The Mystery of the Oscar Ad Campaigns

Winning an Oscar for Best Picture can have massive commercial ramifications for a movie, so we shouldn’t be surprised that studios now spend tremendous amounts of time and money trying to convince voters that their movies really are milestones in the history of cinema, or at least feel-good crowd-pleasers that no one will be offended by. What is surprising, though, is how little we know about why these studio campaigns actually work, assuming for the moment that they do.

This may seem like an odd statement, given the improbable success Miramax has had in turning Life Is Beautiful and Shakespeare in Love into Oscar winners. But for the most part, Miramax faced very little competition on the advertising front while pushing those two movies. It was able to drive the virtues–imagined or otherwise–of both films into voters’ heads without worrying that too much else would be occupying them. This year, it’s attempting to do the same with Cider House Rules. But the field of battle is more crowded, most notably by DreamWorks’ campaign for American Beauty. And this is where the question of what kind of Oscar advertising actually works becomes interesting.

Can you remember, after all, anything special about the ads for either Life Is Beautiful or Shakespeare in Love? I have vague memories of that damned “Bon giorno, principessa!” tagline appearing in the former’s ads, and photos of Gwyneth and Joseph staring at each other in the latter’s, but that’s about it. In other words, it wasn’t visual or conceptual advertising greatness that pushed these films over the top. It may simply have been sheer volume.

That doesn’t mean that striving for originality is necessarily a good thing to do. In fact, it may be more likely to get you in trouble than anything else. Take, for instance, the contrast between this year’s two big campaigns. The Cider House ads seem well-designed for their purpose, positioning the film as a sweetly nostalgic (or is that redundant?) movie about adorable orphans, warm-hearted doctors, and young lovers, all of whom–with the exception of Michael Caine, the doctor–look like J.Crew models in 1930s clothes. The blurbs are prominent but clearly secondary (unlike the ads in Variety for The Green Mile, which include an entire page of critics’ plaudits, set in small type).

The American Beauty ads, on the other hand, are remarkably ill-conceived, giving us every day essentially a new still or set of stills from the film accompanied by a stretch of dialogue actually printed out on the page. Now, the screenplay for American Beauty was fine, but until Shakespeare starts writing for the movies, I’m not sure any screenplay could stand up under the pressure of having random sequences of dialogue yanked from it in this way. Movie dialogue is meant to be spoken and to be heard. On the page, or at least in a movie ad, the words seem inert at best and trite at worst. And I’ve seen the movie twice. I can only imagine how these ads read to people who have no idea who the participants in the dialogue are, or why they’re saying the things they’re saying.

Of course, the ads aren’t really intended for people who haven’t seen the movie. They’re intended for Academy voters, who need to be reminded of why they loved–or should love–the movie. And Dreamworks is certainly going after these voters with admirable intensity. It seems as if every issue of Daily Variety for the past three months has come encased in an American Beauty ad, with more pages sprinkled inside. Unfortunately, the deluge of ads has only pointed up their stiffness. It’s possible that if there’d been a couple of ads featuring lines from the film, it would have seemed like a novelty. As it is, I feel as if I’ve now read the entire screenplay, out of sequence and in annoying bits and chunks.

The Life Is Beautiful campaign, as I mentioned above, also featured lines from the film, but they were more like slogans or mottos than actual dialogue. And while you can see what the creators of the American Beauty ads were going for–reminding people of just how literate, and how deep, the movie was–you can also see why it’s not working. Of course, there are two things to remember about all this. The first is that we actually know very little about how advertising in general actually works, let alone how this kind of “merit advertising” does. And the second point, corollary to the first, is that even if American Beauty doesn’t win the Best Picture award (though I sort of still imagine it will), the admakers will always be able to put the blame somewhere else. The great virtue of not knowing what works, after all, is that we also don’t really know what doesn’t.