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New York Times Seeks New Headlines With Oscars Ad

Variety logo Variety 2/23/2017 Brian Steinberg
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A year after a movie about a pack of intrepid investigative reporters at a Boston newspaper won the Oscar for “Best Picture,”  The New York Times will seek a spotlight of its own during the annual film awards.

New York Times Co. will take what is perhaps its most significant step into big-TV advertising by running a 30-second ad during ABC’s broadcast of the 2017 Oscars ceremonies. The commercial, which marks the first time the company has purchased an ad in the event, will not hew to the company’s traditional pitch. For most of the Times’ history, ads for its flagship publication have attempted to get would-be customers to respond quickly to an offer of a subscription at a reasonable introductory price. On Sunday, a stark ad will attempt to show the audience how the Times helps to discover the truth in what has quickly become a disorienting world.

“We see that there’s a national dialogue going on about facts and the truth,” said David Rubin, senior vice president and head of brand for The New York Times, in an interview. Once people understand “the role that journalism can play, they are much more likely to seek it out and to support it,” he added. The company has not purchased national TV ad time for the past five or six years, he estimated.

A stark commercial crafted by the risk-taking Droga5 ad agency is almost certain to draw notice Sunday night. During the spot, viewers will see attention grabbing headlines, including: “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.”  By the end of the pitch. the headlines will appear in a font familiar to the newspaper’s readers, and say: “The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important than ever.” Times Co. secured the Oscar spot from ABC after the start of 2017 through Horizon Media, an independent ad-buying firm, and was one of the last sponsors to purchase ad time, Rubin said.

The idea, said Rubin, is to make sure people are considering the Times as they suss through a churning national dialogue that has sprouted since the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. “The message of this spot is that the truth is hard and our journalism plays a role in helping our readers get to it,” he added.

The company mounts the new campaign as consumers place new interest in the content it produces. In the last three months of 2016, Times Co. notched 276,000 net digital-only subscriptions to its various news products – a rebuke of sorts to a Commander-in-Chief who likes to tweet about how the company’s venerable broadsheet is “failing.” Even so, Times Co.’s print-advertising revenue fell 20% in 2016, despite a 6% rise in digital-advertising revenue. The company is eager to augment its subscriber base as a counter-measure to the challenge many print publishers face – a steady narrowing in the stream of ad dollars upon which it once depended more heavily.

Executives at Times Co. see only 10 million U.S. consumers who pay for news, said Rubin, while more than 100 million people pay for a streaming-music subscription. “The question comes: Why is that?” asked Rubin. “We think the thing to do is to ask that question in a way that is compelling and that prompts people to say that if they value this type of insight that our journalism offers, they will really value it now more than ever – at a time when there’s a lot of uncertainty and change.”

Ads that play off the nation’s current political debate run the risk of polarizing the audience. Fox’s recent broadcast of Super Bowl LI came with a coterie of commercials from Google, Coca-Cola, Airbnb and others playing up themes of unity and multicultural acceptance. A viewership of hundreds of millions had already eked their way through an election heavy on talk of division based on race, gender, sexual identity and religion. Not everyone wanted to hear those messages – particularly during an event that typically offers a break from contemplation of serious issues.

The Times’ Rubin doesn’t think the company’s new ad is likely to generate controversy. “We were very careful on our end,” he noted. “The spot itself doesn’t take a position on what truth is. Truth can come from lots of different places and be in lots of different places. The only cause we believe in is the importance of independent original journalism and the work that our journalists do and the need to support that.” The company intends to bolster its Oscar-night effort with similar ads that will roll out on broadcast and cable TV as well as on billboards and other out-of-home venues.

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