The Race Street Team and the Morality of Arts Marketing

04.14.10 | 11 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, conversation starter, marketing, playwrights, producers, theatrical ecosystem

A new street team is working in the area around TKTS in Times Square. They are promoting David Mamet’s new play Race. Race is a story about a group of lawyers who are representing a case in which a man has been accused of raping a woman. Two of the lawyers are male (one white, one black), the other lawyer is a black female, the accused is a white male, and the “victim” (in quotes because this is a Mamet play, after all) is a black female. As the story unfolds we learn that the “victim” was wearing a red sequined dress at the time the alleged crime was committed.

The street team for Race that has been spotted working around TKTS in Times Square is comprised of women of various races who wear short, strapless, red sequined dresses (like the one the “victim” wore in the play) and who hand flyers to passersby. Though I was upset when I first heard that this team had begun working, I found it to be far more upsetting today when I saw them in person for the first time. Though my personal opinions on this matter are quite complex and varied, I’d like to focus on one primary question for the purposes of this post: Is this an effective grassroots marketing campaign for the new play Race?

We begin by asking the basic, traditional marketing questions:

1. Does the Race street team grab your attention?
2. Do they get people talking?
3. Are the memorable?
4. Are they distinguishable in a crowd of other ads and messages?
5. Do they align with the rest of the marketing campaign (or, in other words, do they fit the “brand” of Race)?
6. Does this particular street team sell tickets?
7. And finally, do they convey an appropriate message so that an audience member’s expectations are met when they see the show?

I presume it’s fair to say that the answer for questions one through six is yes. However, question seven is much more complicated. I did not speak to any of the girls, though I imagine it would be quite difficult for these promoters to tell passersby on the streets of Times Square that they are promoting a David Mamet play, what a David Mamet play means, and how this one adds race to the more typical gender conflict that arises in Mamet’s plays. I’ve worked in Times Square for over four years now, on the ground at TKTS five days a week for over a year, and I would wager that the vast majority of the conversations those girls have are not about what a David Mamet play means, but is more about what it means to be a hot chick in a short shiny red dress in the middle of Times Square.

So, now we must diverge from the typical questions one must ask when implementing a new marketing campaign and address the following issues that this particular campaign undoubtedly raises:

1. The girls on the street are costumed as a character in Race who was raped. If the character was not raped, then she is a lying whore.
2. The girls are making money (which was their choice) by wearing teeny red sequined dresses in the middle of Times Square. One of my co-workers, Erica (@ezmac99), told me she saw many of these girls flirting with passersby and posing with groups of guys who wanted their photo taken with them. Does this behavior effectively and positively represent the show?

So… is this street team an effective grassroots marketing campaign for Race? It is the job of every arts marketer to respond to this question with another: does it sell tickets? I’d like to see the numbers. (And as an audience development person, I’d love to know if there was a demographic change in ticket-buyers after this campaign was implemented.)

However, the fact of the matter is that arts marketers are not in the business of selling cigarettes or cars or toilet paper. We’re in the business of selling art. And, theatre is distinguishable from all other arts because it is the one medium in which there is a direct expression of the human condition. That’s what we do – we put people on stage and watch them have a relationship with one another, and with us. If we wanted to just make money we would have gone into advertising. Most arts marketers do their job because they care about it, because they have a passion for the art. However, marketing for the arts carries with it a moral imperative that does not come with marketing products for Philip Morris or Budweiser. In addition to being advocates for our theatres and our plays, we as arts marketers must be advocates for the human condition.

In Race, the girl in the red sequined dress was raped. (Or, if she was not raped she was a lying whore.) In my opinion, putting street teams in those dresses in Times Square is shameful and I am very disappointed in every producer, investor, manager, marketer, advertiser and assistant who sat in those ad meetings and let this idea pass.

Part of me hopes this campaign sells a crap load of tickets so a new play on Broadway can live a nice long life and so people can keep their jobs. The other part of me wishes that womens’ rights groups protest outside the Barrymore theatre, and that every informed New York playgoer boycotts all of David Mamet’s plays in the future due to a major crossing-of-the-line this time around.

What do you think?

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  • Trisha Mead

    Wow. My feelings on this subject essentially come down to the definition of irony and its role in marketing theater (if it has one). This feels more like a shock tactic a political theater might use. I could see a political case as follows:

    We prey on the male visual/sexual response to pretty girls in tight sequined dresses. We allude to the “girl in the red dress” from the Matrix. Then, when they arrive at the show, we subvert their expectations, instead drawing them in to a political confrontation about their own complicity in the societal system that makes girls in red dresses an effective sales technique.

    Or, according to the lying whore interpretation, we force our audience to re-evaluate the ethics and motives of the young girls who lured us to the theater, confronting their choice to be complicit in the system where possibly available public sex inspires theatrical purchases.

    While still feeling that the girl, while complicit in the red dress conspiracy/system of domination/attraction, is also a victim of same, since how much money can these girls really be making to turn on tourists in the name of selling theater tickets?

    Its a deep, deep rabbit hole. Weirdly, the more I think about it, the more Mamet-inspired it feels. And no, I wouldn't do anything like this as a marketer myself.

    But suddenly the possibilities for additional dramatic situations out of this seem endless. Imagine videotaping a confrontation between a first wave feminist and one of these girls. Interspersed with the middle aged tourists getting photo ops, interspersed with, perhaps, a red sequin-clad tranny complaining about the tastelessness…interspersed with some douchebag hitting on one of them, unaware of the irony…

    This has dramatic possibilities. If I were a scrappy NY neo-feminist theater, I would exploit it.

  • PLS

    Um it is WRONG on SOOO many levels. Having seen the play and without giving any plot away…well..I can't even begin to tell you how wrong, disturbing, and shameful it is that this came to be. Another perfect example of how producers know NOTHING of how times square works….Maybe they should ask the MAYOR OF TIMES SQUARE…I know him personally!

  • Vap12

    Guess I'll need to walk a few blocks uptown on my next lunch break to see what I think. Interesting questions.

  • So, I haven't seen the play, but when I first heard about this (earlier today, from Alli), my immediate thought was, “Isn't that the poster?” One way to look at it is that these women are simply dressed as the play's poster. The poster, in fact, only shows the lower part of the dress and the upper part of the woman's legs. So are we offended by the poster? “Yes” is a perfectly fair answer, but at least they're being consistent.

    “Chicago” has a street team that dresses in skimpy outfits too. Women getting paid to parade around Times Square in skimpy outfits. As characters who are murderers, or lying whores, or probably both. It's kind of ironic, really. 20 years ago Times Square was full of women in skimpy outfits selling themselves, not plays. Now it's all to promote the Broad Way.

    “Chicago” is a musical, albeit a serious one, but also a funny and sexy one. “Race,” I'm guessing, has very little Fosse dancing in it. I guess I'm more struck by the tactic being misleading than I am by its rapey undertones. The poster image, cropped as it is, is more disturbing than sexy. Love him or hate him, Mamet gets people talking, so I like that this marketing tactic has done the same. And maybe it will get people to see the play, and then get THEM talking.

  • Damn fine post.

    The risk you run with that tactic is that you develop the wrong type of audience, assuming that the tactic works at all (which is debatable). I like a girl in a red dress as much as the next hetero male, but to draw a line from that, to buying a ticket, to seeing the play, to enjoying/appreciating the play is a stretch.

    I''m guessing there were better, more effective ways of spending that money that would have represented the work.

  • jj1960

    I am a woman, I have seen the play (and found it intriguing and entertaining), plus I saw the women in Time Square the first day they were there. All of the gals had seen the show and were able to answer questions concerning the production; on top of that they were handing out flyers for RACE. Frankly it is a marketing ploy that does not bother me in the least. The dress is on the marquee, so this IS the logo for the show, they are doing no more than putting forth the image that you think of if you have seen or are aware of the play. The “red dress” is an intrical part of the story.

  • I agree, this is a fascinating post and raises all sorts of questions in my mind. However, this is a Mamet play we are talking about here. As a woman in the theatre world, I have deep-seated problems with a lot of what Mamet puts into his plays. It doesn't surprise me in the least to have problems with how the plays are promoted. I, too, would like to see the numbers related to the success of this campaign and (more importantly in my mind) the reaction to the play of those who bought their tickets specifically because of this marketing tactic.

    I was very glad to read JJ1960's comment below that the women had seen the play and could converse about it. I'm also interested in the fact that, having seen the play, JJ1960 didn't have a problem with the marketing. I, honestly, have no interest in seeing the production as Mamet tends to just make me mad without pushing me to grow in anyway because of the experience. That is precisely the reason I'm not shocked that I feel the exact same way about the marketing.

  • Raven Pease

    Dear Alli,
    Thanks so much for raising these questions in your article. I am glad people are on the look out for preventing the arts from being cheapened in the name of making a buck.
    I am one of the “hot chicks” in question in your article and wanted to answer some of those questions. As to whether we were able to answer “that they are promoting a David Mamet play, what a David Mamet play means, and how this one adds race to the more typical gender conflict that arises in Mamet’s plays,” the answer is yes. I am an actress who holds a BA in Theatre Arts and have read/seen enough Mamet to have an intelligent conversation about his plays. I will not go into my opinion of his treatment of women (or the lack of female roles) in his plays, but I would like to talk about my experience doing the promotion. As for engaging the public, most of the time name Mamet didn't grab the attention of passers-by. However, I certainly did get a lot of response by talking about the actors in the show and what the show is about.
    The reason this campaign was put together was because ticket sales weren't going well.
    All participants in the promotion were given tickets to see the show and we had a meeting going over the fine points of what to talk about with the public. The focus was not about looking hot in a little red dress; rather, to get people excited about seeing the show.
    The dress was just an attention-grabber (as is the marquis in front of the Barrymore Theatre). I had many nice conversations with groups of people and individuals of many races, ages and genders, who had either seen it already, had never heard of it, or had purchased tickets and were looking forward to seeing it.
    Regarding the picture-taking and flirtation with tourists, yes, we did take pictures with tourists. It's a tacit agreement between costumed people in Times Square and tourists.
    Tourists always want pictures, and we graciously provide them; whether we're in a sequined dress or in a bear suit.
    To answer the question: “does it sell tickets? I’d like to see the numbers.” Originally, this was a one day only promotion in March but we were invited back for three more days in April because of the huge response in the box office. The producers were very pleased. So, yes, the promotion did boost sales and not only preserve existing jobs on Broadway, but also added a few more days of “survival” work for this New York actress.

  • It's obvious from your description of the marketing campaign that the alleged victim is a lying whore, so she deserved to be raped.

    However, it is very interesting that, for a play called, “Race,” there's a lot of emphasis on gender.

  • On a more serious note, it would be very interesting to get a demographic breakdown of ticket buyers as a result of this campaign. The way it's described makes it seem like it's target for a decidedly male and middle- to upper-class crowd. If this was deliberate, I wonder why.

  • Raven Pease

    RVCBard, NO ONE deserves to be raped.