The Seven Deadly Sins of Arts Marketing

In the arts where “getting the word out” is often the overriding strategic consideration, we tend to assume that drawing attention to the word is the same as persuading people to buy.

It is not.

Here are seven stylistic devices that arts professionals often mistake for persuasive messaging.

Sin 1: Catchy

The best/worst example of catchy arts marketing can be found on college campus bulletin boards where amateur bands promote their gigs by printing the word “SEX” in huge letters and then saying, “Now that I have your attention, FISTPISTON will perform at the Annex on Saturday, March 22…” The attention getters change depending on the relative sophistication of the marketers, but the underlying intent stays the same: Find eye-catching ways to make people look at the same old passive messages.

Redemption: Know exactly what your audiences want and use attention getting devices that appeal to their yearnings. If younger audiences want fun ways to enjoy time with friends, for example, use photos of young people having a good time in your venue.

Sin 2: Cute

Nissan launched a “Dogs Love Trucks” ad campaign in the 1990s that was adorable. It won all sorts of awards and did a great job of generating awareness and positive feelings about the product, but after nearly two years of running the ads, Nissan discovered they didn’t do a very good job of selling trucks. The campaign has since become a cautionary tale about the difference between being cute and persuading people to buy.

Redemption: Build campaign ideas around what your audience actually wants – not what you and your colleagues thought was so cute in the conference room.

Sin 3: Clever

I used to market a program called “Selected Shorts” at Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where well-known actors read short stories in front of a live audience. It was a neighborhood literary series primarily but you wouldn’t know that from the marketing ideas we came up with. At one point we talked about stringing a clothesline across Broadway filled with brightly colored boxer shorts – a funny, attention-getting idea that had everything to do with being clever and virtually nothing to do with motivating people to buy.

Redemption: Cleverness is almost always self-referrential egotism substituting for audience-oriented persuasive strategy. To avoid cleverness, stay entirely focused on what your audience wants and on describing how your product will satisfy their yearnings.

Sin 4: Coy

The original ad campaign for Avenue Q had posters with puppet fuzz on them that said, “See what all the fuzz is about.” It was the sort of coy, indirect teaser campaign that oh-so-witty New Yorkers eat up. I saw Avenue Q at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas shortly after it opened there and noticed that the house was nowhere near full. So afterward I stood in the busy casino near one of those fuzzy posters and watched for a very long time to see if anyone would stop to look at it, let alone try to figure out what it meant, and none did. The show closed a few months later.

Redemption: SELL. Know what your audiences are looking for and persuade them to buy by letting them know you have it. If they want “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” fare and you’ve got hot puppet-on-puppet action, sell hot puppet-on-puppet action.

Sin 5: Classy

Tuxedos and tutus say a lot of things to a lot of people, but if they say, “boring stuff your grandmother liked,” to anyone who’s thinking about what they might want to do next weekend, they’re sending the wrong message.

Redemption: In addition to knowing what your audiences want, you have to know what they don’t want so you can avoid messages that motivate them to stay away.

Sin 6: Creative

A marketer friend of mine once commissioned a famous artist to design the brand image for a show she was selling. The thinking was that someone who was that creative would undoubtedly be able to capture the essence of the show. It was a gorgeous poster and the limited edition prints were probably worth a lot of money, which is great because it had nothing to do with selling tickets.

Redemption: Marketing is a science, not an art. Keep creativity out of the marketing lab. Stay focused on objective data and rational methods. Apply creativity as an enhancement only after the strategic messages have been fully developed.

Sin 7: Cultural

I worked in Pittsburgh in the early 1980s when the Pittsburgh Trust for Cultural Resources was making plans to turn a big swath of Downtown into a cultural district. I returned a few years ago and noticed that the cultural district was proudly sporting street pole banners that said “Cultural District,” as if the word “culture” would somehow make people want to spend time there. I don’t know about you, but when I’m looking for a place to have a good time, even if it’s a theater or concert hall, I don’t give a rat’s ass about culture.

Redemption: Frame your persuasive appeals from the customers’ perspective. Most of the people who spend money in the cultural district go there for leisure entertainment – and anyone who hasn’t been there yet isn’t looking for culture.

If there’s a through line here it’s that getting attention is all about paying attention. Know what your audience is looking for and you shouldn’t have any trouble getting them to look in your direction.

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[This post is adapted from my book “Marketing the Arts to Death: How Lazy Language is Killing Culture” – Available at Amazon and other e-book retailers.]

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