Is All Publicity Good?

We have made it. Many theatre traditionalists were worried that the art of theatre would be dead by now. But we have made it through this difficult time. The incident, dubbed Phone-gate, when a Hand to God audience member jumped up on stage to charge his phone in one of the outlets in the scenery is now exactly a month ago. We made it through! So what has happened in the last month?


The theatre industry has not stopped talking about mobile phones since this incident. Legendary, anti-technologist Patti LuPone has hit out at cell phone users at her current show Show for Days. Actors and actresses from all over the world have weighed in on the terrible behaviour of audience members. Theatre traditionalists have been heating up social media with rants about abominable behaviour in the theatre. And there have been a number of other highly publicised incidents – including the most recent one when Benedict Cumberbatch hit out at viewers recording his performance in Hamlet.

Well, if there were any audience members who were not going to the theatre because they were afraid they would obliviously break a sacred theatre rule, I don’t think they even ventured into the theatre this month!

It is worth pointing out that no-one has actually thought about incorporating these electronic devices into the experience. Every commentator appears to have jumped on the draconian bandwagon with suggestions to check mobile phones before audiences enter the theatre unless you are a surgeon. But I will leave any controversial pro-mobile phone discussion for another time!

What I want to focus on is the old public relations motto. ‘All Publicity is Good Publicity’.

Hand to God has received a lot of publicity in the last month. First, there was the coverage of the incident. Then, there was the heated debate over the behaviour across multiple media outlets. After that came the press conference when the young offender apologised to the media. And finally, there was the speculation that the entire situation was a hoax organised by the Hand to God marketing team for a bit of extra publicity.

None of these stories are particularly good publicity for the show. If anything, they have resulted in plenty of commentary criticising theatre audiences and describing their behaviour in a very unflattering light. And then there are the assertions of guerrilla marketing. So can all this publicity actually be counted as good publicity?

The short answer? No.

Before the incident, the number of tickets sold at Hand to God was sitting around the low 70%. Not great, but not condemning either. This show has a lot of tough competition and it is only going to get tougher as some big shows muscle in on the existing audiences.

Did much change after the incident? Not really. The show is still sitting around the low 70% and the last couple of weeks have actually seen a drop in the average price of the ticket which says that the audiences are becoming even more bargain hungry rather than paying the full price.

This very slight drop probably isn’t as a result of the bad publicity. Overtime, the grosses of shows do peter out as new, bright and shiny shows enter the market (unless your show’s name is The Book of Mormon). While the bad publicity certainly didn’t help the show, it also didn’t hurt it tremendously either.

So, as for the phrase ‘All Publicity is Good Publicity’ . . . That myth has been busted. At least in this case.