How To Sell an Anchor

For a network that once prided itself on having no big stars, CNN now finds itself striving to create one.

The network has blitzed the media with ads promoting Anderson Cooper 360, plastering the anchor on blogs, billboards and print media from New York to Los Angeles. The campaign, which includes TV spots on CNN and other cable networks, aims to portray Cooper as a roving anchor emotionally connected to his subjects. The print ads feature five different shots of Cooper, most of them showing him with a furrowed brow, taken while he was in the field reporting on major stories from the past year.

Some say a ubiquitous ad campaign risks overexposing a young star early in his development. Others commend CNN’s effort to distinguish Cooper as an experienced field reporter in a world of so few standouts.

“In cable, I don’t think the personalities are as well-known,” says Bruce Soloway, who similarly promoted Peter Jennings’ field work as the executive producer and director of advertising and promotions for ABC’s World News Tonight between 1979 and 1993. In many cases, cable stars are “being manufactured,” he says. “Nobody really knows them from their past experience.”

One ad shows Cooper on the Southeast Asian beach after the tsunami, kneeling to film two kids. That image is accompanied by the slogan “Get the news firsthand.” In another print ad, a concerned-looking Cooper is alone in a control room during Hurricane Katrina, holding a soda can. The text there is a quote from him: “Accountability is key. Find the facts. Find the truth. Present that to the audience.” In yet another, he is sitting on a curb in Beirut, taking notes in a reporter’s notebook; the text quotes the promise he made in the two-hour debut of 360 on Nov. 7 to “hold the people in power accountable for their words and their actions.”

CNN chose to premiere the campaign after 360 found its footing in the 10 p.m.-to-midnight time slot, rather than promote it heavily before it debuted. From its launch through Dec. 25, 360 exhibited mixed results. It was up just 2% over last year in its 10 p.m. block, where it replaced NewsNight With Aaron Brown, but up 26% in its 11 p.m. hour, where it replaced the low-rated repeats of Lou DobbsTonight. CNN estimates the campaign to be worth “a few million dollars,” including the value of ad time on its own network. The network declined to provide a breakdown of how much of the campaign is on CNN or and how much goes to outside media.

CNN is hoping to appeal to consumers who learned of the anchor through the extensive mainstream-media coverage he received after his emotive Katrina reportage. “Clearly, an awful lot of people weren’t watching CNN and were reading about Anderson and wondering what is all this attention and excitement about,” says 360 executive producer David Doss, a former executive producer for ABC newsmagazine Primetime Thursday and NBC Nightly News.

The campaign is aimed at viewers in the 18-54 age range, marketing to an audience younger than news’ traditional 25-54 demographic. Although young viewers (18-34) make up just 10% of 360’s audience, the show has attracted 51% more viewers in the coveted demo than its time-period average last year.

The Cooper campaign is the first time CNN has ever heavily advertised on blogs. In addition to AOL and Yahoo!, CNN has run ads on Gawker, Defamer, Wonkette and Fishbowl. Also, the network has focused on print more heavily than in the past, placing ads in national newspapers and magazines that may seem unexpected places for promoting news talent: Rolling Stone, Fortune, New York magazine and Entertainment Weekly.

“Any place people are going and talking and caring about the news and reporting and journalism, we wanted to be there,” says Scot Safon, CNN News Group senior VP marketing and promotions.

Hungry For a New Face

With Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw departed from the Big Three network newscasts, CNN is executing its Cooper campaign at a time when viewers are hungry for a new face to trust. “For the first time in a long time, CNN is really pushing a personality,” says Seth Geiger, president of media-focused strategic market-research and consulting firm SmithGeiger. He consults for broadcast news divisions and several of CNN’s on-air personalities and helps develop 360’s programming but did not work on this ad campaign. “You have to go back to [retired CNN anchor] Bernie [Shaw] to see somebody really positioned as the face of CNN.”

During CNN’s first two decades, network founder Ted Turner prided himself on not relying on news celebrities, in part, he said, because he would rather make news the star—and because star anchors command big paychecks. That changed in 2001 when Time Warner put Jamie Kellner in charge of Turner Broadcasting System and CNN aggressively sought and promoted established news talent like Connie Chung and Paula Zahn, whose initial promotional campaign compares in size with its current one for Cooper. The Cooper campaign stands out as an attempt by CNN to grow a lesser-known talent into a star, something cable’s top news network, Fox News Channel, has had more success with.

CNN created its Cooper spots in-house but consulted with outside agencies on ads for the other platforms. Venice, Calif.-based boutique agency Cold Open Inc., which does most of its work for motion pictures and entertainment television, created the print campaign.

Given Cooper’s star appeal—he was named one of People magazine’s sexiest men alive in 2005—CNN plans to continue the campaign indefinitely, with new ads introducing new images.

Cooper has a robust online following, with several blogs devoted to him and a 698-member “Anderholics” message board on Yahoo!

Some Anderholics are responding to the ads. “I like the fact that CNN’s really decided to hit the Internet. I’ve seen these ads all over online,” says Christian Scholer, a 24-year-old grad student who contributes to The Anderson Cooper Corner, a blog about the anchor that reports having 2,000 visitors each week. “It’s nice they’re trying to court a younger viewership.”