Live Commercials in the Theater? Bring Your Rotten Tomatoes

The advertising industry is constantly prowling the social landscape in search of new points of entry to our consciousness. Once it finds a fresh opening — blam! — a new form of niche advertising is thrust into our daily lives, whether we like it or not: video ads in elevators, posters above urinals, product placement in novels, ads in subway tunnels, pseudo-tourists who stage social encounters in order to shill products.

Now live theater is the target. It’s not enough to take venerable theater names and sell them to corporate sponsors (the Selwyn Theater in New York City is now the American Airlines Theater, for example). Now the stage itself is being tested as a vehicle for advertising. As reported in The New York Times today, a three-minute commercial performance was staged at the Orpheum Theater in the East Village before the scheduled performance of “Stomp.”

Shortly before the 8 pm curtain, a woman onstage announced that a commercial would be performed, “brought to you by Visit London,” a tourist organization. What followed was a staged mother-daughter cell phone conversation about London museums and ethnic food, and a couple honeymooning in London. An booming omniscient voice delivered the tagline, “Whatever you like doing, you’ll love doing in London.”

One of the producers of “Stomp” gamely tried to pass the ad off as a “public service spot” for which no money had changed hands. Yeah, right. The performance was clearly a kind of “test ad” intended to gauge public reactions. Potential advertisers would want to know if theater-goers would pay attention, boo or throw tomatoes. Such audience-testing is an invaluable form of market research that will surely help determine whether and how to develop this new advertising niche.

And what a valuable niche it could be! It’s hard for advertisers to reach upscale, advertising-resistant consumers. Yet the theater offers the opportunity to reach captive audiences of people who can afford to pay $100 apiece for an evening’s amusement — and none of them can turn the channel. And it’s not video or text — it’s real people acting right in front of your eyes — so it?s particularly memorable.

Theatrical “public service spots” have already been performed on stages in Dublin and Hamburg, and another is scheduled for Friday in Pittsburgh before a performance of “The Pillowman.” When the theater is given over to shills, anyone who loves the theater should be staging their own live-action responses. This corruption of the stage and contempt for audiences must be decisively nipped in the bud.