I saw a subscription brochure for a major American orchestra recently that was just plastered with pictures of people in formal attire. And I do mean plastered. I started counting individuals in tuxes and gowns and lost track at around the 350 mark. There were several shots of the orchestra, which accounted for quite a few, then there were chorus shots, which nearly doubled the number, then there was a shot of the full orchestra and chorus together, which must have been at least 200 more, plus various shots of guest artists, society types at the gala, and no fewer than ten close-ups of the conductor – all in black formal wear!
In economics, the law of diminishing returns suggests that adding too much of a useful thing to a given process will at some point reduce the desired output. If a farmer uses the right amount of fertilizer, for example, the crop yield is high, but if he keeps adding fertilizer he’ll reach a point where the nutrients go out of balance and the yield begins to diminish.
I’m fairly certain there’s a point of diminishing returns in arts marketing. It’s the point where the comfortable old clichés we’ve been using for the last six or seven decades – things like tuxedos, for example – start doing more harm than good. The nutrient mix of a fertile marketing message, if you will, requires balance to produce the best results. Old audiences may welcome images of tuxes because they evoke positive memories of previous concert experiences. But new audiences may find them off-putting because they convey a formality or stuffiness that diminishes the appeal of going out with friends to enjoy some live music.
If you want to know how many tuxes you should use for best results, start by knowing for certain how appealing they are to old audiences and how unappealing they are to new audiences, then decide how important these targets are to your organization. If your research shows that tuxes are a turnoff to new audiences and new audiences are extremely important to you because without them you’ll eventually go out of business, you might want to use fewer images of tuxedos.
Given how many tuxes there were in the brochure above, It seems evident that either this organization’s research revealed an unusually positive response to formal wear among new audiences, or the organization had no interest whatsoever in appealing to uninitiated outsiders. My guess is that neither is true and they did what most arts organizations do: They talked a lot about how important younger, more culturally diverse audiences were, but didn’t actually do any research into what motivates them – or offends them, as the case may be – and then simply gave their graphic designer the photos they had, which were of people in tuxes and gowns, and encouraged said designer to use whatever pictures she thought would make the executive director happy.
I mentioned in passing some months ago that if a picture is worth a thousand words, it might be a good idea to write a thousand-word essay about how your product satisfies the needs, wants and desires of younger, more culturally diverse audiences and then choose a photograph that best illustrates the process. If you were to actually research and write such an essay, chances are you’d be using shots of young, diverse-looking people laughing and enjoying drinks together in your lobby bar – and there wouldn’t be a tuxedo in sight.
I’m being a bit simplistic here to demonstrate a point. Tuxedos are a quantifiable cliché that classical music executives can begin to count and ratchet downward in hopes of restoring balance to their persuasive endeavors. But the broader point is that all arts marketing messages have to be properly balanced and that different people tend to respond to pictures of tutus, swooning sopranos, marble busts and mugging Shakespearean clowns in different ways. If we want to motivate new audiences, we have to know in advance how they’ll respond to our most beloved – but potentially offensive – iconography and then produce marketing messages that attract rather than repel them.