So, this cartoon was circulating around the blogs last week.
If you’re a marketer or someone who hangs around with graphic designers, you’ll get it right away. I got it because it’s a picture of me and my book designer friend Jeffrey, who responds with bemused annoyance to typographical offenses that most of us would never even notice. (Kerning refers to relative spacing between letters.)
My objective on this blog is to encourage arts pros to recognize non-strategic marketing messages and respond with similar erudite indignation: “I can’t believe those idiots used artsy wordplay on their brochure. That stuff went out with fax blasts. Who the hell do they think they’re talking to?”
Unlike the cartoon, though, there’s nothing malicious about this. I want to do it because our potential audience is changing and we’re still speaking a cutesy nonsense language that was developed half a century ago for people who loved us no matter what we said. Now of course, we’re talking to people who don’t love us quite so much and we need to be much more thoughtful, more intentional, about what we say.
Unfortunately, we as an industry have become so accustomed to our insider-speak that we’ve lost sight of how it works – or fails to work – on the audiences we most need to persuade. For example, I just got a subscription brochure from one of Southern California’s most prominent performing arts institutions that was designed around a clever but abstruse little chunk of artsy wordplay that, when viewed through the eyes of a fence-sitting outsider, is just plain embarrassing. The whole thing could have been produced back in 1982 when the NEA started tracking our decades-long decline in arts audiences. And given how unoriginal the pun was, and how our industry tends to recycle its favorite clichés ad nauseum, the same brochure could easily be sitting in some other organization’s dusty old archives.
The only way to break this cycle is to train ourselves to recognize these offenses and rail against the egocentrism that allows them to continue while arts organizations from coast to coast are closing their doors. We can talk about new audiences all we want, but if we’re not talking to them about how our products satisfy their desires, we might as well just keep chit-chatting with our dying fans and plan in advance for shutting the doors when there aren’t enough of them left to respond to our catchy, cute and oh so clever communications.
And as for “celebrate,” I could write at length about this deadliest of all arts marketing cliches – and I do in my book – but for now lets just say that there are only two reasons anyone should ever use the word “celebrate” in a promotional context: You’re inviting someone to an actual party, or you know for a fact, and can verify with objective evidence, that your target audience has a pent up desire to celebrate something by buying tickets to your event. Apply these rules with rigor and you’ll never need to worry about erudite colleagues responding with bemused annoyance to your organization’s lame rhetorical offenses.
I’m sorry if I sound a little peevish today, but this stuff is extremely important. Plus, I have a cold, Downton Abby’s over for the season and a friend just sent me information about a new event that’s coming to a local theatre called “Celebrate Dance.”