“Everyone,” I wrote in a tweet to promote my previous blog post, “enjoys a good blurbing now and again.” Although I didn’t mind if someone read some perverse double entendre into “blurbing,” it was neither euphemism nor metaphor. I was referring to the time-honored and oft-criticized practice of skillfully extracting positive phrases from arts reportage or critique in order to employ them in service of marketing a show. As a former “flack” (if we’re going with slang, I’m going all the way), I gave good blurb; it was part of my job. When I left Hartford Stage, the graphic designer who did our print ads presented me with a framed “Ellipsis Award,” for the most skillful use of those three dots, which could cover a multitude of sins and through which one could, if they chose, drive a figurative truck.

I have not personally practiced the dark arts of blurbing, nor craftily employed the ellipsis, professionally for almost 20 years. Yet just as many came before me, others have followed, and publicists and marketers still employ “pull quotes” for press releases, ads, brochures, and the like with skill and abandon, all to pull in the rubes (that’s carny slang for marketing).

I have watched the quotes themselves grow larger as attributions grow smaller; in some cases ads are designed to appear as if the uniformly glowing words at the top are quotes, when in fact they carry neither the necessary punctuation or any source. The pinnacle (or nadir) of this practice came when a Hollywood studio was revealed to have invented both a critic and a press outlet solely for the purpose of manufacturing positive blurbs.

Several decades ago, those of us inside Hartford Stage would have philosophical discussions about the use of blurbs, as well as my artful insertion of ellipses that turned positive words into enthusiastic ones. Wouldn’t the people who saw the ads realize the quote had been subtly manipulated? No, we decided, since no one was likely to have saved the original copy  (remember, pre-internet). Wasn’t the ellipsis itself tipping people off? No, because frankly most people didn’t study them them as we did (and besides, to use an excuse popular in so many situations, everyone else was doing it). Wasn’t using quotes reinforcing the importance of critics, when we wanted audiences to decide for themselves?

To that last question, the answer, to our own chagrin, was yes. We were emphasizing critical opinion for our marketing needs. We had to. Why? Well here it is again: because everyone else was. Blurbs, pull quotes, what have you – they were a necessity. We believed that if a show had opened and we couldn’t feature at last one positive quote from a prominent media outlet in our advertising, the audience would be convinced the show was a dog. Even after the show had closed, we used those blurbs again: in subscription brochures, in grant applications, in annual reports. Blurbs were crack and we were hooked.

25 years later, little has changed, even if the media has. Despite the ability of anyone with a computer to locate a complete review, blurbs, be they accurate or artful, proliferate. The brevity of Twitter facilitates such practice. Even though the original context can be quickly recalled on Google, we still cling to quotes in our marketing, embracing reviews even as (and thus was also always the case) we often vilify the source, namely the critic.

This paradox is at the center of arts marketing. We do everything we can to make our productions critic-proof, yet we throw our arms wide open the moment a critic, any critic, praises the work.  If we bitch about critical power, why do we reinforce it? In brainstorming sessions, over drinks, we dream of cutting the cord, going cold turkey and abandoning quotes in our ads, but we can’t do it. We need our fix and seem convinced that our audiences do as well. As subscription rates have, overall, declined, blurb-laden ads are perhaps more needed (we think) than ever, since single ticket sales have reasserted themselves in our economic models (as they have always done in the case of commercial work).

I will paraphrase the producer Kevin McCollum here, only because I’m not positive I recall this comment precisely: “We are the only business that decides what to do tomorrow based on how we did it yesterday.” And indeed, we in the age of the internet deploy blurbs just as they were used by hucksters a century ago, locked in a perpetual cycle of believing that outside affirmation is the best, and perhaps only, means of assigning value to our work in order to lure audiences.

I’m not raising the paradox to pan critics; in fact I think we must do all we can to insure that full-length reviews written with intelligence and care remain part of the arts landscape. However, the attention span of both editors and consumers seem to favor ever briefer consideration of the arts – which are then further reduced to a ranking of so many stars on a scale, or a subjective, simplistic thumbs up/thumbs down summary by third party aggregators. Arts writing is coming to us pre-blurbed.

In a world of new and ever-evolving media, we are mired in an archaic marketing technique which has, to my knowledge, no empirical proof that it even works. Blurb if you must, but can’t we do better? Or are we just a …. bunch of … addicts?

  • October 3, 2011