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August 16, 2007

It's not the product, it's the connection

Bridgette Redman

This past week I've spent a lot of time researching for two books I'm working on. Both are college textbooks, one on hospitality housekeeping management and the other on the world of spas.

An article in Lodging Hospitality on "Reaching Out to Generation X" talks about marketing to Generation X:

Turns out they're married and have kids and are pushing 40. So even though they remain high on style and don't know where (let alone how) to draw the line between business and leisure, they've settled down and are looking to nest wherever they travel. That drive reflects the times they came of age, when many of their Boomer parents divorced and many of their Boomer dads lost their jobs. No wonder they value community, connection and connectivity. No wonder it's de rigueur to appeal to their need for the total experience. No wonder product-driven marketing is so 2000."

Community, connection, and connectivity. And they're talking about business marketing and not art?

Later, the article says:

Hospitality marketing rarely addresses Gen X's complicated approach, Rach suggests. It also doesn't take into account this demographic's fine-tuned, ironic sense of humor. "They don't want advertising that tries to fool them or promises things that can't come from that product," she says, calling a recent campaign for Sprite that ordered, Obey your thirst, a successful marketing effort. "The idea was that if you were thirsty you needed to drink something, not that by drinking it you would become something.

Marketing in this industry tends to be extraordinarily product-focused, when what this generation is looking for is an experience based upon relationships," she says.

As one of those Gen X members who is pushing 40, this resonated. I have a finely tuned bullshit radar. Marketing that lies simply doesn't work. My generation grew up on commercials and learned early on that our toys didn't live up to the hype. What we look for really is about connection and community. We want to belong and we want to have meaningful, authentic relationships.

Authenticity is a word they don't address, but I would add to the list. Neither art nor advertising is an excuse for lies. If you're not real, if you're not authentic, then you're not likely to get our ear for very long. Once we figure out you're fake, you're done.

We have had several new theater groups spring up in the past ten years in Lansing, most of them founded by members of Generation X or those on the border. The ones that have succeeded are those that are committed to the ideas of connection and authenticity.

This past season I was wowed by a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch done by a relatively new group called Peppermint Creek Theatre Company. Later, when I was talking to someone about the show, they expressed the opinion that there was a generational difference in those who liked the show. I'm starting to come around to the view.

In many ways, it comes down to the idea of connections. Why would I, a Midwestern, white, middle-aged mom who grew up in the suburbs feel such a deep, strong connection to a character like Hedwig? Perhaps it is because I ignored the character's self-created hype and looked at the heart of the person being portrayed. Sure, I've never had a botched sex change operation, but I (and every other person on this planet) have struggled with issues of identity and self-definition. I've taken extreme actions to escape what seemed to be an inescapable situation only to learn that a little patience would have mitigated the problem. I've been disappointed that others don't see me the way I see me. These are the things that Hedwig is about far more than the bitterness a transgendered performer feels about having been left with a mutilated penis.

Hedwig is a powerful musical because it makes those connections with individuals. It doesn't arrogantly preach to the audience telling them that they're too obtuse to get it. If you don't like us, don't ask us to join in the experience of your art.

The show's director and artistic director have a deep respect for their audience, a respect that shows in every production they do. They're not preaching to an audience they think is hateful and stupid. They're inviting people they respect to engage in a dialogue about the world we live in.

It's not about the product. It's about the relationship.

Take a look at their season last year. They did The Pillowman, The Goat or Who is Sylvia, 9 Parts of Desire, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The plays include the torture of children, bestiality, war in Iraq, transgender issues, and theology.

It could have been disastrous. Had they been preaching from a pulpit in a contemptuously dismissive attitude, it would have been a failure. The audience would have soon figured it out and stayed away. Instead, Peppermint Creek begins with respect, a respect that is obvious in every interaction with them. They trust their audience to handle challenging topics and don't try to make a controversy out of every brave choice they make.

The result is that their houses were packed last year and they reaped multiple awards from everyone who gave them out. Despite the subject matter of their plays, I was never shocked at what I saw. I was engaged. I saw things that mattered to me and that stayed with me long after the play was over.

Theater has much to offer that Generation X wants. So why aren't they coming to the theater? Perhaps there needs to be a change in marketing focus for the arts world as well. Quit hyping the product. Tell us about your true value--the connections that we will make with each other and with the art form. Don't tell us what we'll get out of theater, because you have no way of knowing. Tell us instead, that there will be a unique experience every night because we will be a part of the creation. Invite us to come engage our brains and hearts in our community and trust us.

Theater is unique in what it offers. If it can find a way to focus on these connections rather than the product, who knows what revitalization it might find?

It's a topic for another blog entry, but a case might even be made that this is why there is such a ground swelling of theater throughout the country even while it stagnates in its traditional homes. Could it be because theater that is local is communicating the message of connection and community rather than the really great product that they're selling on their stage?

Posted by Bridgette Redman at August 16, 2007 2:22 PM


Excellent post, Bridgette. You've reminded me of an article I just read in the British magazine Prospect.

The author is Robert Sandall, a long-time executive of Virgin Records, and he writes about the decline of music recording but also the upsurge, the dramatic upsurge, in demand for the live performance.

Greater demand for the live performance might be like your observation that Gen X craves the more authentic experience, the connection and the community -- none of which can be gotten with a sterile recording, not even an iPod.

Here he tries to explain why:

A rediscovery, or a renewed appreciation, of the communal source of music-making--and listening-- must lie near the root of this upending of the music business. As personal stereos and MP3 players have grown in popularity, so has an appreciation that music isn't just something that goes on between your ears. The guitarist of the American hardcore band Anthrax expressed this rather neatly: "Our album is the menu," he explained. "The concert is the meal."

In his book e-Topia, William Mitchell relates the increasing value of shared experience to the isolating nature of electronic or online virtual worlds. "In conducting our daily transactions, we will find ourselves constantly considering the benefits of the different grades of presence that are now available to us, and weighing these against the costs," he writes. Being in the same place at the same time as a live performance, music fans appear to have decided, is the rarest and most precious presence of all.

Posted by: John Stoehr at August 16, 2007 11:58 AM

The "Peppermint Creek" company sounds very strong and forward-looking. And emphasizing connection, community and authenticity (Come See The Anti-Britney! Actors Who Can Really Act and Singers Who Can Really Sing!) seems like a good card for the arts to play in drawing Gen X in.

Sorry to always be harping on money, but the question facing groups like Peppermint Creek is whether they will seek, and their X-generation audiences will ante up, the bucks to support the creation of strong new work.

It's one thing to do well-chosen revivals; the expense becomes very high when you're talking about supporting the developmental theater that led to the creation of many of the shows the Peppermint people are programming, even a solo piece such as "I Am My Own Wife."

How fully will Gen X support the arts? It may find community and connection in the live experience, but it's the Greatest Generation's surviving old folks (and the dead ones' estates) and the graying Boomers who are paying the freight for first productions in big regional theaters that need to charge $30-plus a ticket to make their nut, and are tearing their hair out over how to get Gen X into the seats and onto the donor rolls.

Also, the generation of Authenticity has, in my experience, a tendency to falsely divide art into "commercial," "corporate" or "mainstream" works (and organizations) that are inherently suspect, and those imbued with an "alternative" or "independent" spirit that makes them inherently worthy.

Boomers who grew up with the Beatles, the band that aspired from the start and without apology to be "the toppermost of the poppermost," have no such damaging illusion, and are willing to recognize that talent is talent, and therefore worth supporting in ambitious, non-niche companies that one month might be offering LaBute, Sondheim or Kushner, and the next a Neil Simon revival or a big, Broadway-minded musical.

Will enough Gen Xers come to realize that organized arts means balance and compromise, that not every show can be challenging, that some have to be crowd-pleasers that, one hopes, are still artistically defensible and consistent with the company's mission?

Either Gen X has to sign on to supporting institutions not of its own creation (and therefore suspect?) or find a new and better way to give the performing arts a sound and sustainable business infrastructure.

Either way, there's a critical mass of money that needs to be accumulated in order to stoke and maintain a chain reaction of creativity. Clearly, live performance is going to remain a quaint "old media" minority niche in a tech-driven world, but that doesn't mean it can't occupy a large, lively and well-supported niche as opposed to one that's a dank and musty antiquarium. Your choice, Gen Xers, especially you with the bucks.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at August 16, 2007 2:39 PM

I don't want to pull this thread too far away from Bridgette's original point, but I thought this might be an appropriate spot to link back to some older posts (before Flyover was on ArtsJournal--hence the weird formatting from the conversion) that touched on generational issues: one I did called "The Kids are Alright" and a follow-up by John called "The Kids are Alright, an Addendum."

These generational/demographic issues regarding content, the financial side of the arts, arts journalism, etc. are certainly worth revisiting. What I like about Bridgette's post is the way she grounds these larger issues within a specific local example. It makes me want to catch one of their productions the next time I'm in Michigan!

Posted by: Jennifer A. Smith at August 16, 2007 8:17 PM

I like this blog entry a great deal. I wonder what you all think about newspapers and their marketing efforts in the light of Bridgette's comments? I believe that USA Today has made some attempt in this direction. What about the rest of them?

Posted by: gary panetta at August 17, 2007 9:28 AM

Re: marketing to Gen X: the common wisdom based on RAND and other studies is that when it comes to creating interest in the arts, if you don't catch 'em young, you lose 'em for good.

Obviously, it's important to optimize marketing approaches to the cohort born in the '60s and '70s, but this is a generation that, generally speaking, got the short end of the stick in its arts education, due to assorted economic and political reasons.

They also came up at a time when the arts were being culturally marginalized. The Boomer vibe was influenced by the highbrow Kennedy "Camelot" aura and a celebrity culture in which Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were the ultimate Hollywood glamour couple, and Beverly Sills, Leonard Bernstein and Nureyev and Baryshnikov were mass-media figures; the latter two not just great dancers, but Cold War heroes.

Gen X, to the extent it was paying attention, saw political leaders make a whipping boy of the NEA; they were sold Hollywood glamour couples who were not apt to lead them to Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, and instead of the Beatles' omniverous example of prominently using classical influences to enrich rock, they grew up with the pointless musical debate over what it meant to be a true punk, and whether music that didn't hew to some outsider Independent/Alternative party line could ever be "authentic."

I don't think anything has changed in the '80s and '90s that might have enabled kids born in those decades to get a contact high on the arts by inhaling the cultural air around them.

So: should the institutional arts groups practice a form of triage and put everything into educational programming and educational lobbying, in hopes of winning the children born in this century and the tail end of the last one?

Under this strategy, they could rope in some Gen X and Y parents via their kids, all the while praying that the Boomers and pre-Boomers now sustaining the arts as audiences and donors will live long and prosper.

Or do they spread scarce resources more thinly and target the Xs and Ys along with the oldsters and the kiddies? Not an easy call.

Overhanging the arts, along with society as a whole, is whether America's leaders tackle the health care and Social Security crises in a way that avoids all-out generational warfare and reaches an equitable and economically sustainable solution.

Suggestion for cultivating Gen X-Y and doing a worthy deed: lifetime passes to museums, theaters and concert halls for Iraq War veterans. Maybe lifetime newspaper subscriptions, too.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at August 17, 2007 12:49 PM