I have a colleague who believes, and isn’t even remotely embarrassed to say, that marketing is evil. Like many arts pros he thinks that marketing is a dubious but necessary process that the arts must endure in order to survive in a culture that’s lost its arts-belong-on-top-and-everyone-should-aspire value hierarchy.
I read an arts blog today that made a passing reference to the evils of marketing. At first it seemed like just another glib aside, but soon it dawned on me that the idea runs much deeper than I’d imagined. Arts professionals talk like this all the time. Nobody would dream of casually referring to fundraising as a necessary evil, but as an industry we regularly confess, and often promote, a matter-of-fact disdain for marketing in our ongoing professional discourse.
Lately I’ve come to understand that arts professionals’ aversion to marketing isn’t just surface-level stupidity, it’s bred in the bone like a racial bias or phobia. We don’t just roll our eyes and say, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to do all this marketing,” we say frankly, openly and without a hint of reflection or guilt that there is something inherently malevolent about the marketing process itself, and that it’s been foisted on us, through no fault of our own, like when the wrong sort of family moves into the house down the street.
The idea is preposterous, of course. Anyone who thinks marketing is evil is ridiculous and anyone who has the temerity to say it out loud is a fool. Marketing is a value-neutral tool that can be used for good or evil. Saying marketing is evil is like saying the knife in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was evil. Any intelligent human being knows that Norman Bates was evil and the knife was just a knife. People can be evil. Tools can be used by evil people. But tools themselves cannot be evil.
Back in the 1980s I managed telephone sales teams for nonprofit arts organizations where we sold subscriptions and solicited individual gifts. I trained my staff to use carefully calculated techniques that could turn someone who wasn’t even thinking about subscribing or donating into someone who’d plop down a credit card and charge $500 in the space of twenty minutes. Those techniques were extremely powerful tools and they worked just as well on subscriptions as they did on donations, but they weren’t evil, and neither were we.
If you’re the sort of person who’s fond of saying that marketing is evil, or someone who perpetuates the metaphor in less direct ways, or even someone who harbors such sentiments privately, I challenge you to separate out the fundraising we did and call it good by comparison. The process was identical. If the marketing was evil, the fundraising has to have been equally evil. Both were accomplished using the same tools.
And the principle applies across the board. Marketing is a process of persuading people to participate in the arts. Development is a process of persuading people to give money to the arts. There is nothing whatsoever about the marketing process that makes it less moral or honorable. The value distinction lies in arts professionals’ prejudices, not in the processes themselves.
Why do arts pros harbor such a deep-seated belief that marketing is evil? That’s a long and complex story, but my theory after 35 years in the business is this: We resent having to sell something that we believe people should want. Our egos and identities are so deeply invested in the unquestionable value of art – and, by extension, the value and worth of our career investments in the arts – that it’s almost impossible for us to admit that we have to do something as low and humiliating as persuading indifferent outsiders to want us. We project evil onto marketing because we fear it: An honest, open-eyed acceptance of marketing threatens to lay bare the fact that we’re no longer on top, that the value hierarchy has been leveled and that tomorrow’s audiences don’t aspire to consume what we so desperately need to sell.
Here’s a scary thought. Marketing is the only reasonable hope many large, traditional arts organizations have for survival. Audiences are disappearing steadily and the only way to get them back is to persuade them to come through strategic communications, a.k.a. marketing. The better the marketing, the greater the chance of survival. Arts pros who want sustaining audiences will have to meet new audiences where they live, engage with them personally, learn from them what they yearn for and then figure out how to convince them that the art we make and sell will make them happy. At its core, that’s what marketing is, and as far as I’m concerned it’s the most honorable job any arts administrator could ever hope to do.
The arts’ aversion to marketing is irrational, unhealthy and counterproductive. If you’re an arts pro who likes to toss around facile condemnations of marketing to compensate for your waning belief in the sustainability of your chosen profession, it’s time to stop. Marketing is a useful tool that honorable people can use in good faith to lead others toward transcendent ends.
It may just be our salvation.