“You know, if we all agreed to stop putting critics’ quotes in our ads, they’d lose their power over us, and we could just sell our shows on what we think is best about them.”
I will confess to having made that statement, or something along those lines, more than once when I was the public relations director at Hartford Stage. Thinking back on it now, I can attribute it to a) youth, b) feistiness and c) naïveté. Remember, of course, that this was the pre-internet era, when reviews didn’t linger forever online, but genuinely became inaccessible 24 hours after they appeared in print. And of course, there was no persuading absolutely every other theatre in the area that this was viable, and without unanimity, it would fail.
No one took me terribly seriously (though at the time, I certainly did). At the same time that I was attempting to jumpstart my radical approach to arts marketing, I was also guilty of some exceptionally creative “Frankensteining” of words from reviews for the express purpose of trumpeting them in ads. Because that was what was expected, I freely engaged in hypocritical acts because, well…paycheck.
More than two decades later, it seems that Broadway marketers may be moving towards my way of thinking after all. As evidence, I give you three screen captures from video advertising for three current Broadway shows:
Look, ma, no quotes! Apparently it’s now enough simply to plaster the logos of media outlets on an ad to suggest that their critics have been positively disposed towards the show being sold. I’d say the truth is more variable.
Without going back and rereading the coverage in every outlet represented in these images, I’m willing to give The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time the benefit of the doubt, because the reviews were, as I recall, pretty terrific, and because the show has given equal weight to each outlet it represents. There’s a certain understatement at work.
I give the Something Rotten! ad credit for some subtle humor, because while it offers up The New York Times logo, a bit of animation that lobs a tomato at it, and obscures it, because the Times wasn’t actually all that keen on the show.
The Finding Neverland logo parade seems fairly disingenuous, because its New York Times review wasn’t positive, yet it dominates to screen. Did the Times write about the show? It certainly did. Does the screen say that they liked the show? In point of fact no. But I suspect that they’re trading on the fact that the presence of the Times logo might fool some people into thinking the show was endorsed by the paper, which may not be an absolute ethical lapse, but it’s certainly willfully misleading.
This isn’t to say that quotes have disappeared from ads, and even the examples above pull out some specific quotes on their own, separate from these logo parades. In the case of Fun Home, their ad is almost entirely glowing and attributed review quotes, with some award nominations thrown in as well. What they’re avoiding is any mention of what the show is actually about, which is a shame, but a sign of our still unenlightened times, in which the content of the show may be perceived as possibly limiting its commercial appeal.
I know of critics who will on occasion, when they think their writing has been inaccurately represented in ads, reach out to productions and make their feelings known. In such cases, especially with major critics, I would imagine those concerns receive due attention, since no one wants to be party to a souring relationship with a critic. But in these cases, the question is whether the folks who police trademark usage for each outlet have noticed these examples, and whether they are concerned enough to suggest – or enforce – that, in some cases, their logos may be getting used to imply an endorsement which doesn’t necessarily exist.
For those who decry the shrinking space for arts reviews, or who find star rating systems too reductive, it seems we’re in the process of moving on to the next iteration – exploring how to dispense with opinion entirely, in favor of implied endorsement, warranted or not. My youthful activism has come around to a more mature realism: we need as much writing as possible about the theatre, and that doesn’t mean just feature coverage, but criticism as well. If we work to marginalize critics through marketing, we may boost a show here or there, but at the end of the day we’ll be worse off for having done so.