By Jim McCarthy Jan 24, 2012 0 comments

A Vast Churning River of Hoary Old Cliches? Do Tell, Trevor

Once again, I’m happy to have Trevor O’Donnell, an arts & entertainment consultant who’s developed successful marketing/sales initiatives for Disney Theatrical Productions, Cameron Mackintosh, Cirque du Soleil and many others, as a guest poster on Live 2.0.  He’s got a new book that’s just out, Marketing the Arts to Death: How Lazy Language is Killing Culture, and he’s been kind enough to share a excerpt with us here.  With no further delay, Trevor O’Donnell, ladies and gentlemen.

A Vast Churning River of Hoary Old Cliches

When I do copywriting workshops for arts pros, I always make a point of asking the group this question: “How many of you have ever used the word ‘celebrate’ in a promotional campaign?” And invariably every person in the room raises a hand.

Then I ask: “Would anyone care to describe the strategic thinking that went into choosing the word ‘celebrate’?” And all the hands quickly drop down again.

Yet I press on.

“When you suggest that people celebrate, what exactly are you asking them to do? How does that word work in the message you’re crafting? What happens in the minds of potential patrons who read or hear the word? Can anyone describe a rational causal connection between use of the word ‘celebrate’ and a customer’s impetus to get up off the couch and buy a ticket?”

Of course they can’t. There isn’t a connection. The closest they can come is to say, “It creates a sense of excitement around the product,” which in itself raises a host of interesting questions: “Does it really? How do you know that? On what evidence are you basing that assertion? Who gets excited? Why? And even if they do get excited because you told them to celebrate (which is doubtful), what’s the causal link between the sense of excitement and the thing the customer must do in order for ‘celebrate’ to achieve its intended effect?” And finally, “Did using the word ‘celebrate’ motivate people to buy, or would any similarly upbeat but unintentional copy choice have achieved the same result?”

Crickets…

No, dear friends, “celebrate” is not a strategic messaging choice; it’s fluff. It’s the sort of automatic language arts pros use when we don’t know what else to say or when we haven’t bothered to ask what needs to be said. It’s a benign, innocuous, reasonably friendly but ultimately inane substitute for strategic communication.

And “celebrate” is by no means alone. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of similar expressions and images floating around the arts marketing lexicon. These quaint, comfortable, stale but handy helpmates surface repeatedly in various guises then sink away only to pop up later in someone else’s season campaign. Given how little original material actually makes it into the canon, it’s not entirely unfair to describe the history of arts marketing as a vast churning river of hoary old clichés.

If you’ve ever used an artsy pun, a Shakespeare quote, a shot of a tuxedoed performer, the word “experience” as a directive (i.e. “experience the magic”), the phrase “set against the backdrop” or the word “anniversary” in a marketing campaign, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

“But, Trev, isn’t this what arts marketing is? We’ve always done it this way. We use these words and images because they describe what we’re selling. And don’t we have to be eye-catching — or at least interesting? I mean, is it really so bad to speak a comfortable language that our loyal audiences understand?”

No. Of course not. There’s nothing wrong with using overwrought clichés when they work. Back when there were a lot of people who cared about the arts, they worked very well. It didn’t matter much what we said or if we said it in a frivolous, nonsensical or overly cute, coy, clever way as long as we got the information in front of the right people. For a long time, because it didn’t actually have to sell anything, the language of arts marketing was little more than a stylistic device that was there to get attention or dress up information that people were already prepared to respond to.

The question we have to ask today, though, is what happens when those pre-motivated people die and their heirs aren’t sitting around waiting for the next season brochure? What happens if younger fence-sitting audiences don’t understand the language or, worse, do understand it but think it’s goofy or hopelessly out of touch?

That if the language we choose has to do more than just fluff up the message? What if it has to actually convince people that it’s in their interest to buy the product? Can we really afford to keep repeating the same mindless, non-strategic clichés when they’re at best benign and possibly doing more harm than good?

Believe it or not, it is possible to create messages that contain causal links between the language we speak and the action we want to impel. We can choose words and images that work in specific, predetermined, predictable ways to bring about the results we expect. Businesses do it all the time. If we choose to do so in the arts, we can develop language that motivates non-avid audiences to jump off the fence in our direction.

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