“Acceptance of prevailing standards often means we have no standards of our own.” Jean Toomer
Sometimes advertising, sponsorship, and strategic partnership slumming happens because the bills have to be paid, sometimes it’s due to time constraints, and sometimes it happens because some decision maker somewhere didn’t know how to say no to a neighbor, cousin, or golf buddy. Most of the time though, it happens because there just aren’t explicit standards in place to guide right-fit selections and guard against poorly chosen partnerships.
One of my favorite stories on sponsorship and brand standards is the glorious, rebellious, and legally questionable tale of The International Times paper and it’s infamous IT Girl. It all started in 1966 with a unique problem…
Jim Haynes was a young theater director, living in London, faced with a complicated problem. The high cost of his production expenses meant that his entire theater could go under if even a single production failed to woo and wow critics and theater-goers. Jim knew his theater would never be free to experiment until it could afford to fail… So, Jim devised a plan that would make failure financially feasible.
One of Jim’s highest production expenses was advertising. Enter, Stage Left, Jim’s solution: The International Times. The International Times newspaper, later known as IT, was created to provide free advertising and event listings for experimental theater and productions sympathetic to the underground movement .
The only issue IT’s founders, Jim Haynes and editor Tom McGrath, agreed upon was their passionate sentiment on censorship. Censorship, along with funding constraints, was impairing theater’s ability to experiment. Censorship was also preventing the pre-internet underground community from banding together to support the causes, events, and organizations they cared about.
IT’s second issue made a bold statement by featuring the previously unpublished anti-Semitic speeches of Ezra Pound. The radically offensive speeches were accompanied by an editorial proclaiming the paper’s unequivocal support of free speech and creative expression. The editorial explained that, while IT’s staff didn’t agree with Pound’s views, IT would publish art because it existed, not because their editorial staff agreed with it or because it met a restrictive pre-set definition of “good”. In an interview with Tom McGrath, he explained that the Pound speeches were the paper’s first bold, unwavering, unapologetic stand against censorship. Publishing something that they themselves didn’t even agree with was their way of proving their genuine commitment to free speech, and the paper immediately began to take off.
When art and theater events were banned and canceled by officials due to censorship, IT began helping re-organize events and worked to keep attendees updated on event relocation details. When an art exhibit was banned in Lund, Sweden because the nude model in the exhibit’s advertisements depicted pubic hair and a hash pipe, IT used the paper to re-organize the event. Instead of a small one-time event in Lund, IT managed to host the event at galleries across Europe.
While Jim started out selling the paper by hand, outside of small experimental theaters after late night performances, the explosive expansion of IT’s readership began to necessitate an actual distribution strategy. So, Jim and Tom found locally-owned shops who were committed to the underground community: record shops, bookstores, head shops, tattoo parlors… and then they made a sign: a sign featuring Theda Bara as the IT Girl. The IT Girl sign quickly became a symbol for something far bigger than theater and newspapers. Something that resonated deeply and passionately with the paper’s readership. The IT Girl was a blazing symbol of a business’ staunch support of the newly united underground community. If you had an IT Girl in your window, you deserved the underground community’s business. Supporting shops that proudly featured the IT Girl became a way for people to actively and consciously contribute to the continued existence of the brands that supported their values.
IT had standards, standards that centered around their purpose, their values, and their brand identity. Standards that helped unite the underground community, facilitated support for locally owned businesses, and helped shift the hierarchy from who had the business to who deserved the business.
Sponsorship and advertising standards have the power to create value and relevance when they’re consciously designed, clearly understood, and unapologetically enforced.
For more on Sponsorship check out BlackDog’s blog: Banners, Logos, and Neon Lights, oh my!