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Attention (Arts) Marketers: You Have More Power Than You Think

One of my favorite sessions at this year’s National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Charlotte, NC was the very first session I attended: Stereotypes, Exoticism and Cultural Competency.

Moderated by Jerry Yoshitomi of MeaningMatters LLC with panelists Rosetta Thurman, Mayumi Tsutakawa, and Michelle Witt, it addressed the use of stereotypes and other “shorthand” in marketing.

In short, stereotypes are the boxes in which our brains sort information to simplify the world around us. Because they’re the easiest, quickest way for storytellers to create a character in our heads, they’re everywhere—from sitcoms to, of course, marketing messages.

I had one overwhelming takeaway from the session: Marketers are creators of public perception and need to take that responsibility seriously.

At the beginning of the session, we were asked to think about a time that a stereotype had bothered us. After sharing that experience with a person nearby, we were invited to share our frustration with the rest of the room.

It fascinated (but didn’t surprise) me how many of us were just downright frustrated by assumptions that have plagued us or our art. From exoticism and heteronormativity to common perceptions of art forms like opera, we were all frustrated about something. (The term “HULK SMASH!” was even used to describe one person’s feelings!)

We were then shown a series of photos and marketing campaigns and were asked: As a marketer, would you green light this messaging or use this photo? Why or why not? The images ranged from the obviously offensive (Jeremy Lin, Chinese-American basketball star, popping out of a fortune cookie) to campaigns that were less clear-cut for those in the room (Urban Outfitters’ “Irish Yoga” hat).

Slowly, though, the conversation shifted from marketer-created messages to marketer-perpetuated messages. A picture of an all-white, male orchestra elicited the most memorable response: “They’re all dudes!”

Therein laid the dilemma for many of us in the room: What is our process of reviewing materials from artists? What if an artist doesn’t have a better, less stereotypical photo for a marketing team to use? And, as Amy Fox (@museumtweets) tweeted: Do artists always understand the stereotypes they perpetuate when they create?

Some marketers walked away with an action item: creating a diverse committee to review artist materials, for example.

But I think many, including myself, walked away with more questions than answers: How can I be inclusive while avoiding tokenism? When does utilizing inclusive language achieve its desired goal of making all feel welcome, and when does it simply brush issues under the rug and avoid conversations that need to be had?

Of course, this session was just the beginning of a longer, complex conversation, and one blog post can’t sum it all up.

But one thing is clear: Marketers, we have more power than we think. The messages we send can either perpetuate or challenge existing assumptions, and they can either exclude or invite new audiences.

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