Onderzoeksrapport: de impact van corporate sponsorship in de Londense theaterwereld (Engelstalig)

8 dec 2015

Kunst- en cultuurpubliek wordt steeds vaker en meer geconfronteerd met de aanwezigheid van corporate sponsorships in musea, theaters en concertzalen. Ook in het Londense theaterlandschap zijn corporate sponsors zichtbaar op billboards, in theaterprogramma's en in namen van theaters en horeca. Voor haar masterstudie Arts & Heritage: Policy, Management & Education deed Isabelle Ralphs onderzoek naar de impact van corporate sponsorship op de perceptie van theaters door het publiek. Lees hier de samenvatting.

Door Isabelle Ralphs

The growth of alternative funding has not gone unnoticed by the public or the media, with concerns and objections to the commercial interests of these companies being voiced by certain groups. BP, for instance, have been targeted in a high profile campaign, by environmental protestors, for their corporate sponsorship of the Tate Modern and the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Blog: BP or not BP, 2012)

Awareness of corporate sponsorship seems to be growing among the politically engaged, with arts organizations and charities seeking to debate the ethical and moral issues raised by the presence of corporate sponsors; Platform, an arts charity, have held discussions under the heading of “Take the Money and Run?” questioning the relationships between oil companies and the arts. (“Take The Money And Run? Ethics, funding and art,” 2015)

Onderzoeksrapport: de impact van corporate sponsorship in de Londense theaterwereld (Engelstalig)

The need for many arts institutions to seek new sources of revenue, necessitated by cuts in government funding, has coincided with an increase in public scrutiny regarding the efficiency of how these national institutions and public bodies are funded and managed. If these companies who are helping to plug the gap left by shrinking public funding are viewed to be in moral or ethical conflict with the standing of the theatres they are connected with, there may be a damaging impact on the theatres themselves. Inspired by the recent proliferation of journalistic discussion on the topic, this study was conducted to gauge the extent to which a more general selection of theatregoers might be affected by the presence of corporate sponsorship. Does sponsorship impact an audience’s view of the theatre and its work?

No Audience, No Work

In the theatre in particular, the entire artistic enterprise may be claimed to be redundant in the absence of an audience. Post-Modernist thought on the functioning of art rejects the concept of art as autonomous in favour of a more relational view that acknowledges the need for a viewer to “complete” the artistic process: Bourdieu’s relational model highlights the interdependent relationship of the artistic sphere and the economic and political worlds that interact with it; Van Maanen’s framework for the functioning of art in society, in Art Worlds, places new focus on the domains of “distribution” and “reception”; Becker’s list of activities crucial to the artistic process places importance on the place of “response” and “appreciation” of the work. For Becker, the viewer or audience needs not be involved directly in the making of the core artistic product, but they are necessary to its very existence.

This development in the theory and approach to art production and consumption necessitates an adaptation or evolution in the way that artistic institutions (and particularly theatres, for whom, without a ticket-buying audience, the endeavour could be suggested to be futile) choose to build relationships with their audiences.

It is this that Boorsma confronts, looking at the acts of co-creation and the customer-value approach, where she emphasizes that the right conditions for arts consumption must be provided, by the art institutions, for a satisfactory audience experience. The overall experience is as crucial as the central artwork to a valuable artist-audience relationship, and marketing forms an important part of this. If a seemingly small element of the larger picture, such as the presence of a specific corporate sponsor, impacts the audience in a negative way, this could have a knock-on effect for the theatre itself.

Everyone’s a Winner? The Sponsorship Boom

This study was conducted after a review of the current research on the topic of corporate sponsorship revealed that though much analysis has been done from the perspective of the businesses implementing their ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ plans, little has been done to investigate the impact on the theatres or their audiences. Corporate sponsorship, as distinct from philanthropic giving, is defined here as depending on the exchange of mutually valuable services between the sponsor and theatre.

Previous studies have shown that the motivations of the sponsor will usually be image-related rather than direct market objectives: sponsorship can be used as a relationship-building or promotional tool. Previous research has found that the use of company names or logos in a sponsorship setting is considered less directly intrusive than straightforward advertising.

Furthermore, existing studies revealed that the “surprise” factor of a sponsor company with a weak link to the “sponsored” is favorable: In the commercial entertainment sphere, cognitive consistency is recognized, and a strong link between the sponsor product and the “sponsored” is often expected, whereas in the domain of “high” art, audiences were found to react with less suspicion to companies selling a product or service seemingly unrelated to the artistic form or content.

Corporate sponsorship is increasingly important to the arts too. An Arts and Business study (2010) estimated that, with the decrease in statutory government funding, “to keep overall income at the same level as [2010], private giving to arts and culture needs to double over this four year [government] period” (Sood & Pharoah, 2011). The financial crisis, too, has resulted in companies reassessing the worth of their relationships with arts institutions, meaning that both sides are having to work harder still to achieve the right balance in their relationships of mutual exchange in order to remain attractive and successful partnerships. What effect might these relationships have on audiences?

Onderzoeksrapport: de impact van corporate sponsorship in de Londense theaterwereld (Engelstalig)Onderzoeksrapport: de impact van corporate sponsorship in de Londense theaterwereld (Engelstalig)Onderzoeksrapport: de impact van corporate sponsorship in de Londense theaterwereld (Engelstalig)

Young Expressionists versus Older Essentialists

To explore whether the presence of corporate sponsors in the London theatre has any significant impact on the relationship between institutions and audiences, two focus groups were carried out at the National Theatre in London to form the basis of an exploratory qualitative study. Two different age groups of regular attenders were formed, and classed as the “Young Expressionists” and “Older Essentialists”. (“Culture Segments; The new segmentation system for arts, culture and heritage,” 2015)

Young Expressionists:
• Aged 18-25
• Well-educated and open-minded
• Creative and widely engaged in a broad range of cultural activities
• Discerning and self-aware
• Loyal audiences of the future

Older Essentialists:
• Aged roughly 45-65
• Loyal arts “advocates”
• Likely to hold paying membership to arts organisations
• Frequent givers of small donations

The aim was to explore how aware audiences are of sponsorship in subsidised theatres, what they think about the issues relating to sponsorship, and whether the presence of corporate sponsors changes their perceptions of an institution in general, or of its artistic output, in a way that affects their interactions with the theatre.

1. What’s Going On? Audience awareness of corporate sponsorship

Almost all focus group participants claimed only “vague” awareness of the arguments currently surrounding the issue of theatre funding in general, but despite these lowly claims, members of the younger group actually revealed an extremely informed, nuanced, broad and mature selection of views regarding the debate on arts funding.

The Young group displayed a good understanding of the subtleties of the funding debates – acknowledging a skew of public funding and sponsorship opportunities towards larger, more mainstream, metropolitan theatres, which makes it difficult for smaller more innovative companies to compete – and revealing an awareness of the growing varieties of alternative funding, such as crowdfunding and sponsorship. The Older group were naturally more suspicious of changes they saw in the artistic landscape, expressing scepticism for what some saw as an increasing move towards commerciality when thinking about sponsorship. This group tended to be more idealistic in their views, and had a less nuanced grasp on the current situation.

Awareness of individual companies as sponsors tended to vary according to the motives the individual had for attending: those with social motives, seeing friends, sharing a drink in the bar after the play for instance, tended to be more aware of the sponsors in these domains e.g. if the bar itself was named after or was strongly branded by a sponsor. These audiences tended to recollect the names of national or global companies and brands.

Conversely, those with independent and more artistically-focused reasons for attending were more likely to recall sponsor and donor names they had noticed in programmes and on posters. And though the Older group succeeded in naming a number of major sponsors, they were able to recall less than half of those named by the younger group, though members of this older group were able to make successful “educated guesses”. A common thread through both groups, however, was the recollection of cheap ticket schemes that they had made use of in the past: tangible benefits are key for effective publicity.

Onderzoeksrapport: de impact van corporate sponsorship in de Londense theaterwereld (Engelstalig)
Theater audience in London

2. Good Company, Bad Company: The Effect of the Type of Sponsor Company on Public Perceptions

This section of the research highlighted some intriguing dichotomies in the participants’ views. A number of individuals initially expressed suspicion regarding what they saw as publicity-motivated reasons for large or well-off companies to sponsor.

As the debate continued, many of these reactions began to alter: as people were encouraged to probe their own levels of awareness of sponsors, they tended to discover that they did not necessarily take in or remember a large number of these companies, and as this happened they were more likely to express positive sentiments towards the sponsors whom they saw to be acting more altruistically than initially stated.

Members of both groups expressed some mistrust towards companies with already negative reputations, but these views were formed mainly on a combination of self-ascribed “gut-instinct” and media representation. Companies involved in public scandals that seemed to be trying to fix their reputations by positive association with the arts were viewed more negatively still.

The focus groups also reflected some previous findings regarding the “weak link” between theatre and sponsor, as there was seen to be less likelihood of artistic contamination by a company that is selling something so distinct from the artistic content. In general terms, participants showed favorable views towards small and local firms, and companies that they would be likely and could afford to use, however through the discussion it was acknowledged that larger companies hold the advantage of larger revenues to spare on sponsorship.

The consensus was that despite the fact that sponsors benefit from publicity and “perks”, they are still not obliged to give money, and that, therefore, the individual is willing to put aside most personal misgivings in the knowledge that the company’s money can help the theatre to create important work. Furthermore, no participants were able to give examples of sponsorship ever having altered their consumer habits. i.e. though their awareness of a company may have been heightened, there was no evidence of someone choosing to use a certain bank or airline because of its positive associations with arts sponsorship.

3. Get Up! Stand Up? Audience Behaviour in Relation to Sponsors

The possibility of audience attendance being altered by corporate sponsorship was shown not to be high. Participants expressed mostly selfish reasons for their attendance, and proved that they are able to overlook personal dislike of a company, in order to see the plays that they want to see.

Discussion of a boycott brought up two points: audiences trusted theatres to make responsible and trustworthy decisions regarding the suitability of their sponsors and, secondly, in the instance of an individual feeling strongly against a sponsor, they expressed doubt that the refusal of an individual to buy a ticket would make any impact whatsoever. Only in the unlikely event of a mass boycott would they consider this form of action.

Otherwise, participants emphasized the unique nature of the productions they wish to see, observing that they would not simply be able to go to see a production in a different theatre in the same way you might decide to buy a coffee from a different coffee shop.

Theatres shown to be imaginative and proactive in their efforts to obtain funding were viewed in a more positive light, too. If audiences can go to the theatre, and believe that the artistic integrity of the core work is upheld, while the theatre acts responsibly to ensure its financial stability, then the finely tuned audience-artist relationship is unlikely to be disturbed.

Onderzoeksrapport: de impact van corporate sponsorship in de Londense theaterwereld (Engelstalig)

Relatively small overall impact of sponsorship

An initial finding of the focus groups was the disparity in viewpoint and awareness between the two age groups. This was in part attributed to contextual factors, as the older group could recall a time in their cultural lives where there was little evidence of sponsorship, and so were likely to question why this state of affairs was not still possible. The younger group, conversely, had grown up in a world saturated with advertising of various forms. This group was also more open to alternative and innovative ideas of arts funding. This initial disparity was soon overcome, however, as both groups began to examine their preconceptions.

The overall impact of sponsorship, as a factor that affects the audience, was
shown to be relatively small. Sponsorship was only one in a number of factors that people would take into account as an aspect of their theatregoing – importantly it was not deemed crucial enough by any participants to make it a deciding factor relating to attendance. Sponsors with a weaker link to the institution or play were viewed in a more positive light because they were not suspected to have direct commercial goals of product promotion or artistic interference.

In the event of negative views towards a company, crucially for the artist-audience relationship, audiences did not carry these negative associations across into their perceptions of the theatres, usually justifying this with statements that the theatres require the funds to ensure their continued success and survival. On a realistic level, too, the consensus was that larger companies were in a better position, economically, to sponsor.

Furthermore, there was also the acknowledgement that the exchange is still a voluntary one for the businesses, and that in this context, it is positive that they are choosing to take part in the exchange. This exploratory, small-scale, qualitative study concludes that the presence of corporate sponsorship does not seem to cause damage to the fundamental way in which audiences connect with an artistic process, or, in this case, a theatrical production.

Dit artikel is een samenvatting van het onderzoek van Isabelle Ralphs naar de impact van corporate sponsorship in het Londense theaterlandschap. Download hier de volledige scriptie.