know what the truth is," he said. "We saw an opportunity to be part of that dialogue. We also found in our research that people don't always understand what it takes to do quality original reporting, but when they do, when that becomes part of the dialogue -- about how one finds the truth and about the role journalists can play, they are more interested in supporting it."

Mr. Rubin and his team began working with Droga5 on the campaign about a month and a half ago. It's part of an ongoing effort to align the publication's marketing more closely with its 165-year-old mission to create and deliver high-quality news and information.

"Given the climate we're in, we were looking for ways in which we could reinforce to the world that The New York Times is the pre-eminent place for independent, deeply reported journalism," explained Droga5 Executive Creative Director Tim Gordon. "We started realizing that the actual phrase 'The Truth Is' is batted around a lot way more than you expect. You start noticing it when you listen to the talk shows, late-night, interviews. It's used a lot more to masquerade opinions on one side, so the idea really came from a place of empathy -- knowing that the truth is hard -- to know, and to find. It doesn't matter what side of the spectrum you're on politically."

The simplicity of the ad itself -- using typography and sound to illustrate The New York Times as a "safe harbor" in a noisy storm of information -- was by design. "It felt like a very nice distinction from the barrage of imagery we see daily, whether it's on our feeds, TV or phones," Mr. Gordon said. It felt like a real opportunity to lean into the beauty and simplicity that is the Times. While the ad was produced in-house out of Droga5, the sound design and audio -- key to the impact of the spot -- was created out of Sonic Union.

Out of Home Ad From The New York Times' 'The Truth Is' Campaign. Credit: The New York Times

The non-Oscars version of the spot will continue to run nationally on broadcast for a week after the awards, with digital ad buy continuing for a month. Other assets will include digital and social ads, print ads running in the Times from Friday through Monday, as well as out of home in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

Mr. Rubin did not disclose how much of the Times' marketing budget for the Oscars ad entails. While the Times is "an efficient advertiser," the ad does represent a "huge investment," he said. As reported in Ad Age, 30-second ad slots during ABC's broadcast cost anywhere between $2 to $2.5 million.

Mr. Rubin said the campaign is part of the Times' push to become consumer subscription-first business, a key mandate highlighted in the company's most recent Innovation Report. As of Q4 2016, the Times passed 3 million paid subscribers to print and digital. It also added 276,000 new digital subscriptions to see its best quarter since the pay model debuted in 2011. This has happened as the publication has seen a decline in advertising revenues. For fourth quarter 2016, the company's total revenue decreased 1.1% to $439.7 million, from $444.7 million in the same period in 2015. While ad revenues dropped 9.7% in that period, circulation revenue increased 5%.

The Times' campaign bows as news outlets have become subject of the news themselves, facing intense scrutiny under the Trump administration, with the president calling out major news organizations:

The New York Times 'The Truth Is' Print Ad. Credit: The New York Times

The Oscars ad will also appear at a time when celebrities are sure to use the stage as a political platform. The Golden Globes, for example, became the backdrop for Meryl Streep's high-profile Trump take-down, while Grammys performers and presenters, including Busta Rhymes, Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez and Laverne Cox, made statements on subjects ranging from the current POTUS and administration to the Dakota Access pipeline and transgender rights.

The Times spot doesn't take a pointed political stance. At first glance, it might be easy for viewers to "see" only the statements they personally adhere to even though it delivers polarized views -- an effect Mr. Rubin says is a telling metaphor for the confusion that happens to viewers as they process real-world information.

"The New York Times and journalism play a role in our reader's search for the truth, but it's the reader's search," he said. "We don't consider ourselves the sole arbiter of anything, so what we liked about this idea is that it's about the reader's quest to understand. But it leaves the understanding in their court, with the hard work of our journalists being one important part of that journey."

The campaign bows on the heels of another thought-provoking brand effort from The Atlantic, which tapped actor Michael K. Williams to illustrate the tagline "Question Your Answers" for its 160th anniversary.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported an increase of 276 million digital subscribers. The Times has added 276,000 digital subscribers. Ad Age regrets the error.

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