Janelle Monáe Narrates New York Times Ad for The 1619 Project

It's the latest iteration for its 'The Truth Is Worth It' campaign

janelle monae standing on a beach in a white dress
The New York Times worked with Janelle Monáe to advertise The 1619 Project. The New York Times
Headshot of Sara Jerde

Actor, singer and producer Janelle Monáe can add one more accolade to her bio: the first celebrity to appear in an advertisement for The New York Times.

A 30-second commercial from the publisher will run during the Academy Awards on Sunday night, marking the Times’ return to the prominent advertising space. This is the second time the paper will have an ad during the nation’s most-watched entertainment telecast of the year, after purchasing an ad slot during the 2017 Oscars when it released its “The Truth Is Hard” campaign.

The Times returns to the Oscars at the end of a seven-day news stretch that saw headlines about President Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg taking out Super Bowl spots, a confusing Iowa caucus, the Senate acquiting Trump and a Democratic debate.

Throw in, for good measure, another round of society questioning just how white the Oscars nominees can get. The Times saw an opportunity to push its narrative of investigative reporting while also promoting its years-long newsroom-wide initiative.

“[The Oscars] is such a broad platform for storytelling, it tends to ignite thoughtful conversation about our culture at large,” said Amy Weisenbach, the Times’ svp of marketing and media strategy. She added, “When I think about The 1619 Project and the impact it had on the national conversation, in particular about race, I think the Oscars provide a nice backdrop for that to live in.”

The 2017 Oscars ad was the first in a series of brand marketing advertisements the publisher did with Droga5. Called “The Truth Is Worth It” the work showcased how the Times’ reporting is done, and the spots won the Grand Prix for Film Craft at Cannes Lions last year.

The two reunited for the latest ad in the campaign, which Weisenbach said also marks the most significant paid advertising effort the publisher has made to promote The 1619 Project after its rollout last summer. She did not reveal what that paid effort costs.

As is the case with all marketing efforts from the Times in the “Truth Is Hard” campaign, executives hope to increase the number of subscribers by showcasing the reporting process. The Times already boasts more than 5 million total subscriptions.

The Times also reported today that total revenues reached $508.4 million in the fourth quarter of 2019, a 1.1 percent increase year-over-year, subscription revenues increasing 4.5 percent.

“We know if more of our readers understand the rigor and impact, they’re more likely to subscribe,” Weisenbach said. “As long as [the publisher’s journalists] continue to tackle ambitious stories, we’ll have amazing stories to highlight. The 1619 Project is such a powerful example of how journalism can have an impact.”

It’s not clear when the ad will run during the Oscars, but the advertisement will also run across social media and print.

The Times released The 1619 Project in August last year, examining when enslaved Africans first came to the colonies 400 years ago and how slavery has shaped American society ever since. The project, overseen by The Times Magazine’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, began with a takeover of The New York Times Magazine and a special section in the print edition of The New York Times.

The publisher had paid promos that ran on social for a month and a half, but the success of the project quickly resonated online after it was released. The Times printed almost 250,000 extra copies of the magazine, many of which the publisher gave for free to schools and libraries, and the project drew lines of people interested in getting their hands on a number of free copies given out at its New York headquarters.

The publisher further extended its life and turned the research into educational materials in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, a series of books in partnership with One World of Penguin Random House and will create a live event series and merchandise collection in partnership with the African American Culture Heritage Action Fund.

In the ad that will run on Sunday and in a longer 50-second version that will run online, Monáe goes to the coast of Hampton, Va. to begin the narration, where the Times reported that the first enslaved Africans arrived.

“No aspect of the country we know today has been untouched by the slavery that followed. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began,” Monáe says, using similar language as to that used in The 1619 Project.

Music tones, car horns and diluted conversation can be heard in the background. As the camera pans over the horizon, “Words From The 1619 Project: How Slavery Shaped America” flashes across the screen.

“The mood encapsulates the weight we wanted our listeners to feel and to be moved to inquire more about what’s happened here,” said Stacy-Ann Ellis, copywriter at Droga5.

The video fades to black and words from the Times appear, saying, “The truth can change how we see the world” followed by “The truth is worth it.”

The ad was directed by artist and filmmaker Jenn Nkiru and takes place at the same location that inspired the magazine cover for the project. The particular attention to sound is what gives the ad an additional, film-like quality, said Laurie Howell, group creative director at Droga5.

“We had to go there and film it,” Howell said. “That’s how it started to develop.”

It’s the first time the Times has had a celebrity appear in its marketing efforts, unlike competitors like The Wall Street Journal, which has featured celebs like Karlie Kloss, or The Washington Post, which had Tom Hanks narrate its Super Bowl spot last year.

“When we thought about who to cast in this spot, we thought it made sense to partner with someone like Janelle, who is such a believer in this project and a champion in her own right,” Weisenbach said.

@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.