To be a patron of the arts has been a mark of distinction for thousands of years. In ancient Rome and feudal Japan, patronage was considered to be an intrinsic part of life in the aristocracy. Those with money must support those without who embark on artistic endeavors to better the culture. The apex of patronage came during the Renaissance, when the Medicis (who were essentially the closest thing Europe had at the time to a multinational banking conglomerate) supported the work of everyone from da Vinci to Galileo over the span of a century.
Recently, however, the role of patron has morphed into the role of sponsor, which can be best defined, to borrow the words of Samuel Johnson, as “one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help.”
Unfortunately, brand sponsors frequently abandon the causes they herald as most important as soon as the going gets tough. Social media has only expedited this process. There’s no better example of this than Delta and Bank of America’s recent ill-conceived flight from their support of The Public Theater — an organization that has produced important works of art in New York City since 1954.
In particular, the sponsorship was withdrawn over the portrayal of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s eponymous play as a Trump-like figure. This makes obvious little sense from a PR perspective — the brands are abandoning a free service designed to introduce New Yorkers to the most important playwright in the Western canon. Additionally, Julius Caesar is a play primarily concerned with power, politics and how the pride of one man can affect the future of a nation. The interpretation of the titular character as in the vein of Trump is, if anything, the most obvious artistic choice a creative director could make in 2017. The act of having him stabbed to death on-stage is not a bold political provocation — it is merely the apt retelling of one of the most famous stories in history.
Brands cannot and should not weigh in on artistic choices, even controversial ones, with their wallets. There are a few key reasons why.
First of all, to choose to sponsor the arts is a savvy move for any brand seeking to reach higher net-worth, well educated and passionate individuals across any demographic. It adds the gloss of culture to brands that, like Bank of America or Delta, simply provide services and are often cast as villains (whether they deserve it or not). Cultural collaboration and participation add personality and style to a brand that no amount of lifestyle marketing can achieve. To meddle with an artist’s “process” is not smart. Brands don’t need to like or even publicize the work that results from their support of the arts — but they should never attempt to censor it by withdrawing financial support.
Secondly, the 24-hour news and instant-outrage cycle that we live in today is a result of online culture. It is a game played by individuals and media entities that are nimble and reactionary — two things no large corporation can afford to be. To play into the hands of internet trolls is historically a poor decision for any brand to make. Those who claim to support the arts, however, must double down in their fortitude not to be swayed by the niche opinion of a small group of very loud Twitter users. It’s most likely that the people who take issue with this interpretation of Julius Caesar are not New Yorkers nor theater-goers and, therefore, they are not the target consumer for a sponsorship of The Public Theater. If it’s important to remain neutral, sponsors should certainly spread the money around to support artistic causes that are pertinent to the conservative end of the political spectrum. They should not, however, let the fringes of either side alter the decision to make a sound investment in culture.
Finally, brands need the arts now more than ever. As marketing and communications continue to shift around an obsession with the millennial cohort, culture must drive every decision we make. Get it right and you’re Heineken. Do it wrong and you’re Pepsi. It is the artists that create culture — and therefore must be an intrinsic part of the consideration of any brand attempting to achieve an ever-elusive “authenticity” factor. This is also at the heart of influencer marketing. Brands that align themselves with creators of culture can borrow equity from those communities in exchange for their support. Brands that drop endorsees or influencers with strong personalities based on questionably controversial statements also deserve to get caught in the blowback. A racial slur must always be a fire-able offense. Having an opinion must never be. Not knowing your consumer well enough to align a brand with the right cultural causes is the fault of agencies and brand managers, not the artists themselves.