USAFacts depicts truth through data and real people’s stories

The documentary-style campaign from Observatory aims to grow awareness for USAFacts’ nonpartisan mission to make the truth transparent ahead of the U.S. election.

There are a lot of things to disagree about these days, but numbers don’t lie. 

Nonprofit organization USAFacts is on a mission to publicize government data in a central location so Americans can tune out the noise and really understand what’s going on in our country. 

The nonprofit, founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, teamed up with creative agency Observatory on a campaign built around the presidential debate cycle to grow awareness for USAFacts' mission. 

“The government doesn't have one place you can go to see easily digestible facts,” said Jae Goodman, CEO of Observatory. “The whole purpose of the site is to create an easy place for any American to find out the facts about just about any government published data.”

The nonpartisan campaign includes a 60-second spot featuring a selection of government-collected statistics that clarify the prevalence of ongoing societal issues, such as immigration, healthcare and voter turnout. Each stat is accompanied by a real actor who has been affected by that issue. 

For example, a man jogging is juxtaposed with the fact that 30.5 million Americans have heart disease. The number of COVID-19 deaths on September 1 -- 1,074 -- is highlighted as a real doctor steps outside of a hospital. Stats are depicted as trend lines using a pink graphic that correlates with imagery on 

Each of the 11 vignettes were expanded into 90-second to two-minute documentary films that explain in-depth how that person has been affected by the issue they represent in the commercial. The films, directed by award-winning Joe Talbot, live on USAFacts’ website

“Knowing the facts and changing the story is an empowering call to action and tool for change,” said Linda Knight, CCO at Observatory. “When you reach the end of the commercial and find out these vignettes are based on real people, it makes it so much more impactful.”

The team identified Talbot as the right director because of his talent in working with people who are not professional actors. His debut feature film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, both starred and told the life story of his best friend, who is not a real actor, and won Talbot the Best Director award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. 

“It wasn't about finding that person who could capture the idea stylistically, but what we could do from a human perspective,” said Travis McMichael, head of creative strategy at Observatory. “Joe is so great at drawing those moments out of people.”

USAFacts is a nonpartisan organization, so Observatory set out to highlight issues and people that straddle both sides of the political spectrum. Observatory also wanted to showcase issues that people can actually take action to change. The team worked with a casting agency that specializes in recruiting non-actors to find the right stories for the film. 

Casting was done completely over Zoom, which posed a challenge in getting people to open up about emotionally traumatic stories that were the basis of the documentaries. 

“It was very important to allow them the space to open up and feel like they could be vulnerable with us, because being over a screen feels less human than being in person,” explained Carly Allen, head of production at Observatory.

Observatory worked with a mentorship program through Talbot’s alma mater, Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, which supports young filmmakers of color, to get four directors under the age of 23 to produce the film. 

Documentary filmmaking is becoming a bigger trend in advertising, and not just for nonprofit or mission-driven brands, as consumers seek out authenticity and favor purpose-driven companies. 

“Documentaries are an interesting device to create connections beyond the traditional one-way communication in advertising,” McMichael said. “It's a trend we're going to continue to see as we blur the lines between the way we want to see information presented and the way we seek that information out.”

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free