Sunday, October 6, 2013

What's the Difference Between a Public Program and a Commercial Promotion?

That looks like The Public!
On the High Line this week, we had a perfect example. At 22nd street you had the I Think Outside My Box project, a public program, as we have been for over one year,  and at the 16th St. overpass you had Amazon and a massive Kindle promotion that overpowered the natural beauty of the park like a giant alien ship had just missed it's convention landing at the Javit's Center.

And as you might imagine, Amazon was wildly well funded, commercially slick and esthetically overpowering. - it even plowed over the musicians, crammed into their government mandated spot, who could have been part of the mood of the park and the promotion - but were sadly not.

Yet, we (#iTOMB) , in our own simple public way, were not funded at all, decidedly non-commercial and fit into the groove of the park seamlessly. And people reacted appropriately. The Amazon scene was like a suburban shopping mall and we were, well, we.

Wow! Is that Jeff Bezos' daughter? No, just one of us:)
The essential difference between Amazon's commercial promotion, executed admittedly by the High Line for the donation money, and our public program of first amendment expression project, not executed for profit, but for the public good was in the public reaction. A marked difference.

Whilst Amazon offered free coffee and a test drive of their product, we offered none of the above, yet encouraged everyone to engage, involve and express themselves, in paint - without selling them anything - or maybe just selling them, themselves:)

After only a few minutes of people painting a woman walked up to me and handed me $20.  "Thank you", she said, "For the experiences you are creating". 

In her middle age, and having watched from the benches nearby, she continued, "I don't have children, but I have watched what you do, and I am inspired by the experiences you create." "Don't you see the experiences you are creating?". she asked me. I blushed a bit. Maybe I don't.

But I can guarantee you, and the High Line the same, that Amazon was not in the business of creating experiences. They were in the business of selling Kindles. And the High Line was not in the business of creating experiences either. They were in the business of fundraising. And that's where promotion and public programs collide - but they don't have to.

The Amazon promotion was like a giant alien craft had just landed in a placid city park. It clashed with its surroundings by placing space age-like "viewing pods" for reading instead of using the natural beauty of trees and even birds (we have birds at 22nd St.) to invigorate one's experience and only gave away free coffee (from another commercial sponsor) as a comeuppance for their occupation of an otherwise beautiful public space. I recalled all the people I saw reading in Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris a few years ago and wished for a recreation of that experience, or something similarly park-like.

At the High Line park, they have an entire department dedicated to Public Programs, Education and Community Engagement and the Amazon promotion was conspicuously labeled at as a "Public Event". But what it really was, was a simple promotion - made to get you to buy something. Not to aid the public at all.  And that sort of sucks - because with proper direction, both Amazon and the High Line could have helped each other and created an experience that was not just commercial, but emotionally engaging.

But they didn't.

The I Think Outside My Box Project is not a commercial enterprise at all. In fact, it's a perfectly rotten business model. But it makes people happy. It creates and enables simple life experiences. And that's a huge difference from all the advertising work I've done in the past - but the two need not be mutually exclusive. To begin to fit corporate goals into social ideals, the first thing to be done is to throw out metrics like ROI (Return on Investment) and focus more on GNH (Gross National Happiness). Because when people love your brand - and in this case, both Amazon and the High Line as brands - money will be no object. People will be happy to pay for pleasurable experiences much more than for hard plastic products.

Lanny Harrison collage (Gallatin/NYU Faculty Art Show)

Later in my day, a woman came up to me and remarked how horrible the Amazon thing had been. "Blatant commercialisation of an otherwise placid public space" , she said. And then she painted for us. (above featured work sent by email later with comment "I love what you are doing").

A good friend of mine thinks I'm crazy.

"What? Are you trying to get the establishment to buy into your whacko socialist artistic idea and actually endorse you, along with all those commercial boys?", she asked.

"Yeah", I responded.

Aside from his vanity purchase of The Washington Post, Jeff Bezos is not in the business of public service.

You can find my professional credentials here on LinkedIn. To show your support for our efforts with #iTOMB, you can write the High Line here, addressed to the Curator, Chief Operating Officer or Founders.

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