Advertising versus Trump

I hesitated to publish this post, because it’s criticising someone else’s work and, even more ungraciously, trying to rewrite it.

But my defence is that it’s a public interest project (supporting a free press against Trumpian bullshit), so there’s more at stake than with most projects. It’s also by a great agency who I have said nice things about (Droga5, who did brilliant work for Hillary Clinton, even if you can criticise the appeal-to-the-core-vote strategy on which it was based).

So here goes. 

The New York Times has produced an ad campaign in response to the continued attacks from Trump, and it has received murmurs of approval on social media – mainly, I suspect, because people sympathise with the cause, and also copywriters in particular like anything that only involves copy.

But I don’t think it works. And it’s frustrating, because it was a chance for advertising (and writing in particular) to step up and show the world the difference we can make. We’re supposed to be the experts at persuasion. Maybe we can be the ones who cut through the bluster and bullshit of Trump. For once, instead of making Dove look good or making people cry at John Lewis, we can take on Trump and do something useful.

But then the big, high-profile brief comes along, and this ad misfires. Not on an aesthetic level, but on the basic functional level – it fails as persuasion, and possibly has a net-negative effect as it could turn off some supporters.  

The billboard (above) is the most obvious distillation of why the whole campaign is off-track. To say ‘Truth. It’s more important now than ever’ and sign off with your logo is to equate the NYT with the truth, which is an absurdly overblown thing to do. But it’s happened because they’ve allowed themselves to be painted into a corner. They’ve accepted the terms of Trump’s playground ‘FAKE NEWS!’ argument and gone to the other extreme – we are the guardians of the real truth! And by doing that, they confirm the worst preconceptions people have about the press – that it’s an elitist, out-of-touch, self-appointed authority.

The TV spot spells out the argument more, but it’s the same problem. The NYT is casting itself as the arbiter between competing versions of the truth, but does nothing to justify that position. It sounds elitist and dogmatic – all the things you don’t want.

That comes out even more clearly in the press ad, which is a series of manifesto-like statements that don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Again, the effect is po-faced and patronising. The truth is hard. It’s complicated. It’s probably too hard for you to figure out. Leave it to us. This is important.

The maddening thing is that this is a smart publication and a smart agency falling into a trap set by Trump – not because he’s some genius of persuasion, but because he communicates in such childishly big crayon scribbles that people miss how simple they are. In calmer times, the New York Times would never claim to be about ‘truth’. It’s about facts, which aren’t the same thing. As the old line goes, it’s about ‘all the news that’s fit to print’ – i.e. that meets certain standards of editorial rigour. That’s a much more meaningful, grounded thing to say than ‘The truth is more important than ever’.

They’ve been bounced into that position by the cartoonish rhetoric of Trump. It’s difficult to keep a cool head in such heated times, but I think the job of the ad agency should have been to get them to take a breath, avoid the obvious reaction, and reframe the whole argument in their favour.

I won’t presume to provide the whole answer, but I know where I’d start.

I’d list those negative preconceptions about the media and then go the other way. Instead of elitist, go popular and empowering. Instead of out-of-touch, go down-to-earth. Instead of self-appointed authority, go modest and democratic.

It’s not about the NYT being fake or true. It’s not about Trump being fake or true. It’s about the people. Truth is up to the people to decide. The NYT is a supporter of the people. It provides people with the tools to make up their own minds. It asks the questions and reports the answers. But always in service of the people. Make them the hero of the argument – they also happen to be the target market.

That could lead to something like: 

Don’t count on the New York Times to tell you the truth

Don’t count on the President either. Or CNN. Or Fox. Or everyone on Twitter (sorry everyone on Twitter).

We know you’ll make up your own mind about the truth.

Our job is to help you put some of the pieces together.

We’ll provide verifiable facts, investigative reporting, and diverse opinions.

We’ll ask questions to people in power. And the madder they get, the more we’ll keep asking. 

We’ll be a voice for the silent majority and the silenced minorities.

We’ll keep publishing all the news that’s fit to publish, online and in print.  

And we’ll work with you to do it.

Send us your stories.

Tell us your truth.

We’re counting on you.

Even if you don’t like the ad, it’s a better strategy. It changes the conversation, instead of just continuing it. 

But you could still say it’s too defensive. Another option would be to go on the attack. Make it about Trump, not you. The comically obvious thing about his ‘fake news’ attacks is that he’s trying to undermine the credibility of the people who are most likely to bring him down. It’s a hysterical pre-emptive tantrum because he’s scared. So point that out. Something like:

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in 166 years of holding power to account, it’s this. The angrier they get, the louder they get, the more hostile they get – the more interested we get. And the more questions we ask.

That’s not the whole thing, but it’s something. It’s a counter-narrative. It means the next time he shouts 'Fake news', you’ve already framed it as a distraction technique. You could print a variation of that paragraph in small type on a giant poster site and promise to make the type bigger every time Trump says ‘Fake news’.

But probably the biggest ‘take the high ground’ move would be to ignore Trump altogether and use the moment as a platform to connect with the people. Even before Trump, the NYT had a problem with appearing elitist and old-fashioned – but the sheer extremism of the Trump attack is the perfect opportunity to reposition. Use the ads as an invitation to get people to send in their stories, or to launch a new journalism prize for rigorously researched articles by young people on issues that matter. Don’t try to make the ad the answer – do something new and grassrootsy, then talk about it.

Or don’t do any of the above, because someone somewhere will have a better idea – probably someone at the NYT or Droga5, because they're smart people. I don’t think this one nailed it, but it’s useful to talk about why, before the giant political whirlwind moves on somewhere else.

As a footnote, I saw the Washington Post went with 'Democracy Dies in Darkness'. It’s not the most cheerful line (people have commented on its goth vibe), but it’s decent and meaningful. And the simple masthead change probably got as much publicity as the more expensive NYT campaign.

Maybe 'Democracy Lives in Light' would go down better with your morning coffee. But I can’t really talk as the writer of the most depressing diary in the world, which comes out in the US on March 14th. (Yes, this whole thing has been an ad and therefore = fake news.)

One last note – Stephen Colbert's The Late Show has parodied the NYT ad and made it into something much better. This at least is a sign it has made a cultural impact in pretty quick time. Maybe it's great.