What to expect when you’re expecting

UPDATE 2/12, 3:30pm: Since I’ve heard them all before ((expected)), I didn’t feel the need to stream the pieces on the site described below. However, in an e mail exchange about something entirely different, a colleague at another orchestra wrote the following:

And I just read your blog post about the eye-scaldingly horrible Philly Orchestra campaign. You know what’s really unexpectifying? Clicking the Tchaikovsky 4 button on the media player and hearing Mahler 6.

Right. So that happened. OK, here’s my original post:


I really don’t want to kick the Philadelphia Orchestra when it’s down, but can we at least talk about the white people?


The promo microsite, which was sent to me by my friend Ben Wyskida from The Nation last night, is part of the orchestra’s new “Unexpect Yourself” campaign; “Unexpect Yourself,” a phrase Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Karen Heller has called “unnatural, forced, and heretofore unused in the English language, suggest[ing] something confined to boudoirs or bathrooms.” This is also confusing: “To stay relevant, you must embrace new ideas and new things.” Relevant to whom? Relevant to what?  And the orchestra is refusing to answer questions, reports Dan Wakin in The New York Times, and let’s all remember together how much I believe in that as a strategy.

But getting back to Preppyville, U.S.A.. Here are the four photos that flash through the site. My thoughts in YELLOW.


I was born in Princeton, NJ and raised in New Canaan, CT–arguably the preppiest town in the preppiest state in the country–so I like to think I know a few things about middle-aged, rich, white people. Mostly what I know, though, is that their being associated with an organization makes Me Not Want To Be. (Recall the Mostly Mozart programming of 2009.)

The unfortunate thing, is that idea for the campaign is really not bad: “going to see an orchestra concert does not have to be a special occasion” is a good message. I often self-reflect on what it would take to make something a traditionally-defined special occasion for me at this point; all the things I do for work would be special occasions for the large majority of the country. (Can you imagine the poor boy who tells me “I bought us tickets to CARNEGIE HALL Friday night!”?) Even things like going out to dinner, getting a pizza, renting a movie, and buying new clothes are just Things I Do now. Remember how exciting Allowance used to be?? To clarify, I love going to concerts, going out to dinner, certainly getting pizza, Netflixing movies, buying new clothes, and getting paid, but they’re just slightly less special than they were growing up. Maybe going to a concert should be in the “getting take-out in New York City” category: an enjoyable undertaking for sure, but not as precious, cheaper and without as much planning. (Unrelated: I should see if I can go a week without writing “special” on this blog.)

I don’t live in Philly, so perhaps I can’t see the big picture of what is being done to support the “Unexpect Yourself” tagline. The main reason that I, personally, don’t rent a convertible and go somewhere for a spontaneous weekend, or buy someone flowers for no reason, is cost. Will there be $20 tickets for every Wednesday night concert, or something similar? Then sure: I’d try it. (The description on the microsite does mention $10 tickets, but it also mentions $130 tickets.) What about Casual Friday concerts, or a “wear jeans to the symphony” campaign? Actually, both those things could be accomplished via a “show-don’t-tell” strategy: all the photos you disseminate of your audience for a season involve patrons wearing casual clothes. During World War II, British news stations weren’t allowed to begin or end segments on The Blitz with footage of destroyed buildings. We could all learn a little something from good old-fashioned propaganda.

I didn’t ask Ben where he found this microsite, but strangely, it’s not linked to from the orchestra’s homepage:

PhillyOrchestra.jpgSo perhaps this was all more strategic than I could have imagined (and I’m not being sarcastic, here). It’s entirely possible that this microsite was meant for a very specific group of people in Philadelphia, and the photos were chosen to reach that specific group. Maybe not-quite-rich white people who are Bored With Their Lives are the ones to go after. There’s actually something to that, and I hope the Philadelphia Orchestra goes all the way with it.

Update, 10:40pm, during ‘Burn Notice’: Lord Twitter directed me to two other posts on this same topic today. Read them at Proper Discord and The Dutch Perspective.

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  1. says

    Hi Amanda. I do agree, and wanted to note that the orchestra campaign sounds a lot like a decades-old Village Voice poster campaign: “Expect the Unexpected.”

  2. Ben Wyskida says

    Ben here. The campaign was forwarded to me by a friend. I assume they took the site down because it’s horrible!

    What I’d like to know is this:
    (1) What firm did this to them?
    (2) What did it cost?
    (3) Why would you use stock photos of fake people when there are
    probably (one hopes) real actual people in Philadelphia who tried the
    orchestra on a whim and had a great time. I see what they were doing
    and there was a way to do it, but they totally missed the mark.

    Let’s review Ben’s fourth rule of good marketing:

    who are those people in that car?

    I lived in Philly for 5 years, and this doesn’t feel right to its audience at all. What a mess.

    According to the blog ‘Proper Discord’, the firm is called Annodyne. Their post about the project is here. -AA

  3. says

    This will sound superficial, but whatever, they’re supposed to be advertising: they should have made the people in the ads look like the type of people you’d want to see when you go to a concert. Not these Plain Jane boring suburban types. For the part that asks ‘When’s the last time you tried something new,’ for example, they could have had a photo of people you WOULDN’T expect there, like cool looking people under 35.
    …and this weak marketing campaign to make classical music accessible is so not unexpected.

  4. Juan Gallardo says

    McManus wrote about this as well: http://www.adaptistration.com/2010/02/11/unexpected-bear-traps-in-philadelphia/
    On one hand, the use of white people doesn’t bother me so much since it seems fair to assume that the orchestra will be more successful targeting Caucasians since that’s where their primary audience has been all along. I’m not saying that’s what they should do but if the goal is an immediate bump in single tix sales, that will probably do more in the short term.
    @Ben Wyskid: I don’t entirely agree with the notion that you can’t use stock photos. If there’s no money for photo shoots then there’s no money but I would be surprised that a group as old and ans big as the Philadelphia Orchestra would not have a number of in-house photos to use.

  5. Andrea says

    And to further confuse the point – are they staying relevant by doing new (“unexpected”!!) things, or are they “timeless”? Doesn’t one cancel the other? The whole thing almost seems like satire, or a lesson from an arts admin program in what NOT to do as you try to build your audience. How did every single person involved miss the whiteness factor?
    The copy leaves a bit to be desired as well. Though I love “Listen below to preview the Orchestra’s unexpected sounds”. That’s just straight up hilarious, however unintentionally.

  6. says

    Thanks for linking, Amanda.
    But even beside the point of a mismatch in execution and audience/objective, the site itself is, quite frankly, quite pointless.
    I believe the site will be accompanied by an ad campaign throughout the city, but I think the real missed opportunity here is social media.
    What about a dedicated Facebook page and Twitter account where they can show different cases of unexpectedness and share fun, spontaneous things. Social media is perfect for this!
    Instead, we get a static, one-page Web site with bland marketing copy. A site that doesn’t offer me anything of real value. Like I said in my blog: sign up for a newsletter? Why should I? Buy tickets? But why?
    My trip through social media world has been full of unexpected opportunities. This campaign seems to naturally fit in that world.
    But that would involve actually interacting, sharing and engaging. I suppose a static Web page seems much safer.

  7. says

    I generally follow the Occam’s Razor of Human Behavior: “Never ascribe to conspiracy that which can be explained by incompetence” but I wonder if there’s actually something fantastically clever going on here:
    Perhaps we’re all unwittingly helping them to create a new Internet meme: “Unexpecting” – like Rickrolling but with Mahler 6.
    You’re expecting Tchaikovsky, but the link goes to Mahler 6. You’re expecting Martha Stewart, but you get Mahler 6. You were expecting porn, but you get Mahler 6. It’s almost retahded enough to be huge.

  8. says

    Annodyne, the creators of this advertising effort are pretty clueless. They fell back on “branding” and “web diagnostics” when they should have been focusing on selling tickets. Putting warm, paying bodies in otherwise cold, empty seats should have been their focus.
    Trying to talk marketing and audience development to orchestra managements is difficult under the best of circumstances. (I spent time doing just that at the Boston Symphony) and handicapped by constant interference from long time contributors who know little about the craft.
    This effort misses the mark in so many ways it should be used at Harvard as a case history of how NOT to market the arts.

  9. says

    I just noted this on Nico Muhly’s blog, and I thought I would be more specifically helpful here. There is a great firm in Philadelphia that does arts marketing –
    There is also a great photographer in Philly who does lots of work for arts organizations –
    Just team them up and they’ll do you right!
    If Annodyne is reading this, I would suggest going back and finding some examples of people who are audience currently of the Philadelphia Orchestra who took a chance doing the unexpected – trying the Orchestra – and loved it. Maybe they did that instead of going to the Jersey Shore? Or they picked a night at the Orchestra as part of some great night out in Center City? The campaign is salvageable, if you find real people who – god help us – unexpected themselves for real or whatever.