Not your father’s Oldsmobile

From Barney Sherman, of iowa Public Radio, bouncing off the e-mail I quoted from Paul DiMaggio:

I sometimes think of it as the “Your Father’s Oldsmobile” problem. (A blanket “forgive me” here if I got all of this wrong—I don’t know much about cars.) But… with that warning… in the 1950s, says Rob Walker  , the Olds represented “middle-class achievement” – a car you wanted after you got affluent enough to move past the Chevy. The Olds represented membership in the country club, the house in the suburbs, promotion to middle management, maybe an elected position at the Rotary Club.

Respectability – something a middle-class man aspired to in 1955, embodied in the Olds.

Then the 60s happened, By the mid-1970s, respectable was what a young man did NOT want to be. The Rotary Club began to shrink (I haven’t looked that up, but I’d bet it’s facing a membership problem not unlike the classical scene’s.) And the Olds started a long decline.

In 1988 Olds tried to counter the trend with its “This Is Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” ads – in other words, trying to reposition the Olds as having what post-60s people aspired to– youth, hipness, sexiness – in a word, Cool. Not ‘respectability.” But the Olds by now was too completely branded. Finally, in 2004 GM stopped making the Oldsmobile. Rebranding was hopeless. The image was too well set. The Olds’ very success in branding itself ultimately did it in.

You see where I’m taking this – the classical music scene was optimized for much of what the middle-class and upper class aspired to in the 19th century (as DiMaggio explains so well), and even what it aspired to be in America in the mid-20th century (which was the era of middlebrow culture and the Book-of-the-Month club – America’s middle-class was paying to have tweed-clad professors with pipes tell them what book to read that month. Americans still wanted to have Class. ) But after the Sixties/Seventies, people instead aspired to (all of this is debatable) being the rebel/ outsider/ individualist/ young/hip/ bohemian – Cool. No book-of-the-month panel for them. Formal symphony dress and etiquette was for effete twits or respectable Olds drivers, not for someone who wanted to be like James Dean or Dylan or Springsteen…. (I could refer to Andrew Heath and Joseph Potter - their chapter on “From class-hunting to cool hunting” ). Anyway, you see my point – the classical scene was optimized for earlier class-seekers, but now the culture was “cool-hunting”.

(To be sure, there’s lots more to the Oldsmobile saga than the story I just told. Just calling it “Olds” when everyone now aspired to be youthful was a hurdle. And there’s something much bigger happening economically: Japan was earning more and more of the market share that Detroit had taken for granted, so GM found itself with lots of excess capacity and huge legacy costs. GM was gonna start killing some of its lines regardless of branding etc. In fact, just this morning they announced the cut of 30,000 jobs and 12 plants. Still, the Olds went early. So back to my point.)

So the classical-music question is—can one re-brand the concert scene for this new set of cultural aspirations? And if so, how? – as a cool wannabe? (Or will that just look pathetic?) As a counter to the dominant cool culture? Or as something else? Or something in between? Or … er… whatever….

But note Walker  saying that trying to redefine the Olds as “not your father’s” didn’t just fail, it actually backfired.

I’ve seen orchestra marketing campaigns, aimed at a younger audience, that squirm around trying to show that the orchestra isn’t stuffy after all. That it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile — an approach that, as Barney notes, in fact reinforces the perception it’s trying to change.

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