May 20, 2012

From Europe with irony: Symphony marketing that's actually funny

American orchestras, like their cousins in dance, theater, and the visual arts, talk a lot about how to appeal to a younger crowd. The word 'authenticity' crops up a lot in those conversations, and for good reason. But in contemporary culture, sometimes the most authentic thing you can do is make fun of yourself for being authentic. Watch this promo from the Orchestre Philharmonique Luxembourg and see if you can resist a grin.

The video hits some of the same themes that US orchestras have tried to convey to twenty- and thirty-something audiences — that concertgoing is not just for geezers, that classical music is an emotional high, that it draws (or should draw) a multicultural crowd — while simultaneously making fun of itself for having to make such assertions. The orchestra is mocking its own desperation to be relevant to young people and its cluelessness about attracting them, but it’s doing so using some of contemporary culture’s most relevant and savvy modes, including a kind of goofy, improvisatory irony.

Plus, it makes you laugh, which may be the most basic recasting of classical music’s ‘brand’ that we could ask for.

By comparison, most American symphony marketing efforts seem...well, classical. They focus on the big name performers or conductors, the quality of the music-making, the power and timelessness of the repertoire. Even when they’re clever, they’re usually still in that proud, luxury-product mode we’re used to in the arts, in which earnestness is never far below the surface.

To appeal to young people, arts organizations usually assert that they offer experiences they think those audiences value. But the Luxembourg video reveals that sometimes that’s not enough: sometimes asserting can be a problem in itself. Good communication isn’t just about what you say, it’s about the personality and voice with which you deliver the message — your stance on what you’re saying. Or rather, the two are intertwined: the mode of delivery is the message. And in these postmodern times, a little creative friction between the two can signify that you don’t take yourself too seriously, that you get how popular culture works and you're part of it. (I made this point about Alec Baldwin’s self-spoofing NPR spots last year.)

So even when arts marketers have done their research and know what would appeal to young audiences before, during, and after the performance, they sometimes don’t know how to convey those values in a way that feels like they know the people they’re talking to. The genius of this promo is how it manages to do both, while admitting implicitly that it’s a tough sales pitch to make. 

Notice that there’s no concert footage in the Luxembourg video, which raises the question of whether the ticker-buyer's experience at the Philharmonique actually pays off the promises made by the promo. The onstage experience is reimagined with some of the same values (less mockery, perhaps, but equal whimsy and confidence) in a different European ad, this one for the Czech Philharmonic:

If you read ArtsJournal, you may have seen these both on Norman Lebrecht’s blog last month. That’s where I found them, and there are more where these came from. (Thanks, Norman, and keep ‘em coming.) Do they tap your funnybone? Do they feel, in some sense, authentic? And how does your age play into your reaction?



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