Thursday 1 September 2016

Art News New Zealand column #1, September 2016

This year the team at Art News New Zealand asked me to fill in a column space for a regular writer who had pulled out; I chose to write about a phenomenon I'd noticed both internationally and very locally. The column might become a regular in 2017.


Visa Wellington On A Plate took place in August, and two associated events that happened in my neighbourhood really caught my attention.

At Thistle Hall, the small gallery at the top of Cuba Street, the Jelly Archive set up for a week: displays of brightly coloured, intricately molded jellies, accompanied by a ‘Mad Lab’ where you could buy a kit and book a session to make your own. The day I went in there were no other visitors, but in a corner three PR people avidly discussed their Instagram penetration whilst a camera-man filmed the set-up. The event was sponsored by Resene.

Across the street and down a little, in one of Cuba's charming heritage shopfronts, you could find the Whittakers K-Bar pop-up store, a 10-day nostalgia fest modelled on a 1950s milk bar, staffed by female servers in pink frocks and kiss curls and male baristas in white shirts and bow-ties. The cupcakes were wheeled over from Havana Bar's bakery in an on-theme handcart, the milkshakes took their flavours from the chewy confectionery, and the white shelves were piled with the three new blocks of chocolate with their K-Bar fillings. Over the two weekends lines stretched out the door and across the nearby carpark.

I walk along Cuba Street most days, and so these two events were inescapable. What really struck me about them though was their success as ‘immersion marketing’ - and their similarity to the work of museums.

Whittakers tapped into the nostalgia value of the K-Bar, originally launched in the 1950s, and amped that up with retro stylings, criss-crossed with bunting and sealed with scarlet lipstick. The whole pastel-toned experience seemed more reminiscent of a 1950s we've come to recognise from American movies than the real thing here in Aotearoa New Zealand, but watching the shop fit-out and operation was exactly like watching a museum display go up.

Meanwhile, the Jelly Archive (note that last word) co-opted the glass display cases of natural history specimens and called for visitors to contribute their jelly memories: “stories, handwritten recipes, vintage jelly moulds, old jelly boxes/packets, memories, photos. Basically we are after nostalgic stories around jelly to be part of one of the sections within the exhibition.” Mix in the hands-on experimentation and you've got a full social history experience.

Both projects point to a strong trend in product-driven experiential marketing, focused on getting customers to share a brand via social media. In America, the brand of ‘museums’ has been appropriated to form a framework for these ventures, a new evolution of the pop-up. Thus last December we had Glade's ‘Museum of Emotions’, a temporary structure housing a series of sensory displays, offering free entry and an exit through the gift shop, stocked with the company's new line of candles and room fragrances (the Village Voice assessed it as “a confusing mix of ambient advertising and immersive art”). It drew over 50,000 people and earned a Golden Lion in the Cannes Lions international advertising festival. More recently, Dove and Tinder were among the companies behind the ‘Museum of Ice Cream’, Hulu reconstructed Jerry Seinfeld's living room and invited people in to Instagram it, and Cheetos are taking online submissions of unusually shaped examples of the orange snack for a forthcoming offline museum.

The marketers have identified our brand potential as signifiers of desirable and worthwhile experiences and are now, you could say, eating our lunch. As SC Johnson's global chief marketing officer Ann Mukherjee said AdWeek, “How do you get people to remember a smell? Build memories around it. Create an experience. We gave the world a whole new way to look at Glade”. She sounds remarkably like a museum concept developer.

Or perhaps this trend points up an uncomfortable truth. As one visitor to the Museum of Emotions, Dayna Evans, wrote for The Awl, “When [we] tried to figure out how it was we even came to learn about the pop-up museum, we both realized that a lot of our more ‘arty’ friends had said they were attending the Facebook event. It spread virally. We trusted those people’s tastes, so we decided to go. We never really thought to check if it was worthy of praise, or even exactly what it was. This is the same principle by which the casual museum attendee learns to namedrop Cézanne and Miró. MoMA is just as much sponsored content as the Museum of Feelings - they’re just sponsored by different power structures.”

We've known for a while now that in the great competition for people's leisure time we're up against sport, hobbies, tv and the internet. Now we can add to that list a rival that looks just like us. The challenge then, it seems to me, is: how do we make sure we remain the best at being ourselves?

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