Niall Caldwell is Principal Lecturer, Lord Ashcroft International Business School at Anglia Ruskin University. This post is based on his research with brand consultant Kathryn Nicholson; it investigates the phenomenon of celebrity casting, and was originally published in the journal Arts and the Market by Emerald Group Publishing.
The practice of casting celebrities as a marketing tool to draw in bigger audiences has become endemic. With funding a key issue for the arts, some would argue that it draws in those who would not normally attend the theatre. Many critics however, argue that it is damaging the theatre as an art form.
So who is right? Setting aside the debates about high-versus-low culture and good-vs-bad taste, the use of celebrities as a business model for popular culture motivated our study into whether this celebrity strategy is sustainable in the long term.
There are real concerns within the industry about how to bring in bigger audiences. These concerns have led to increased spending by producers on casting actors with recognised names in the hope that they will excite greater interest and attendance, or raise the profile of a show. When Daniel Craig appeared with his wife, Rachel Weisz in Betrayal on Broadway, it broke all records, grossing over a million dollars for just six performances. But is this obsession with celebrity a potential blight on British theatre, running in parallel with the growing number of reality TV stars heading for the stage (think Caroline Flack, recent winner of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing)?
In our study, Star quality: celebrity casting in London West End theatres we surveyed both theatre production staff and audience members to find out what effect the casting of celebrities has within the theatre industry. Whilst professional staff ranked trustworthiness and expertise as equally important – interestingly, audience members ranked expertise as the overwhelmingly single most important attribute. But the one most striking finding to emerge from our results was that potential audience members see a significant difference between fame and celebrity.
When asked about the impact of celebrity casting on their intention to go to a show, the vast majority of respondents said it would depend on the celebrity. Theatre and film celebrities were far more likely to attract people to the theatre (with 86%) than celebrities from reality shows, such as ‘search-for-a-star’, the sports industry or those known for simply being in the media limelight. Katie Price, glamour model turned television personality for example, was significantly the most mentioned celebrity, but also received the highest number of ‘negative’ responses for any celebrity mentioned.
Demographically, younger audience members were more influenced by the presence of a celebrity, irrespective of their expertise in the theatre. But across the age groups, the results of the survey clearly demonstrate that theatre-goers are far more likely to be attracted to the theatre by celebrities with theatrical expertise than those simply known on television or in the gossip columns.
So whilst our research contradicts the view that all celebrities, often with no formal theatrical experience, encourage people to attend the theatre who would not normally attend, we did find there to be a clear relationship between age and the potential effects of celebrity casting. With this in mind, marketers will be able to use the age-profile statistics alongside their productions’ target market age group to build a better picture of how effective a proposed celebrity cast member may be in bringing in audiences.
By learning from audiences about how they react to celebrities, we can try to make our theatre marketing strategies more successful. The professional background of a celebrity and the perceived expertise of the celebrity should be taken into account when deciding, first, whether or not to use celebrity casting at all within a theatre production and, second, which celebrity in particular to cast if this decision is taken.