How the @%!& do I market this thing?
I’m going to share a secret with you that might offend my peers: marketing ain’t rocket science. The basic principles are comparatively easy to apply (compared to, say, actual rocket science) and you need only a rudimentary understanding of product, price, promotion, place, and people (or, lately, consumer, cost, convenience, and communication) to start selling. Direct to consumer online sales channels are increasingly easy to use and they are threaded through almost every aspect of our daily lives. It has never been easier to sell.
I will add that, while we’re certainly not scientists, it does take a particular personality type to pull this off year after soul-destroying year – you should be tenacious, analytical, well informed, domineering, opportunistic, sneaky, a little bit evil, an eager commodifier of emotions, wilfully ignorant of the implications of the labour you’re investing on behalf of capital… And you don’t even have to be particularly clever or creative. You can always, and probably should always, pay someone to be clever and creative on your behalf.
When I started shilling for Soutie Press I was expecting a cake walk. The art of Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes – from their large-scale works to dime-store comic books – is after all famous worldwide, revered, controversial (ka-ching!), iconic, culturally indicting, relevant and enduring, and undeniably, irrevocably, inimitably good. Start some social media profiles, promote the shit out of it guaranteeing targeted reach, and convert to sale – easy!
I first suspected things were going to be not easy when Facebook rejected some of our ads for the launch of The Erotic Drawings of Conrad Botes and the second edition of The Erotic Drawings of Anton Kannemeyer – Soutie Press’s first titles. As the names might suggest, vaginas, penises, anuses, and faces-mid-orgasm feature heavily in the books’ promotional material, as do Slavoj Zizek quotes. I should’ve known that even the crude archival drawings – which aren’t, by the way, particularly sexy, since Conrad and Anton can’t shake a stick at something without making it political – wouldn’t pass muster with nipple-hating Facebook’s gatekeepers. And to be clear, there is exactly nothing in these two books that can even remotely be described as “tame”.
So, ‘Fine, fair enough,’ I thought, ‘let’s trick the bastards.’ I asked Conrad to draw some fruit for our ads – the guavas below (Botes, Conrad. 2019. Guavas. [Sharpie on paper]) – which he did in about 5 minutes.
I thought we’d simply run that as the ad – target, convert, easy! I mean, who would clutch their pearls at a picture of fruit? But I didn’t give Facebook enough credit; their droids visited the Soutie Press website, saw the glaringly erect cocks, and rejected the ad. I then tried to promote the artists’ books using their popular Bitterkomix comic books as the lure instead – no genitals – and yet the ads kept getting rejected, ultimately making it impossible for me to grow awareness, nevermind sales, on Facebook and Instagram. I knew there was a market for this stuff, it was clearly art and not pornography, but nuance is not exactly in high supply or demand on social media.
There is definitely an argument to be made for keeping the Erotic Drawings out of the mainstream. Prudes (no offence meant, I identify as one of you) should not be forced or tricked into looking at things that upset them; nor should children. People should have ample warning of what they’re about to see and they should be able to choose to avoid it or approach it, and at their own pace. Encoding and decoding art require the necessary knowledge (whether earned, guided or innate) and experience to do so according to the universes of meaning within which it was produced, and ideally should be facilitated by appropriate mental and physical spaces for reflection, interpretation and, ultimately, rejection or acceptance. This work in particular is certainly not for everyone – we are not talking about shampoo or toothpaste here – but in general, as expression and as commentary, art above all and by definition carries value and import.
I can accept that the unfettered access offered by social media is accompanied by some sort of responsibility on the part of those who distribute the content. Of course, it bears pointing out that the parameters of this responsibility are not determined through a democratic, public process, nor is there any room for grey areas, nor has one size ever fitted all – remember that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok are not public utilities, they are for-profit apps which perpetuate and profit from dominant cultural narratives.
Understanding all of this, I know that conventional social media marketing is a dead end for Conrad and Anton. That’s fine – fuck Facebook actually. We can work through the line – print advertising in relevant publications that’ll have us, PR, content, events, galleries, independent book stores – to move the books. And probably, as it turns out, that is the more dignified strategy to follow and also more in the spirit in which this work was created in the first place. Put it this way: if something subversive is being sponsored to you on social media, there is nothing radical about it at all.
A little while after the Facebook drama (which included our company page and ad accounts being temporarily suspended), there was a massive furor on Twitter over some of Anton’s art that was being sold by the mainstream South African lifestyle e-tailer, Superbalist, completely devoid of its original context (and without Anton’s prior knowledge). Dismembered from their meaning and from their intentions, individual pieces which form part of a series were turned into standalone fridge magnets for, like, a hundred bucks each. In this context, Anton’s work was reduced to racist cartoons and interpreted at face value, and a witch hunt ensued, which attempted to completely erase the vast and proven history of Anton’s critique and implication of whites in racism in South Africa, never mind the global impact and widespread critical embrace of this particular piece of work, The Alphabet of Democracy, when it was published by Jacana Media in 2010.
Much has since been written and said about this specific event – de-platforming, the role of and how to read satire, white privilege and the legacy of racism in South Africa, cancel culture and censorship – and that is not the topic under discussion here. I don’t have much to add to those discussions, which are appropriately layered and should be interrogated from multiple perspectives (yes, another higher function of art!), but I will say that as a white Afrikaner when I look at Anton’s work under question, I feel deeply guilty and culpable – which for me, at least, is the whole bloody point.
What really interested me in these scenarios were two things. The first is the trouble we run into when art is positioned as a commodity, and whether “marketing” as I know it belongs in this world at all. Can art that challenges dominant narratives, past and present, and actively destabilises comfort zones, perform its function when it’s mass re-produced and pitched at the largest common denominators?
How can a golliwog juxtaposed with an offensive dictionary definition on a fridge magnet hold both your shopping list and the tension between satire and reality? On my fridge at home I have magnets of Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong alongside a Butler’s Pizza menu. Evo Morales is my all-time favourite world leader, and I like to take at least one overseas holiday a year (Italy is my favourite). I think of myself as a closet Commie even as I sit here typing on my MacBook Pro and earning a living selling things to people that they don’t need at the highest profit margins possible by appealing to their hopes, dreams and fears.
Like the rest of us, artists need to eat. They eat by selling their products or services. Marketing helps artists sell their products and services. Ergo… Marketing feeds starving artists!
In this case, I think the artists in question were doing just fine before I came along, and I am yet to make any significant difference to their earning power. I think Conrad and Anton know this, which is why they politely indulge my requests for drawings of guavas, but ultimately they know that their work is largely thankless, that the light of favour quickly dims, and that most people rarely have the courage of their convictions. Artists, each of whom I can guarantee you wishes to be successful, instinctively know that art as commodity strips the work of its transformative powers, of its meanings and its impacts. Yet they carry on creating, whether painted as pariahs or prophets, watching as the wheel inevitably turns.
Which brings me to the second thing that interested me about this experience. Marketers cannot live with this highly unsatisfying fatalism – there is simply no amount of spin that can make this work acceptable in the mainstream. You cannot ask someone to be moved by art while click-baiting them towards their next purchase. There is a fundamental disconnect between what I was trained to do – sell, convince, persuade! – and what art does – transform, divide, enrage! The burning inadequacy I felt when being tasked to market without the benefit of a universally loved product and the easy wins of social media has knocked my confidence for good. A few Facebook ads doth not a marketer make, my friends.
In a way, I am glad I failed. I don’t think that history would be kind to me for turning something as exquisite, intelligent and radical as The Erotic Drawings into a scribbly best seller, posturing on the shelves at the Exclusive Books entrance alongside The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck. Commercially successful dissent? That’s not the kind of world I wish to leave behind.