Play Is Advertised And Tickets Are Sold
( Originally Published 1916 )
ADVERTISING MANAGEMENT IN THE THEATER
PRESS agent, as a term, always seems to connote a theatrical connection, although there are press agents of federal and civil governments, of electoral candidates, of insurrections, of trade unions, of educational institutions, of industries of all kinds, of even the press itself, not to enumerate hundreds of other activities wherein advertising is considered profitable. The theatrical press agent stands patent probably because the rest of his craft are cloaked by the non-committal description, advertising managers.
Frankly, the term press agent is a misnomer. Acting as intermediary between a theatrical manager and the press, securing printed publicity and suppressing information that may exploit disadvantages or may be employed to better effect later, constitute but one of the officer's manifold lines of endeavor. He must command the entire field of theatrical advertising, billposting, street-car cards, throwaways, pick-ups, snipers, heralds, sandwich-men, window displays, canvassing, mailing-lists, follow-up letters, souvenir performances, and so on, while acting in the general diplomatic service of his firm.
Advertising managers have developed their methods of securing publicity to definite science, happily in ignorance of their affiliation with the flamboyant type; but the kinship has caused the familiar definition of press agent as reckless purveyor of lies, to lose its patness. The old-time " press yarn," typified by the pleasant fabrication sent broadcast by Wells Hawks, when that splendid promoter was on the staff of the New York Hippodrome, to the effect that a stage hand there had found a four-leaf clover in a grass mat, has a certain merit in conveying to an attentive public the name and whereabouts of a certain attraction; but its effect is negligible in creating what, in the butter-and-egg business, is called " consumer-demand."
Likely because of the greater uncertainties of play success, the theatrical press agent has not developed as rapidly as the advertising manager. Therefore in the majority of cases he meets the whimsical shifts of his peculiar consumer-demand with equally haphazard displays of imagination, his schemes being to " put it over " with the editors rather than with his public.
This circumstance impressed itself upon me when, as a theatrical press agent for a splendidly mounted attraction, I had exhausted many of the common resources of my craft without materially affecting that barometer of success known as the box-office statement; and my employer had determined to experiment by calling in an international ex-pert accustomed to advertising other lines of business. This gentleman, prompt to respond, pleaded unfamiliarity with playhouse conditions, but agreed to try briefly. His result was, as he had feared it would be, as unproductive as my own.
Although I could judge only from externals, his mode of procedure seemed to carry about it a certain economy of time and effort and soundness of reasoning that commanded my profound respect; and presently I became persuaded that had this man persisted after his one excursion into the realm of the theater, he would have brought about material changes in time-honored method. The new light completely altered in my eyes the aspect of successful press work; and from that time on I spent spare hours studying the huge library of advertising management where before I had been unable to find even a lucid definition of press agent.
FIELD OF PATRONAGE
Some things found already were part of press agent's routine, although not vested with the same importance. For instance, there was consideration given to class of people to be reached. The ordinary way is tacitly to accept the entire theatergoing public—a generality like the mighty terms war and peace—as potential patronage, and let it go at that. This all is very optimistic and commendable.
Combined populations of men, women, and children in Kankakee, Keokuk, Kokomo, and Kalamazoo should be regarded as material for ultimate attack; but there is always one particular class, convenient, remote, rich, poor, prodigal, sedentary, or particular in some respect, to which the play in question will have strongest appeal. One of Louis Mann's dramatic pleas to keep the old home and six, eight, or ten commandments intact, is certain to grip the heart-strings of a declining generation, which, in any age of the world, is bound to feel a bit neglected; while the topical froth in any edition of Ziegfeld's " Follies " will pick off a few members of the same group, grown bald, lonely, and desperate, or merely self-indulgent, adding them, however, to its particular market, the entire leisure-loving class.
They may say all they like about drama being a democratic muse; but in her specific examples she maintains a well-defined caste system. Indeed, there are productions like glittering " Chin-Chin," artfully composed of universal favorites that the result may contain something for every-one; but the tendency of most plays is to become more or less insular in their subject-matter, and so deserving of concentrated treatment. The circus, " Snow White," " Racketty-Packetty House," and " Alice in Wonderland " mean most to children, although Grandpa finds the little ones merest excuses for personal gratification. Grandpa will be automatically taken care of if the press agent succeeds in arousing the tots. So, often do vigorous young people, newly arrived at man and womanhood, select attractions for their fathers and mothers who, left to themselves, might prefer something else. I should not care to handle an attraction that appeals to old people alone.
Market for a play may be selected by class, geographic distinction, or income. Class, as remarked, means that group of people most interested in subject-matter, and best able to appreciate subtleties of the action. Geographic selection implies convenience—trolley lines, accommodation trains, boats, and so forth, with their respective rates, all of which, together with numerous other inventions, have removed many of the old limits on radius of sale. But probably most important is income.
PRICES IN RELATION TO PUBLICITY
A theatergoer may belong to a class in virtually every way best adapted to patronage of a given attraction. He is even anxious to attend. But his income makes the price prohibitive. Specifically, a Shakespearean revival means most to a wage-earning class that is battling for education against heavy odds—long hours and short pay. To a representative of that group, revival of a given classic is a lesson in literature; and it may be the only theatrical offering he will attend in a year. Here the press agent may have his sales point and his market; but the barrier remains the price.
If practicable, he must reduce this price for availability to his class—possibly increasing his seating capacity by removal to a larger theater. Discussion of just how this is to be done belongs to another division of the subject. How-ever, it must consider cost of production, running expenses, and profit, and the price must bear comparison with prices maintained by competition. Incidentally, it may be re-marked that variable rates often encourage patrons to haggle over consumer costs and, figuratively, to gauge value received as so much per pound.
A theatergoer's spending power is not necessarily stable because his earnings are fixed. Lower cost of living may enlarge his opportunities. So may accumulation of pennies saved. I am acquainted with an elderly couple, of moderate means, who make a practise of going to see a first-class metropolitan play on every wedding anniversary. The rest of the time they content themselves with movies Saturday nights in the home town.
While admitting this variableness, it is well to inquire into conditions upon which the playgoer's earning power depends. Are they industrial, manufacturing, trade, or professional conditions? Are members of the class wealthy, well-to-do, poor, single, married, young, middle-aged, old, skilled, or unskilled laborers, farmers, clerks, business men, servants, factory, office, trade, or professional workers; leisure class and so forth, not forgetting the importance of dividing into sex. Women count for more theater patronage than men.
Sight must never be lost of the fact that the theater is a luxury, despite the curious circumstance that playhouse prosperity often seems greatest when a country is in a state of war. There are times when, as propaganda, a play may appear an educational necessity; but, at best, the condition essentially is false. This becomes a handicap in stimulating demand.
QUALITY OF PRODUCTION
Nothing stimulates demand as much as positive quality in the production itself. Inevitably this will noise itself about. The profession is full of stories telling how excel-lent plays have hung fire for two or three weeks and then, in consequence of " walking advertisement," or direct recommendation from one satisfied person to another, caught on and developed into sensational theatrical successes. The spoken commendatory word is the most valuable press agent achievement. It meets the objection instantly, which the printed word cannot; and it has personality back of it. But, whether spoken by theatergoer or press agent, the striking sales argument counts more immediately with the body of patronage than inherent virtue in the production.
Generally speaking, play quality is an indeterminate thing. A trained playwright usually knows when he has told his story dramatically; and the producing staff knows when it has provided adequate mounting. But with economic and other extraneous conditions in a state of constant upheaval, no one may foretell accurately the probable reception of theme and subject-matter.
Metaphysicists have their own definitions of quality; but, in the broad world of the theater, and certainly from the press agent's standpoint, there is but one final statement of the case : The dollar is the touchstone. A good play draws money within reasonable time for the public to become aware of its presence; an attraction that does not draw money has something the matter with it. It is presented now as being apropos; if it is not apropos, it is not adequate now, although it may be splendidly devised to meet some future state of affairs. Either some revision must be made to create that fitness, or the production permitted to run haltingly on, or yet be discarded altogether. Commonly, little or no radical corrective work is done after opening.
Allowance of time must be made for quality to assert itself. With silks and satins the tentative buyer may examine the goods before accepting them; the playgoer, in a measure, has to buy a pig in a poke, knowing in advance only the testimony of the press or of a more venturesome friend. It is during this period, when the question of quality is held in abeyance, that the press agent may accomplish some of his best work in helping the public to make up its mind.
Intrinsic quality seems a comparative thing. If the standard of quality established by the general run of productions, has lately been higher than the average, the present production will have added difficulty in living up to the record; conversely, a run of inferior attractions will make even a slightly better one seem relatively good. But patronage is always discouraged by prolonged inferiority, so the improved offering must persist over-long in order to win it back again. Many a manager of a good stock company has been compelled to live a hand-to-mouth business existence because his indifferent predecessor has permitted trade to run down.
Real quality of some sort is the only reliable aid to the press agent in securing results. He may get his patrons into the theater through misrepresentation; but no space need be wasted to amplify the business axiom that misrepresentation ultimately never pays.
Generally, before having my experience with the inter-national expert, I had been content to make two points : name of the attraction and where it was located. These had accomplished the purpose of better business because my employer had already established probable quality and positive convenience. So two excellent sales points had been provided before I began; and the truth came home to me of that old saying that " the good show makes the good agent."
Now I realized that under other circumstances I might have been called upon to work without this splendid start, and that the rule, which doubtless would work both ways, would make me an inferior agent for a poor attraction. This condition advertising managers are taught to meet by creating a sales point where none has existed before; and, if the employer declines to admit this innovation, to seek another job. Thus part of successful press agency seems to be careful selection of one's employer.