The Race Street Team and the Morality of Arts Marketing


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?

  • April 14, 2010
  • 11