"Producer's Corner"
by Bruce Lazarus

Truth in Advertising, Part I:
Standing Out from the Crowd on TV and Radio

A recent guest at my live Producing Commercial Theatre class was Nancy Coyne of the Serino Coyne advertising agency, the premiere advertising agency for Broadway shows.  Nancy has been in theatrical advertising for 24 years, and recently celebrated her 20th anniversary with her agency.  Serino Coyne has create memorable advertisements for almost every show on Broadway from  A Chorus Line and Evita to the current Broadway productions of The Lion King and The Sound of Music.  Nancy spoke about using advertising to highlight what is unique about a show, thus targeting and appealing to a specific audience.  Serino Coyne does his by creating advertising campaigns that trumpet the elements of a show that make it different from anything else on Broadway, and by consistently using a wide range of artists, graphic artists and graphic styles to prevent any two ads from looking exactly alike.  She also focused on the difference between television and radio advertising, and how both are important ways to reach your target audience.

Nancy informed us that the producers of a show will usually hire her agency as soon as they have a theatre set for a Broadway opening.  She likes to see the show as a consumer as early as possible, in an out-of-town, pre-Broadway engagement or in London if that is where the show is when she is hired.  She looks at it from all different angles to try to determine the target audience, and also looks at who is in the audience with her when she sees the show and how they are reacting.  Once hired, her agency works on a 15% commission basis on the print, radio and televison ads they place.

Advertising budgets for Broadway shows are relatively small, Nancy explained.  The total spent on advertising a show in its first 10 months can equal what a large corporation like Burger King would spend launching a new product in its first 10 weeks.  Therefore, she finds that the most effective way to advertise a show is to take what is different about the show and build a campaign around that, focusing on targeting that group of people who will most enjoy the show.  Those people will buy tickets and then continue your advertising campaign themselves by spreading positive word of mouth.  There is never enough money in a Broadway advertising budget to try to reach everybody, so it is critical to determine what audience you need to get into your theatre to generate positive "buzz."  An ideal client, Nancy said, would spend weeks with her developing a "strategy" to find and reach the target audience rather than immediately asking to see a mock poster or ad copy.  She sees shows as being truly "at war" for ticket buyers, and everyone working on a show is on the same team.  A show will run longer, as her track record attests, when everyone involved gets behind the show and the strategy.

Not all producers understand Nancy's way of thinking.  When she talks to some about who will truly love their show, they insist that everyone will, and she has to respond by reminding them that they can't afford to target "everyone."  For example, one of the producers of The Mystery of Edwin Drood told her that he wanted to advertise it as a music hall musical, with plenty of singing and dancing.  At the time, there were many musicals on Broadway with lavish musical numbers, but what made The Mystery of Edwin Drood different was that it was a mystery, and that the audience voted on what the ending would be - Nancy called it the "solve-it-yourself musical."

 Because of the expense, musicals will usually have an advertising budget that will sustain a television campaign, but straight plays rarely do.  Such a campaign helped Jekyll and Hyde when its box office began to weaken.  Serino Coyne produced a now well-known, over-the-top" (in Nancy's own words) commercial that exploited the high melodrama of the show and all the horror movie cliches inherent in such a story.  The commercial produced results almost immediately at the box office.  A straight play will usually rely more heavily on radio and print advertisements, which Nancy explained, must still focus on the unique elements of the show.  One current exception is Art, a play which does have a television commercial, about a man who buys an expensive all-white painting and his friends' reaction to it.  Nancy's television ad for Art features an all-white screen and brief portions of monologues spoken in the play by actors Alan Alda and Victor Garber.  In thirty seconds, this commercial gets across the subject of the play and its dry, quick wit, and in the case of the Alan Alda commercial, promises the audience a performance by an actor who they already trust to make them laugh.

Nancy told us that radio, although less expensive and considered less powerful than television, can actually work better than television in connecting with a prospective ticket buyer on an emotional level.  When you hear a screen door slam on the radio, you immediately picture your own screen door, your own house, your own summer memories.  When you see a screen door on television, you see the art director's idea of a screen door.  This asks nothing of your imagination, and if you don't connect that screen door with your own, no emotional connection will be made.  Voices and music on the radio, therefore, can be a very powerful sales tool no matter what market you are in.

Nancy and her agency do about ten "focus groups" a year.  Focus groups, discussed in a previous Producer's Corner, entail the surveying of a select group of approximately 10-20 people behind a one-way mirror, eliciting their responses to questions connected to a product - in this case, the show.  In these focus groups, Nancy has found that people are indeed concerned with the high price of Broadway tickets, and they keep returning to old stand-bys like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables for special occasions because there is little risk involved.  If they loved it once, they know they will love it again. One reason Nancy thinks The Lion King is doing such tremendous business is that the title and the Disney brand name minimizes risk for ticket buyers as well.  This makes it even more important that advertisements for a new show connect with those who will love the show, and say something that minimizes the risk for them: it was written by a playwright they know and trust, it features songs they know and love, or it is a story that will remind them of their own lives and move them.

Bruce Lazarus the former Director of Business and Legal Affairs for Walt Disney Theatrical Productions and producer of the current off-Broadway show Shakespeare's "R&J."

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