Stop Killing Kittens

Last week Drew McManus encouraged arts marketers to break pre-Covid bad habits by renewed his plea to stop using cliched terms like “beloved.”  If you read his post closely you will notice he has been making the plea since 2014 when he created the hashtag #BanBeloved  (Which has probably be co-opted by those that oppose Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name.)

Drew asserts that every time an arts marketer uses the term “beloved,” a kitten dies.

So, you know if you won’t do it for the sake of your general community, think of the kittens.

Drew has identified a number of other objectionable adjectives, but others have reared their ugly heads and gotten over used in the interim. If you search your heart, you know what they are.

Earlier in April, Trevor O’Donnell made a similar plea about considering the language being used in marketing materials, encouraging people to focus on the audience and the shared experience.

Calling it a side-splitting, roll-in-the-aisles romp may be cute and catchy, and it may ring comfortingly familiar to older arts leaders, but it isn’t true and it’s not effective communication.

New audiences don’t respond to frivolous hyperbole. They want clear, honest, useful information that explains why your products matter to them. If what they’re looking for is a fun, stimulating way to create lasting memories with family, friends or loved ones, your job is to sell social experiences that offer lasting memories; i.e. if that memory is about sharing a funny play, you should probably say something like, “You’ll remember laughing together for a lifetime.”

O’Donnell attributes the use of hyperbole and focus on the organization vs. the audience to older arts administrators who are set in their ways. As I had noted a couple weeks back, there are a heck of a lot of advertisements for jobs at arts and culture organizations out there right now, particularly at the President/CEO/Vice-President level. It will be interesting if we see a significant shift in programming, promotional and operational practices over the next five years as a result of all this.

Top Of Your Pyramid Is The Bottom Of Someone Else’s

Hat tip to Vu Le at NonProfitAF for posting a link on social media to an essay on Medium comparing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need to the Blackfeet Nation’s similar concept.  Maslow had lived among the Blackfeet in Alberta, Canada for six weeks when he was developing his theories. If you read the article the question of whether he appropriated the concept without crediting the Blackfeet is a complicated one.

What immediately appealed to me was the point that while Maslow’s hierarchy ends with self-actualization, that is where the Blackfeet model begins.  To a great degree it is the difference between an individually focused society and a communal one. The assumption seems to be that the community will provide the food, shelter, clothing and safety needs that provide the base of Maslow’s model and therefore you start life working on the self-actualization part and then one moves on to contributing to the welfare and perpetuity of the culture.

The Blackfoot model describes the inverse of Maslow’s Hierarchy:

1. Self-actualization. Where Maslow’s hierarchy ends with self-actualization, the Blackfoot model begins here. In their view, we are each born into the world as a spark of divinity, with a great purpose embedded in us. That means that we arrive on earth self-actualized.
[..]

4. Community Actualization. In tending to our basic needs and safety, the tribe equips us to manifest our sacred purpose, designing a model of education that supports us in expressing our gifts. Community actualization describes the Blackfoot goal that each member of the tribe manifest their purpose and have their basic needs met.
5. Cultural Perpetuity. Each member of the tribe will one day be gone. So passing on their knowledge of how to achieve community actualization and harmony with the land and other peoples gives rise to an endurance of the Blackfoot way of life, or cultural perpetuity.

The big reason this appealed to me is that it aligns with a post I wrote last May, Creativity Is Not The Last Thing People Need

As I wrote then:

It should be noted that despite the popularity of this model, there is no scientific data to back it and studies have found that different cultures prioritize needs differently.

I mention these criticisms of Maslow’s hierarchy because it is easy to look at this pyramid and get the impression that creativity has to wait until all these other needs are met. This reinforces the idea that arts and culture are a luxury that should yield before all the necessities have been addressed. I think we all know there will always be something else that needs to be solved if you subscribe to that thinking.

When I wrote that post, I had linked to the Wikipedia article on Maslow’s hierarchy which notes the Blackfeet influence but I didn’t know enough about it at the time to understand the differences in world view to apply it.  I certainly can’t make any definitive statements about how expressions of creativity might be viewed and valued in a Blackfeet society, but from the little bit that discussed in the Medium article it seems it would be viewed as more integral to everyone’s basic identity and capacity vs. a gift bestowed/possessed by a chosen few.

Building Connections May Not Require Improving Connectivity

A few years back I became interested in research that showed that Black, Latinx, and Hispanic people who lived near public parks don’t necessarily feel comfortable using them so a CityLab story on that topic caught my eye. The story itself discusses how mayors of cities around the country are still trying to figure out how to make public spaces more welcoming to everyone, especially as people are gravitating toward parks as places to assemble during the pandemic.

There is a lot of history that factors into the discomfort and wariness people feel in relation to parks and many cities aren’t doing the best job of it. Despite multiple police related shootings of Black men in the past few years, apparently Minneapolis is among the best cities in terms of trying to bring equity to their public park system.

“Beginning in 2011, the city’s park and recreation board started working on what she and her colleagues say is the nation’s first comprehensive racial equity plan for parks, to be reviewed and updated every year. It came up with seven criteria to ensure that park funding would be allocated to areas that needed it most — including the racial make-up of surrounding neighborhoods, the general and youth population of an area, and the condition and lifespan of the parks themselves.

“It’s not just about investment and capital planning; it’s about procurement, and youth and community engagement,” Lusk said. “It’s about staffing diversity — if they are representative of their communities — and the siting of community gardens in areas they haven’t been historically.”

When I followed links to previous stories and studies that have been done, there was one story that reinforced the need to do thorough, inclusive surveying if your goal is to be welcoming to everyone. What a study in Houston found was that Whites, Blacks and Latinos had different priorities for parks.

“…the majority of respondents replied that they wanted their neighborhoods and parks linked to biking and walking paths. The problem with that survey is that about two-thirds of the respondents were white with household incomes over $75,000…

To correct this misrepresentation, a group of researchers from Rice University, conducted another survey, … This one was targeted at African-American and Latino neighborhoods … Lo and behold, the priorities differed from those of the initial survey. As the researchers write in the report about the surveys, “More Inclusive Parks Planning: Park Quality and Preferences for Park Access and Amenities”:

‘Neighborhood connectivity to parks was not a salient issue among park users in these neighborhoods, although this had been a primary finding from the 2014 Master Plan Survey and a favored option of 31 percent of respondents in our closed-ended question. Instead, they envisioned a diverse set of new or improved amenities—most prominently, restrooms and water fountains, and an array of recreational infrastructure—in better maintained and safer parks.’

In fact, connectivity was ranked last among priorities for black and Latino Houstonians. What do they want for their parks? Not only clean, functioning public bathrooms, but also better lighting to make parks safer at night and better playground equipment that’s not prone to breaking down.

I call attention to this because many arts organizations have become more determined to be more welcoming to a wider range of their community, but may be making the wrong assumptions about what everyone feels they need.

One of the first things I paid attention to when I started my current job going on three years ago was where bus stops were located relative to my venue and how late they ran, assuming that more people would consider participating in events if public transportation was available. I know it is a big factor in my community when it comes to getting to work, but perhaps it isn’t among the top impediments for everyone when it comes to attending a performance. (It may be easier to coordinate car pooling with family/friends to a single event than getting to work every day, for instance.)

Being viewed as welcoming to more people is likely to require putting in the time to collect data and build relationships with the people who can provide an accurate picture of what is most important.

Jigglers Were About Spending Time Together, But It Sold Alot of Jell-O

Economist Tyler Cowen had a rather extensive conversation with poet and former NEA Chair, Dana Gioia, on a plethora of topics. The one that most quickly grabbed me was right out of the gate when Cowen asks Gioia about his success at marketing Jell-O. He said it took him 2.5 years to conceptualize and then sell General Foods on Jell-o Jigglers which ended up reversing a 25 year downward trend and doubling sales overnight.

Gioia says that while General Foods was the best food company around in the 1950s, by the 1980s they were foundering because they didn’t know how to re-imagine their products. If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, you may remember that there were all these recipes that involved using Jell-O in intricate ways. (My family had one of their cookbooks and actually made a few.)

Gioia’s approach was to greatly simplify the use to re-imagine the product and make it relevant to consumers.

…rather than creating an elaborate recipe, which was what we were trying to sell people for 40 years, simply a way that you could add water with your kids, put it in the refrigerator and have it ready as a finger food in one hour.

…it was the way of using three times as much Jell-O for an occasion in which people would never use Jell-O, which is to make your own gummy bears. It became a mom-kid activity. We sold every box of Jell-O in the United States for several months.

When I read that, it made me think in the 1980s Gioia was basically doing what we in the arts have only just started to do recently –focus on how our product creates connection with family and friends.

Gioia also talks about how he brought a poet’s humanities based creativity to solve problems for a disciplined, data-driven corporation:

I was a poet, but I needed a job, so, I went to business school, I got an MBA, and I ended up in marketing at General Foods which is a highly analytic company with a very military organization. It was absolutely fantastic at managing existing businesses with a maximum of efficiency. What they were not good at was, in a sense, reconceptualizing a business that was in trouble, because they would simply try to do more or less of what they had done before.

…but with each promotion at General Foods, actually the particular skills I had, which was in a sense of — I’m very good at reconceptualizing things, taking a solution that people have had, breaking it apart, and creating a new solution. I essentially brought creativity that was completely in command of the numbers, if you can understand. That’s a very fairly rare combination, and I was able to transform several businesses there.

Definitely lessons in there for the arts and culture sector as they try to reconstitute and reinvent themselves in the coming years. Cowen and Gioia go on to talk about poetry, religion, opera (“What is opera except the suffering of people with high voices.”) among other things throughout the interview.

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