Chris Matthews in an advertisement for MSNBC that will appear in train stations and other public spaces.
MSNBC, once the also-ran but now the No. 2 cable news channel, has a new tagline that embraces its progressive political identity.
The tagline, “Lean Forward,” will be publicly announced Tuesday, opening a planned two-year advertising campaign intended to raise awareness of the channel among viewers, advertisers and distributors.
The tagline “defines us and defines our competition,” said Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, his implication being that the Fox News Channel, which is No. 1 in cable news and a home for conservatives, is leaning backward. Fox’s best-known tagline is “Fair and Balanced.”
Some of the new MSNBC ads include shots of President Obama on his election night; others, directed by the filmmaker Spike Lee, showcase hosts like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow preparing for their nightly programs; and still others feature quotes like “the future belongs to the fearless.”
The multimillion-dollar campaign is a long time coming for the 14-year-old MSNBC, and particularly for Mr. Griffin, who has complained for years about not having more money to market the channel. With “Lean Forward,” MSNBC is following other cable channels that have found success by building easy-to-identify brands — like Bravo, TBS, HBO or, Mr. Griffin freely acknowledges, Fox News.
“When you’re clear about who you are, you actually make money,” said Sharon Otterman, the chief marketing officer for MSNBC, who started work there one year ago.
MSNBC’s brand was unclear for its first full decade. A creation of NBC News and Microsoft in 1996, the channel bounced from one programming idea to another before Mr. Olbermann, the host of “Countdown,” and Chris Matthews, the host of “Hardball,” seized on antiwar, anti-Republican sentiments in the latter part of the Bush administration.
The channel identified itself as “The Place for Politics” — a catchphrase that it will continue to use alongside “Lean Forward” — and added liberal hosts like Ms. Maddow and Ed Schultz, and a lively morning show, “Morning Joe.”
The campaign is a coming-out of sorts. At an event Monday at Rockefeller Center, where the new ads were screened for employees, Mr. Griffin said the campaign encapsulated “the next era” of MSNBC. A marching band from East New York punctuated his points.
MSNBC has been encroaching on CNN for years, and last year it beat that channel among 25- to 54-year-old viewers in prime time. This year, for the first time, it is on track to beat CNN in both prime time and the entire day.
Even so, awareness of MSNBC remains far below that of CNN or Fox, according to the company’s recent research, which found that only 51 percent of respondents said they were very or somewhat familiar with the channel. Ninety-five percent said they were familiar with CNN, and 90 percent with Fox. Sixty-four percent said they were familiar with HLN, the sister channel to CNN.
Ms. Otterman’s lesson from that research: “All we have to do is tell our story to more people.”
She added in an interview, “It’s not that the look is changing. It’s not that the programming is changing. It’s that we’re going out and telling people about it now.”
The resulting ads are not day-and-date promotions for specific programs; rather, they are emotional set pieces about the national debate that moves America forward. The MSNBC brand “is about ideas and change and making the country a better place,” Mr. Griffin said.
“It’s an umbrella that’s pretty wide, but that does have a progressive sensibility,” he continued. “We’re confident. We’re strong. Let’s not live in the past, let’s not live by fear.”
Two 60-second television commercials that introduce the message are patriotic and poignant. One begins with a child learning how to walk and intersperses scenes of war, rescues in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a peace protest and the moon landing. “When we understand the world around us, we lose our fear and we move ahead,” the narrator says.
The other 60-second commercial says, “Starting today, may the ideas that advance our country, no matter who or where they come from, win.” The remaining commercials feature individual hosts like Mr. Olbermann, who is shown in his office writing one of his trademark commentaries, and Lawrence O’Donnell, the new 10 p.m. host, who is overheard saying, “We deserve answers, so we don’t ask the same questions tomorrow.”
Starting next Tuesday, the commercials will be shown on MSNBC, but more important, they will also be shown on NBC Universal’s other channels, and on outside channels as well. In addition, ads will appear at train stations, bus shelters and phone kiosks in the Northeast; in newspapers, including The New York Times; and on Slate, The Daily Beast and other Web sites.
Mr. Obama is shown only briefly in the two 60-second commercials. He is both seen and heard in a video about the ad campaign that was screened for MSNBC employees on Monday, coincidentally summing up the channel’s progressive message.
“We can go backward, or we can keep moving forward,” the president was shown saying in a June speech at Carnegie Mellon University. “And I don’t know about you, but I want to move forward.”