We're not sure if all visitors are getting served this ad or not, but when we arrived at nytimes.com, after a few seconds of delay, a gigantic, page-wide advertisement for World War Z popped up. It looked almost exactly like the digital front page. And the primary headline read "Population Loss Projected At 4.7 Billion." Other headlines talk about martial law, widespread power outages, and other major disasters. It disappears before you can process it, but it's a shocking moment, even after you realize that it's an ad for Brad Pitt's new movie World War Z.
Now, we of all people love a good apocalypse movie. There are plenty of valid arguments to be made for how extreme sensationalism has degraded both journalism and mass entertainment, and we're not denying that, but we do enjoy these flicks from time to time (we even put WWZ on our list of summer blockbusters). And, indeed, we wouldn't object to seeing a regular ad for this in The New York Times. But right now, we're living in a world where headlines about massive genocides and natural disasters seriously damaging infrastructure are a reality. Maybe not deaths on the scale of 4.7 billion, but the tone and content of these headlines is, sadly, not far from reality.
That, we imagine, is part of why apocalypse movies tend to be so morbidly fascinating. Whether or not that's a good thing is not what this article is about. Fascinating or not, we have more respect for The Grey Lady than this. You can call us gullible, or stupid, or say we're overreacting, but the truth is that in one brief moment, our hearts stopped for a second, and we thought it was real. It was an instinctive reaction to something that is clearly done for shock value. Yes, all publications have to pay the bills, and we obviously understand that in a very personal way. We also understand the value of viral-ish, guerilla marketing tactics. And yes, print is in particular danger right now as a medium. But, we think, the reason that papers that made their name in print will live on is because of their reputation for serious, thoughtful journalism — and this isn't helping the cause.
Image: Via The New York Times/Courtesy of Plan B Entertainment.