Keeping arts in the black can be a risky business
Arts funding is strapped, artists are desperate and brands such as Diageo are filling the hole but it’s a risky trade-off
“While you can’t blame Guinness for people being so stupid that they’ll get drunk in celebration of a genius marketing campaign, you can blame Guinness for facilitating it.” Tom Jones performs at the Brazen Head pub in Dublin as part of the 2009 Arthur’s Day celebrations. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
One of the most interesting conversations about the arts this year didn’t take place on radio or at a summer-school panel or in a subcommittee hearing or at MindField at the Electric Picnic. The conversation took place on Jim Carroll’s On The Record blog under a post about Arthur Guinness Projects. Arthur Guinness Projects is a marketing initiative by Diageo to give some creative ideas and people funding. It required everyone to be in competition with each other, hounding their friends, family and whoever else over social media to vote early and often – every day in fact. Now the voting is over, and plenty of people are walking away empty-handed after doing some free PR for Guinness over the course of the campaign: the collateral damage – or benefit – of brand-based competitions. Some others got funded.
Guinness has a free pass in Ireland. We shove pints of it into the hands of dignitaries and clap like seals when they take a sip. Arthur’s Day, a way of getting young people into pubs in exchange for concerts, is coming up. While you can’t blame Guinness for people being so stupid that they’ll get drunk in celebration of a genius marketing campaign, you can blame Guinness for facilitating it.
The real cause of Irish drunkenness isn’t nice stout, it’s a much deeper irresponsibility. But when alcohol brands go all Mrs Doyle on the public, winking “go on, go on, go on” through sports advertising and the branding of music festivals, comedy festivals, film festivals and everything else they can get their hands on, then they have to take a certain amount of responsibility for customers getting wasted.
But there is a bigger issue here. And that’s who funds the arts, now, and in the future. There is a trend in marketing to create touchy-feely “authentic experiences” that “bring people together” or “foster creativity”. I long for the days when mobile phone networks just wanted me to switch and not set up a DIY cinema in my back garden for the benefit of my community. I yearn for a time when beer brands just wanted me to drink their products and not find me my dream job. I wish upon a star that soft-drink companies depended on me being thirsty, not on guilting me into flying friends home from the lands to which they have emigrated.
This activity shows the desperation of brands to integrate themselves into our lives and attach a greater meaning to what is just “stuff”. Brands want to own bits of our lives. Beer brands battle to own live music. Mobile brands want to own comedy. And a step on from that is that a brand no longer wants to own art, but creativity itself, in the way that Red Bull does not strive to own Formula 1, but velocity. Arts funding is strapped. Artists are desperate. Brands are filling the hole. But it’s a risky trade-off.