The Allure Of An Empty Page: New York Times Ad Campaign Causes Double Takes

To make people stop and take notice in an ad-saturated world, sometimes less is more. So the marketing team for The Book Thief paid big money for blank pages in the Times.

Wednesday’s New York Times print edition features two almost entirely blank pages—and it wasn't a printing error. Someone paid for it. The pages, which include the Times’s standard header, feature nothing but a URL at the very bottom of the second page: wordsarelife.com. A full-page nationwide black and white weekday ad goes for $105,840. Two pages would cost double that, though a Times spokesperson would not discuss the financial specifics of the arrangement.

The PagesImage via Allied

It seems a high price to pay for nothing. Yet, the marketing team for the film The Book Thief wanted to “intrigue” readers with empty space, said Julie Rieger, the senior vice president of media at 20th Century Fox who conceived the idea. "We live in this world, this marketing world where we barrage people with tons of information,” she said. “We wanted to take this approach of: Well, what if we actually had people—just for a moment—imagine what it would feel like to live without something?” In this case, that something are words of record.

After running into Fox's head of research in the parking lot, Rieger told him about her no-ad ad and got the go-ahead. "We can be a little fly by the seat of your pants," she said. Allied, the creative firm Fox's newspaper agency works with, liked it, too.

The team chose two pages over one so that one page would run without anything on it. It couldn't avoid words altogether, since it needed to somehow signal to people its purpose. The URL at the bottom leads to movie's official page, which dives right into the trailer.

The ad drew more attention than the standard newspaper movie promo, at least in the digital world. It was mentioned on Poynter, the media blog of record, and got mostly positive attention on Twitter. Since this morning's papers hit stands, the site's traffic has increased 788%.

For print loyalists, I imagine flipping from pages filled with words to those without, at the very least, caused readers to pause, which is part of the genius of the ad. Much like the famous 1959 Volkswagen "Think Small" ads, the pared-down format is the opposite of what's expected. Before VW, car ads would provide as much information as possible; the VW ad had a tiny picture of a car on a stark background. Similarly, the blank movie ad pages were a departure; print ads for films are typically crammed full of movie stars, review snippets, and taglines.

Blank pages tend to stall eyes, but, the more intriguing ones go beyond that, using the spare imagery to suggest something more "poetic," to borrow Rieger's description. For example, the little VW Bug against a blank background suggested "Beetle ownership allowed you to show off that you didn't need to show off," explained AdAge, when naming it the most successful campaign of the 20th century. Last January the Times's sports section left its front page empty in reference to Baseball Writers' Association of America not electing anyone to the baseball hall of fame last year. Lack of content can sometimes make a point better than content.

The Book Thief is about a girl living in Nazi Germany who steals books from former Jewish homes and businesses to "save the words," as Times spokesperson Linda Zebian explains it. Many times over, the movie uses words as a metaphor for life and freedom. The ad further underscores that message, adds Zebian: Think about what life would be like without The New York Times.

[Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox]

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