top of page

When classical music marketing copy goes wrong

The current Southbank Centre slogan offers a lesson in how not to talk to about classical music

There are a few obvious rules in marketing copywriting. One is that if you’re trying to sell a product that has negative associations, you don’t mention those associations. If you’re advertising cigarettes, you don’t use the word ‘cancer’. If you’re selling cheap clothes you don’t bring in ‘child labour’. Even if you put ‘not’ in front of the bad word, the reader doesn’t take it in and is left with the impression of the negative concept, just as if I tell you not to think of a pink elephant in a bikini.

Now, if there’s one word that dogs classical music, it’s ‘exclusive’. It is often thrown at the whole genre as an accusation, whether or not it’s deserved, and just about every strategic decision made by arts organisations these days is about being the very opposite – inclusive. So I’m baffled that Southbank Centre, one of the most vibrant and engaging venues in London, is currently using this slogan: ‘A classical music season exclusively for pretty much everyone.’ What were they thinking?

Maybe they thought they would confront the prejudice head on; that ‘for everyone’ would negate the ‘exclusive’ tag with its amusing word play. But it doesn’t – the remaining impression is still the word ‘exclusively’ (are you picturing pink elephants yet?).

‘It’s a classic example of an organisation talking to itself in its own language rather than to outsiders in theirs’

The trouble is that the paradoxical word play only works if you’re one of the lucky people who realise that classical music really IS for everyone – which is anyone who actually engages in it. We all know how great it is. No doubt the copywriter and everyone at the Southbank Centre know that. They all get the joke. But someone who has no idea about classical music or genuinely feels excluded by it is only going to see the word ‘exclusively’ and turn around. It’s a classic example of an organisation talking to itself in its own language rather than to outsiders in theirs. Which is fine if your goal is to make your members feel good, but if you’re an arts organisation trying to reach out to new people, it’s foot-shooting.

‘Exclusively for everyone’ is also an advertising cliché, used by Marks and Spencer in 2000 and Smirnoff in 2014, although tellingly, for both of those, the intention was probably to lift rather humdrum brands into something more classy.

As if this mixed message isn’t enough, the copywriters undermine themselves further with ‘pretty much’: in other words – it’s not for everyone at all. This to me is the worst kind of English, self-effacing, apologetic nonsense, its tone stuck up, to boot. I imagine Hugh Grant bumbling away as he tries to describe the classical music season: ‘It’s err… exclusive… well no, in a good way, I mean it isn’t at all actually, it’s for everyone, obviously you know, but well in a sort of exclusive sort of way, you know, well nearly everyone, pretty much everyone, obviously, because not everyone really gets classical music, obviously, but apart from that, well it’s really quite good and maybe you might like to come and see if you might like it etc etc.’

This is not the way to sell classical music to people who think they’re not going to enjoy it – which I presume is the brief. The basic sentiment of the ad is fundamentally true: ‘A classical music season for everyone.’ Why dilute it with this subliminal apology? Why should we apologise about classical music?

What do we mean by ‘exclusive’ anyway? In one sense it’s about the form itself – it may be long and complex, sometimes making it hard to understand and be moved without some knowledge. In another sense, the social experience makes people feel like awkward outsiders, that they’re not welcome. In either of these respects, classical music is no more and no less exclusive than any other music or art forms I can think of (apart from maybe pop music in the former). I’ve been to folk concerts, jazz gigs, raga performances and felt just as much an ignorant outsider as newbies must feel at classical music concerts, both in understanding the forms and feeling as if I belong there. I probably wouldn’t even dare go to a heavy metal, teeny-bopper or hip-hop concert (even though I’m partial to a good head bang). But would we call any of these genres exclusive?

This is most definitely not to do with cost, which is usually held up as the prohibitive factor. It’s fairly easy to get £6 tickets for the Royal Opera House, £10 for the Royal Festival Hall or £15 at the Wigmore Hall. That barely buys a of drink at a rock concert or a souvenir at a football game. You just have to want to, or at least be intrigued and open-minded.

Indeed, classical music is probably more excluded than exclusive these days in popular culture. At most classical music festivals now, such as BBC Proms and Verbier, for example – there is some world music and crossover. I’ve been to Womad, Cambridge Folk Festival and Big Chill, and I’ve never seen so much as a nod to classical music (although ENO did visit Latitude a few years ago). It’s not cool enough, and many people just aren’t willing to open their minds to it – so who’s being exclusive?

The only sense in which classical music is exclusive is for performers – it has to be practised at a young age, with a great deal of application and resource. Over the years, and increasingly so, this has inevitably made it an upper middle class activity in the UK (although in other cultures and countries, this makes it aspirational). This is only liable to be made a whole lot worse with the proposed changes to the EBacc in England, with disastrous plans to take music and arts out of the core syllabus, meaning students are likely to have little access to it (you can find out more about that here and join the campaign here).

But exclusivity is no more intrinsic to classical music than it is to jazz, hip-hop, heavy metal or any other type of music. It’s not in a Mozart overture or Brahms or Shostakovich symphony. It’s in people’s minds. It’s Simon Cowell in this clip from Britain’s Got Talent, talking to millions of viewers about how miserable classical musicians look – would he say that about rappers or jazz players? It’s in anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that any art form has certain conventions and audience behaviours, and super-users who treat it like a cult. It’s in a popular culture that likes to sneer at ‘middle-class’ activities. It’s in the cultural stereotype that classical music is only interesting once you’re past 40. It’s in marketing departments that prefer to split off sub-genres rather than making lateral connections between art forms.

So, it’s complicated. We have a long way to go to open people’s minds, and there are many people who are doing this from the grass roots up, creating exciting programmes, in new contexts, with energy and vision, both in schools and concert halls. But in the meantime, we can be sure – and Southbank Centre can truthfully assert – that classical music is for everyone.

bottom of page