Visual Art 8-3-2005

Talking It Up and Talking Down: Pitfalls of Marketing

Michael Fallon writes about the desperate desire of arts institutions to find popular favor, and the dangers of that pursuit.

Michael Fallon

I STARTED TO READ Dominic Papatola’s Pioneer Press column about lessons the art world could learn from the smash TV show “American Idol” (“Maybe Critics Could Draw the Crowds with More ‘Idol’-izing” from Sunday, May 22) with some interest. There’s no doubt it’s a timely supposition, as there has been more than the usual amount of national hand-wringing of late among artists and critics concerning the decline in the prestige of their respective fields. This worry culminated in this past February’s publication by the Rand Corporation of (“Gifts of the Muse,” a report that disputed ten years of claims by arts groups, think tanks, and academicians that art has a practical value to culture. There’s also the recent hullabaloo surrounding the first ever National Critics Conference in L.A.—an effort to pool the voices of critics to see if they can raise the decibel level to just above a cultural whimper. (For more information, see Camille LeFevre’s report on the event.)

Unfortunately, Papatola’s attempt to tie populist fluff with what we artists and critics do fell well short of useful or insightful. Its takes no deep thought to imagine that as certain media-fired events and programs, with all their pomp and spectacle, proliferate and overshadow the more esoteric fine art forms, it might be nice for the arts to recapture some of that audience. He didn’t have to focus on “American Idol” alone—just looking at the past three months yields a wealth of audience-mesmerizing material, ranging from the sad display of the Michael Jackson trial, to the filmic Rohrschach test that was the last space epic/comic book hero/Tom Cruise vehicle, and on into fatal disappearances, sensational brain autopsies, and so on and so forth. No one believes that such things are of equal quality and virtue to the best of the arts, but that doesn’t mean that people will choose Alec Soth over Anakin Skywalker—even if the art were packaged with lightsabers and personal droids. Nor should they.

After all, the MIA showed the various trinkets and crap from the Star Wars® franchise a few years ago, and broke attendance records, but decided afterward that it would never do such a thing again. This was not because the show did not attract people, but it did not attract people to see the art (the MIA’s specialty). People came and breezed through the galleries with blinders on—as a result, the MIA didn’t expand an audience, or serve their mission, and so the word is no more fluff for the masses. I have to say I agree. Not that I don’t like Star Wars and haven’t seen all the films, but to see Star Wars ephemera is not why I go to an art museum. Just as I’d likely leave the theater if suddenly Natalie Portman were to break out in recitative in the middle of space dock.

Such basic facts turn Papatola’s point about trying to make the arts more like “American Idol” into terribly misguided bad advice–even beyond the problematic fact that Papatola begins his commentary with a smugly elitist stance toward a program he admits in the first sentence he has not watched a “nanosecond” of. That sentence alone, by the way, is part of the problem that critics and artists have in attracting new audience; it’s just human nature for people to be put off when they feel talked down to. The role of a good arts person should be to highlight through one’s work what is deeply and abidingly beautiful, challenging, and rewarding about art—not what’s bad about everything else. Speaking from my vantage point as a critic, this means, as I have well learned, I should never talk down to an audience—not that I haven’t at times had trouble with this. In fact, it’s hard, almost impossible, for all persons who devote a life to what is essentially an esoteric, hermetic pursuit not to feel virtuous about what they do. But of course, this translates into smugness: exactly what drives away an audience.

ALL THAT ASIDE, what’s mostly wrong with Papatola’s column is that he mistakes the sensational buzz around the show for substance. That is, Papatola says in his commentary that maybe the arts need “Idol-style” competition, public and bloody and appealing enough to attract new audiences (as though arts aren’t competitive enough). What is clear here is Papatola doesn’t understand a basic driving principle of marketing—the sizzle v. the steak principle. In other words, when it comes to product, marketers focus on two types of selling. Either they sell the substance of a product or service (the “steak”), or they sell the buzz and sensations that surround the experience of the product (the “sizzle”). With high-art presenters—museums, orchestras, galleries, theaters, etc—the object is, and should ever be, to sell the steak (the Walker may be one exception to this rule). After all, it’s the art that brought whatever organization that’s showing it together; it’s the art that brings people in the doors (or not, as the case may be); it’s the art that brings funders, critics, aficionados, and other arts lovers (though maybe not the masses) a-calling.

But spectacles like “American Idol” are all about the sizzle. After all, the program itself offers nothing really novel (in my childhood, it was called “Star Search”). The difference this time, however, is in the way the program has been promoted and marketed. Starting with Simon Cowell and the Fox infographics, everything is about creating the feel of populist sizzle. According to marketing professors Karl Moore and Mark Bajramovic and others, “American Idol” creates this sense of sizzle through its constant “popularity contest” structure—a structure made immediate and widespread by virtue of modern technologies (i.e, wireless voting). “American Idol” then reinforces its own sense of spectacle—the “American Idol nation”—constantly by making everyone feel that they’re part of it. It’s glamour pandering for the glamourless (Papatola’d know this had he watched even one minute of the pre-season tryouts for the contest). Of course, the bright-light stage, the contestants-cum-fashion models, the gushing host, the various celebrity judges, the obsessive singing of specially written “Idol” ditties, and the ubiquitous contestant concert tours don’t hurt the sizzle one bit. (Note: It has just been reported that the Idol folks even plan to start up an internet radio station in tandem with next fall’s edition of the show. If that’s not marketing savvy, I don’t know what is.)

In the end, Papatola’s knowing nod to the Minnesota Orchestra (who are running some sort of “Minnesota Idol” competition, thinking that somehow they’ll draw masses of people to their concerts by riding on the coattails of the “Idol” phenomenon) is not only foolishly misguided, but dangerous. I showed this to friends of mine here in Pittsburgh—fellow students studying arts management and focusing on arts marketing class—and they paused only slightly before saying, “um, that’s called an audition.” The attempt to make sizzle out of something that is valued as steak almost always backfires; in other words, if you dumb down your product to reach out to the masses, you not only don’t attract them but you drive away your core audience.

There’s essentially nothing wrong with “American Idol” and such spectacles, in relation to the arts—as long as there is a dividing line that is clear between arts capable of complexity and power and those capable of entertainment only. In this way, people can find out what the differences are. Let’s hope folks don’t read such pieces as Papatola’s and start thinking of ways to bring sizzle to the arts, forever replacing the steak that the bulk of art-lovers have come to relish.