Page A9 of today’s New York Times is entirely blank. So is page A10, with the exception of a cryptic website address at the bottom of the page: wordsarelife.com.
What could “words are life” mean? And where will the URL lead us? To religion? Politics? To some feel good pop psychology or philosophy?
In fact the URL redirects to thebooktheif.com, which is a rather conventional website promoting a new movie, “The Book Thief,” based on the novel of the same name by Australian Markus Zusak. Narrated by the character called Death, the novel is about a German girl during World War II. The trailer and scenes come right out of the style I call “middle brow art house”: soft, pastel or autumn colors that seem painterly, music in the French light classical vein, a ponderous importance in the voices of the actors as if every line dripped with meaning, beautifully composed static shots. The director of the film, BTW, also directed “Life of Pi.” Enough said there.
I checked in other newspapers—Wall Street Journal and two Pennsylvania dailies—and didn’t find the ad. It may have only run in the Times.
The ad raises some interesting questions about marketing. Clearly, the producers of the film think that people are going to wonder about what wordsarelife.com is all about and go to the website. I have no question that, compared to most other print ads in any publication, this two-page ad will influence more of the audience to comply with the call to action—to visit the website!
But once at the website, I wonder how long people will remain before heading elsewhere, disappointed that what they are seeing is a shill for a movie. Will people think, “Gee this approach is clever” or will they feel let down and disappointed, having anticipated something political or spiritual?
Two aspects of the website will tend to make people feel disappointed or betrayed, as opposed to enjoying the cleverness of the pitch: First off, you don’t go directly to wordsarelife.com, but are rerouted to another website, which people who frequently surf the web often associate with a betrayal or trick.
Secondly, the website is so derivative and unclever that it is disappointing as a piece of entertainment. If, by going to the website, we stumbled upon an incredible scene from the movie to the sound of offbeat or catchy music, the creativity of the website would continue the creativity of the print and that would be fine. But instead, we get a static image, some pious words from a very serious young girl and music that sounds like leftovers from a French flick about romance between octogenarians.
The film’s producers must have run the print ads in front of focus groups, but there are many ways to skew the results of focus groups, which is why they have no statistical validity. And it may be that the focus group participants saw the ads without seeing the website, and so demonstrated that the approach worked in terms of a call to action. We can only speculate as to what research went into the decision to run the ads, but I get a gnawing feeling that the producers and their ad folk misinterpreted the results of research or fixed them through employing faulty methodology.
Yet even before we get to the website, I question the wisdom of placing this ad. Is the front section of the New York Times the best place for this print ad? People read different media in different ways and when they read a newspaper they read different parts of the paper in different ways. The same people who actively seek out movie ads in the entertainment section as part of planning their evening or weekend may skim past all ads in the front section, focused as they are on digesting the overnight news.
The idea, of course, is that they can’t look past the two blank pages and that they will be enticed to visit the website because wordsarelife.com is an open-ended phrase that suggests spirituality, or at the very least higher order thinking—the very kind of thinking the reader is supposedly doing at the time he or she is reading the news section of the New York Times. I can see this scenario working in the real world, but I can also imagine large numbers of people understanding immediately that the ad is a big sell and feeling betrayed even before they get on their computers or portable devices.