What Signals Are You Reading?

There is an old rule of thumb about judging the cleanliness of a restaurant’s kitchen by the cleanliness of the restrooms. I actually used this example this past weekend when discussing an experience in what I took for a high end restaurant in another country…until I visited the restrooms.

Adam Davidson, heard often on NPR’s Planet Money had a piece in the NY Times on how people use “signaling” to make decisions.

He gives a couple examples of how people use signaling. He spends more money on a brand of baby formula even knowing there probably isn’t too much a difference between it and a cheaper competitor based on the labeling. A friend bought a more expensive chandelier from Amazon because he felt uneasily that the $100 difference in price meant the cheaper merchant cut corners.

He also cites Pepsi’s decision to pay Nicki Minaj to be a spokesperson:

“Even for consumers who don’t listen to her music or trust her expertise in the carbonated-beverage sector, the mere act of paying for a pop-star endorser sends a subconscious signal that their product is so successful that, well, they can afford Nicki Minaj. It also signals that the company is too heavily invested to turn out a shoddy product. For many, that’s a reason to choose the soda over the generic stuff.”

The example that really got me thinking was about bus owners in Haiti who paint their buses with all sorts of images at great expense.

“Yet bus owners feel the need to get a fresh paint job once or twice each year because few people will pay to ride an unpainted bus. The extravagant decorations suggest that an owner cares about his business — that he spends money maintaining his engines, tires and brakes (no small matter in a country with steep mountains and lousy roads). My hunch, however, is that many owners, short of cash, are likely to invest in a visible new paint job over invisible brake maintenance. With no external authority — government inspectors or consumer-watchdogs or online consumer forums — there’s no way to know if the signal is accurate.”

The reason this caught my eye is that, like the bus owners in Haiti, many arts organizations don’t have the money to fully maintain their buildings and have to make decisions about what to invest in to attract and retain audiences. I wondered if many arts organizations are fully cognizant of what cues audiences were deriving from their experience. Perhaps too much focus is being paid to the wrong things.

There are some aspects whose signals we can be fairly certain about. The surroundings and what others are wearing can often determine whether people feel intimidated or perfectly comfortable. We can draw some direct lines between the experience people have purchasing tickets, getting information, finding parking, being greeted by employees, etc., and what people’s perception of us might be.

But it is more difficult to know whether our ticket prices, quality and content of our brochures and websites are telling people our work is too high or low quality for their tastes. Do they think the performance will be incomprehensibly high culture or too amateurish for them?

Do we need to fix up the entryway because its condition signals that we don’t invest a lot of attention in the quality of our work? Or does it add to a funky-cool ambiance that we didn’t really knew appealed to our audiences and we should invest the renovation money in our work?

Did our sincere attempt at moving a water fountain to be more convenient to the restrooms get interpreted as a blatant ploy to increase traffic at the snack bar?

Many factors which contribute to signalling are unconsciously received so surveying people about all the elements contributing to their impression of you is a fruitless pursuit.

Not to mention, the same element can signal one person’s trash and another’s treasure. Pepsi may gain prestige by engaging Nicki Minaj, but her fans may see it as a harbinger of disappointment since she will have to modulate her behavior to remain a spokesperson.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


Leave a Comment