Press Agent Efficiency
( Originally Published 1916 )
ELEMENTARY advertising in any line is to attract attention to wares offered. One frequently sees this accomplished by a quantity of loose toy balloons, for instance, being blown about a confectioner's window; a steel ball, suspended apparently in midair, in a millinery display; tea pouring endlessly out of a kettle which seems to have no way of being refilled, in a cigar store; a huge bird's-eye view of a popular baseball diamond, in a hat shop; a set of four or five news photographs repeated in the plate-glass fronts of several miscellaneous emporiums within short distance of one another, or, perhaps, a huge, garish topical cartoon employed to insinuate that a pawn-broker holds forth within.
Indeed, these examples go a step further than merely attracting attention. They hold it, too. But there is nothing psychological or otherwise, directly to link balloons with confectionery; a steel ball with millinery; pouring tea with cigars; the baseball view with hats; the news photo-graphs with the various shops, or the political cartoons with the sign of the Medici. Still, they have accomplished something in getting the crowd outside. And the innermost circle of persons, in most such gatherings, hides the detail of the variant of the cartoon, so that others, crowding to find the nature of the thing, see the pawn-broker's direct display alone.
However, it is a long route for impatient people to go in transferring attention from one thing to another quite remote, even when the link is provided; and therefore the thoughtful advertising man prefers to concentrate his appeal by attracting attention, holding it, telling nature of goods and shooting his sales argument across all in one effort. But that is only modification of method; the primary thing is to find his sales point.
In brief, there must be one main fact about a play that makes it not necessarily different from other plays, but of decided interest to as many persons as may be—certainly to a sufficient number to insure life-sustaining patronage. To this will be added other sales points; but all of them will be subordinate to the main point which has the great function of closing the deal. These others may secure attention, hold it, and may even sell tickets themselves in being better adapted than the main argument, to personal needs of particular patrons. They are not to be underestimated. But they must always be pertinent to the matter in hand. Nothing could be closer to the object of increased sales than the prize offer for the millionth ticket to " Chin-Chin," or the opening of an all-night box office at " Hip Hip Hooray," with four box offices handling the crowd during the day.
Some of these lesser points may exist before the play. And, having more or less independent stability, they lend themselves, in the campaign to securing possible elements of permanent patronage. I am referring now to reputations previously established by producer and by players engaged, and even by the theater itself through having lately housed a series of successes.
This qualifies the old idea that a fresh beginning must be made with each new production. Certain it is that mere announcement that a new play is to be presented by Ames, Belasco, Dillingham, Fiske, or Savage, arouses respectful attention based on recollection of past achievements. As the late Marshall Field said so repeatedly, " Appreciation of quality remains long after price is forgotten." Ames and Belasco have unique theaters which house only their own productions; the others have not. Dillingham has a theater, but he admits outside attractions. However, he affords splendid illustration of the manager whose proved efficiency has made of his name a trade-mark that today is practically a guarantee of quality.
When Selwyn and Company bought the waning attraction " Twin Beds," Margaret Mayo's dramatization of the novel by Salisbury Field, it was their general press representative, Charles Hayes, who made it one of the genuinely " smashing " hits of the season, largely by consistently following out the keynote expressed in the happy catch-line, " This is the life." It is a good instance of selecting an efficient point and sticking to it. Even the stupendous national campaign for the Serge de Diaghileff Ballet Russe, so magnificently waged by Edward L. Bernays, had but one dominant idea, that the ballet, in being a perfect synchronization of all the arts as expressed in its peculiar form, was not a " show " but an artistic movement, and, so, vital to one's aesthetic education.
It would be difficult for anyone to say that a production absolutely lacked a sales point. A clever press agent usually can find one in any offering, however inferior, and although it might eventually not be enough to combat losing factors that make withdrawal of the production imperative.
Creation of a sales point in a play, where one is lacking, is not easy. It may be just indication of the need to be worked out by dramatist or producer in their respective departments, something inherent in the production, compelling and positive. Simple declaration that a play is " the best to be seen," or " a dramatic hit," conveys nothing distinctive or original, although I must confess that " the Greatest Show on Earth " was made, through constant iteration, to mean the Barnum and Bailey Circus. It should consider that plus the want created in a potential patron, are certain individual prejudices to be overcome. A possible seat behind a post may be quite as vital to some mind as question of quality. Two of my important sales points in the Little Theater were that one could see and hear excellently from any seat in the house. The real advantage was that these points were absolutely substantiated in fact.
To make the sales point something unique, a detailed study is made of recent and contemporary theatrical conditions. It was because sex discussion was occupying the theater at the time, that Leander Richardson was enabled to get thousands of clergymen to recommend the wholesomeness of " The Things That Count." If the public has shown sudden dislike of plays of unmoral character-not to say immoral, for few plays are that—it will never do even to suggest spice here. On the other hand, it may not be well to over-emphasize moral quality for fear of creating suspicion of the reverse. But knowledge of what competition is using for its sales arguments, proves a key of what not to use if the campaign is to be distinctive.
A fixed policy is imperative in a successful campaign, for the campaign must be concertive in order to bring about the large number of small sales necessary to make up paying receipts in the aggregate. The tone is generally that of the play itself; dramatic if that is the nature of the attraction, or humorous if that is consistent. Blood-curdling stories do not ordinarily succeed in conveying the spirit of comedy. Advertising that strikes the spirit of the play is not apt to carry a bad reaction. It does not misrepresent. It brings not only the first patron, but also his friends.
NATURE OF ADVERTISING
Better business ever being the positive aim, it remains for the press agent, after he has selected his employer, has determined the class of persons to be reached, and has found his sales point—which is to say, the message he wishes to convey—to consider character of the advertising and " copy " to be used.
This depends on what one aims to accomplish, the field one desires to cover. Newspapers and magazines are to be selected not merely by their net circulations, but by the classes of people they reach, two things which change more or less from year to year. Vested with proper authority, I often have taken display advertising in a paper of limited circulation at the same time that I have given minimum representation to another of enormous reaches, because the first was read by the exclusive group I then desired, and the other reached chiefly persons who could not afford our price, and who, if they could, probably would select broader types of amusement.
Unfortunate it is that in a huge metropolis, such as New York, one is apt to forget other places outside, and confine effort to the local press. In reality, New York is " the dog town of America "—meaning that its productions are important nationally mainly as " tryouts " for the rest of the country. And although the press agent, eager to show results for the security of his position, generally is wary of bothering with cumulative " stunts " which take time to mature, he is trifling with his most valuable potential business by ignoring pertinent mediums that have inter-state and national circulations.
For every successful attraction there is a probable route of engagements to be played when the metropolitan run is ended. These places should be made aware of the attraction and its important sales arguments. To that end, most resident press agents rewrite their metropolitan matter for distribution to certain out-of-town editors, in the form of a weekly letter; but it is up to the editors to make the matter available for local consumption.
But every " news " item, article, interview, or " human interest " story sent forth, should convey a sales point. Paid advertising should do the same; and, as it is buying merely a chance to distract the reader's attention from editorial matter, it should not stop at simple representation. Definite purpose should be assigned to each effort, whether posted on a billboard, thrown in an areaway, folded as a herald in a program, or otherwise distributed. Perhaps, then, particular press work will achieve the dignified stability which is its due.
The true definition of a press agent, theatrical or other-wise, is just another definition of efficiency or of a sense of duty, from the respective viewpoints of employer and promoter. It may be telling lies glibly, dressing news attractively, or frankly advertising to create demand; but in any case, it should check up its own results in patronage.