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How media brands are using marketing to turn accusations of fake news into page views


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

November 23, 2017 | 13 min read

The rise of the internet promised to deliver a wealth of information to the public. It had the power to enrich lives if the information conveyed was considered incorruptible and fact-checked by reputable journalistic outlets. This didn't quite pan out.

Media ads

Some fake news fighting marketing from top publishers

The decline of print revenues, coupled with the leader of the free world branding much of the free press liars after his ascent to power, has led to the world's leading titles having to recommunicate their inherent value as gatekeepers of the truth.

The infantile and categorically broad accusation of 'fake news' is a term commonly on president Donald Trump’s tongue; with it he has lashed the likes of CNN, BuzzFeed and even BBC News while cosying up to those who give him more favourable coverage like Breitbart.

It's no wonder that the American public, on the whole, is more trusting of UK publications than their US counterparts. But even in the UK, 71% of people conflate advertising with fake news, further dirtying the waters. As a result, publishers have made no secret about adapting their content strategies to meet a diminished public trust head on.

Earlier this year, Channel 4 unearthed stats claiming only 4% of people could readily identify fake news. This necessitates the need for accessible quality journalism. However, in addition to altering content, publishers have had to communicate this paradigm shift in their marketing in an attempt to defend against – or even exploit – the fake news phenomenon.

Chris Arning, ‎founder and director of Creative Semiotics has helped deconstruct the campaigns from a semiotics standpoint on a case-by-case basic. He reveals some pointers in what makes the ads tick and uncovers the message news brands are trying to convey.

New York Times

Back in February 2017, The New York Times enlisted Droga5 to unite the nation against alternative facts (a freshly minted obfuscation from the Trump administration at the time).

It culminated in the New York Times airing its first branded TV ad in a decade (something that will be a common pattern throughout this analysis).

The ad aired during the Academy Awards to take a swing at the falsehoods being perpetuated by Trump and its media rivals.


NYT was also one of the first media outlets to buy into this renewed line of quality journalism marketing in 2017 with the above OOH buy on its home turf in New York.

Arning: The black text on white helps communicate in a stripped back, no-nonsense way. Charcoal or copper type is used to add more weight to the paper’s truth. It also plays with the notion of the lenticular, the way words are swapped out at will shows the mutability of facts. And finally, as the ad rushes to its conclusion, it increases in speed, making reference to the information overload of the 24/7 news cycle.

The Wall Street Journal

'The Face of Real News' was the WSJ’s attempt to forge trust with the public. Working with The&Partnership, the paper looked to position itself as the antithesis of fake news.

A series of ads launched as trust in the media reached a reported all-time low in the US. The WSJ looked to be more transparent about how its reporters got and delivered stories. To do this it got artists to animate reporter narratives, building the personalities of the writers across numerous platforms.

Accompanying the campaign, journalists got on stage and shared their first-hand experiences of running their beats.

Speaking to Adweek, Wil Boudreau, North American chief creative officer of The&Partnership, said: “You can click on anything on the internet and it looks like news, but when you hear the story of how journalists actually get their stories firsthand from them it really is quite compelling and makes you respect what it takes to get real news.”

Arning: Black and white and monochrome is becoming a trend here. WSJ goes for handdrawn graphic novel illustration style to connote craftsmanship. By using the human hand, it conveys a sense of trustworthiness versus glossiness of news idents. With The Face of Real News strapline it shows that its reporters will not shrug away from transparency. It foregrounds the printing press, typewriter, paper files and other tools of journalist’s trade to signify veteran ethics.

Financial Times

Beyond Black and White

Earlier this year the Financial Times launched a global marketing campaign called 'Think Beyond Black and White' to take a stance against fake news and show the nuance in its coverage. The broadsheet urged readers to buy into its ethos using the strapline ‘For the full perspective, turn to the FT’.

The publication looked to “take readers beyond the headlines and help them make the right connections in complex and uncertain times.”

The work ran across UK, US and Asia Pacific, with Essence creative director, Andy Veasey, stating: “This campaign promotes the unique perspective of the FT by presenting typical news as black and white before turning the page to reveal the FT’s distinctive pink brand and the full perspective: clarity amid the complexity.”

It also made use of reader testimonies to promote the spectrum of its audience across the globe.

The Telegraph

UK broadsheet the Telegraph sidestepped any mention of Trump but looked to outline the power of the written word in a video that touches down on the cornerstones of human ingenuity like Martin Luther King’s ‘dream’, Neil Armstrong's ‘leap’ and Muhammad Ali’s ‘float’.

Robert Bridge, chief customer officer at the Telegraph, said: "Quality journalism has never been more important but in an era of fake news it’s vital that we continue to raise awareness and encourage reappraisal of the Telegraph amongst new audiences, on whichever platform they use."

The ad from Adam&Eve/DDB aired during the finale of Game of Thrones and ran on other platforms henceforth. Like the NYT, it was the publication's first brand marketing activity on TV for more than a decade.

Arning: This runs with monochrome aesthetic atop a montage style video. It has been put together in a way that communicates cut and paste, even punk ethos. There are metatextual insertion of browsers, and other signifiers of the online world. The background clatter seems designed to evoke the speed of events to add jeopardy to the slot. Finally, the use of the rat-a-tat-tat of typewriter keys/machine gun salvos represents weaponisation of words.

The Atlantic

The Atlantic, back in February, encouraged more cynicism from its readers by urging them to question their answers.

Actor Michael K. Williams led the title's first brand campaign in over 10 years to ask the public if he is indeed typecast as a prominent black artist. The work saw four different versions of Williams arguing about whether he is typecast helping to portray the nuanced shades of truth that can be conveyed. The two and a half minute brand film was created by Wieden & Kennedy.

Agency creative director Jaclyn Crowley told AdAge: “The [Atlantic] really respect process and debate. Sometimes the best way to show something is through examples, so we presented the idea of having notable personalities confronting something they might have been surprised they struggled with."

The video heads up a landing page on the 160-year-old publication stating that it has been “challenging established answers with tough questions”.

The Economist

The Economist looked to dissect the ‘noisey, chaotic, confusing world’ and help the public “see more clearly” with a campaign created to drive subscriptions. It stated: ‘The World Needs Another Economist Reader’.

The ad was created in-housed by Economist Films and aired in October across the US, enticing potential readers with a free issue. It debuted on the Late Late Show with James Corden.

David Alter, director of programmes at Economist Films, said: “This was a great opportunity for Economist Films to spread our wings creatively and also pay homage to our parent brand and its mind-stretching content. We firmly believe that now, more than ever, the world does need another Economist reader.”

Vanity Fair

In September, Vanity Fair was the latest publication to be bludgeoned by Trump's titillating Twitter tantrums. He tweeted:

Not one to take a beating lying down, the publication mimicked Potus' language to state that it was in actual fact not on its last legs. Also embedded is a cheeky call to arms asking fans to subscribe.


As the recipient of the original 'fake news' accusation, CNN launched a campaign in October making a covenant to tell the truth.

For the purposes of the ad, the publisher said it would call an apple an apple. The bold aesthetic from ad agency Figliulo & Partners also took some time to throw some shade at president Trump by claiming he would call the apple a banana. The drive was called Facts First and more ads are set to follow.

It is worth noting that rival BuzzFeed, also an earlier recipient of the fake news brand, mocked the ad in a surreal video.

Arning: CNN goes for a single image on white, the most restrained use of image yet. The use of the apple is interesting – the apple is a good, honest fruit, a forbidden fruit, there inter-textual shades of iMac aesthetic. There’s no score, just the apple and banana comparison. It positions the viewers as children. With #FactsFirst – straight to the point, and neatly avoids the use of Truth, which is ultimately a hugely load word.

Arning reflects on some wider trends from the campaigns: "The use of binary opposites in terms of opinions (the NYT Lenticular flipping between diametrically opposed views) have been around a while. He discusses how broadcasters can create self-fulfilling prophesies with campaigns such as those above. He draws attention to Russia Today which has embraced the regular accusations that it is merely the propaganda wing of Russia.

"Of course it has its Kremlin bias and spends an inordinate amount of time gleefully dwelling on domestic unrest and scandals in the US... it has been running ads on the London Underground recently with scurrilous headlines such as ‘The CIA calls us A Propaganda Machine,' 'Find Out What we Call the CIA' and 'Watch RT and Find Out Who We Are Planning to Hack'."

Fundamentally, Arning adds, there is an irony in the way "media brands, themselves are funded by advertisers, and are relying on advertising - which is a quintessentially rhetorical form - in order to persuade us of their love of truth over bias and persuasion.

"This is corporate communication – once you strip it down to its bare essentials - masquerading as a disinterested moral homily. They use propaganda codes – in particular popular understanding of Soviet Montage techniques shows they used - didactic text on black or white slugs, and suturing and then colliding together news footage from various sources to make their point (The Telegraph in particularly ) in order to get across their point.

Arning concluded: "So in short, some are using a rhetorical medium and a Soviet propaganda medium to plead for their editorial probity and commitment of truth."

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