Unchaining creativity: The challenges of marketing to diverse audiences

What would the world be like without art? It’s a scary thought. But what happens when an industry that prides itself on its creativity, and ability to evolve to meet the changing needs of society, finds itself shackled by conservative values? We speak with the Auckland Theatre Company’s Marketing Director Joanna O’Connor about the difficulties faced when promoting cultural offerings to diverse demographics.

Previously working for The Australian Ballet, O’Connor was tasked with reaching younger audiences through targeted campaigns.

To do this she was able to leverage events like Pride and focused on engaging with the LGBTQI+ community to create a safe space for younger audiences to experience performing arts that resonated with their interests and identities.

Now, the digital landscape has changed with recent adjustments to Facebook’s targeting metrics, leaving organisations like Auckland Theatre Company unable to reach specific interest groups anymore.

“Arts marketing, like popular music and culture, is often at the forefront of progressive marketing practises because the content, the very purpose of the work, is to push boundaries and challenge the status quo,” says O’Connor.

Joanna O’Connor.

“However, media conservatism, to preserve and protect their viewers/readers/public, means that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to promote progressive art works to the very audiences that want to know about it. This has a vicious cycle: without the knowledge it’s on, audiences don’t know and don’t come, so they don’t engage with it.”

And with a smaller pool of potential theatregoers here in New Zealand compared to a country like Australia, O’Connor says those in the arts marketing space are often only left with the more traditional “spray and pray” strategy of putting their creative out to a much broader audience and hoping that it will attract a certain percentage of punters.

These constraints on marketing efforts have repercussions, especially when presenting works that reflect contemporary culture, societal issues, and topics that may not align with conservative media.

“One of the difficult things is that when we have works which reflect popular culture, reflect society today, talking about topics that don’t align with the conservative media, then you get into a situation where we can’t reach our audience to tell them that there is something for them,” O’Connor says.

For performing arts organisations, and any brand representing culture, promotion is vital. O’Connor believes that advertising for cultural offerings should be approached differently from commercial advertising. She suggests implementing a more nuanced, common-sense approach to advertising content that reflects the unique nature of cultural endeavors.

“Particularly for the performing arts space, and for any brand which is representing culture, you need the ability to promote culture. Maybe it’s a non-for-profit versus a for-profit conversation, but I don’t think so, because you can have commercial shows and commercial objectives that still resonate with society.”

A particularly relevant example of a show that has faced these types of constraints is Auckland Theatre Company’s production ‘Basmati Bitch’ by Ankita Singh.

Set in a futuristic Tāmaki Makaurau, the play touches on topics such as immigration, systemic racism and underground black markets.

Despite Mixed Martial Arts being a key theme of the show, some outdoor advertisers have restricted the inclusion of a sword in the hero image, while for Facebook, Google and some email addresses, the show title itself is flagged as a profanity.

O’Connor suggests that advertising platforms, like Meta (formerly Facebook), could benefit from including options that identify ads as being related to “art and entertainment.” Such a distinction would help marketers empathise with brands focused on promoting cultural experiences and recognising the significance and value of these offerings to society.

“We can’t even target based on an interest in te reo Māori. All these types of targeting which were once available have been removed for consumer privacy, but also because they opened these vulnerable individuals to scrupulous advertising practises.”

Instead the theatre company must advertise to people who have flagged themselves as interested in K-pop, anime, manga, and Asian cuisine.

“What I’m interested in is that some common sense is applied when you’re talking to brands who are advertising culture, both in a digital perspective and in traditional media. There should be some consideration for the fact that it’s not a commercial context. They’re producing works which reflect culture,” O’Connor says.

Phantom Billstickers is one example of an Out of Home provider that allowed both the name of the show and the sword to be displayed in its frames.

CEO Robin McDonnell says the team at Phantom review the content of their clients creative in relation to prevailing community standards, attitudes, consumer takeout and intended audience.

“In the case of Basmati Bitch they are reflective of a modern, vibrant, diverse and youthful Aotearoa. Our view is the sword is far less offensive than any run of the mill gun obsessed Hollywood movie poster. The use of the word Bitch is only offensive if used in misogynistic context, in this case it is not. Because of this it didn’t raise any red flags when it came through our system. 

“Phantom Billstickers policy as a channel that has invested in supporting arts in Aotearoa is to focus on the intended audience. It’s a beautiful thing when a poster can reflect back at an audience and create authentic connection.”

Basmati Bitch premieres at Q Theatre, 11 July – 5 August, presented by Auckland Theatre Company, Oriental Maidens and SquareSums&Co. Tickets to the production, profanities and swords included, are available here.

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