It is the second night of the New York City Burlesque Festival and the bouncer is turning people away from the sold-out show, apologetically. A dejected crowd huddles around the door, not sure what to do with themselves; the industrial block in this desolate neighborhood of Brooklyn is otherwise dark. There is not another bar or nightclub in sight. Inside, women wearing little more than corsets, tattoos and fake eyelashes are lounging on the '70s-era furniture sipping cans of PBR, while in the main room, a cavernous space with a 450-square-foot stage, the MC, a six-foot-tall man in a metallic blue bunny costume, is offering-slash-threatening to pour Jägermeister on the front row. To the unsuspecting, even the very prominent sponsorships seem like part of the subculture.
Jen Gapay of Thirsty Girl Productions, who founded the Burlesque Festival seven years ago, knows how to appeal to a demographic averse to advertising. Before starting Thirsty Girl, Gapay worked as the promotions director at the Village Voice, New York's legendary free weekly, where she created and produced the Siren Music Festival, a rock concert that continues, nine years later, to draw crowds to Coney Island each July. Lured by their favorite bands and the more "authentic" (aka dirty) alternative to gentrified Williamsburg, where most of them probably live, they don't seem to mind the Budweiser signs surrounding the stage, and are perfectly willing to wear neon-colored sunglasses inscribed with the Madewell logo (J. Crew's little sister).
The burlesque scene in New York is not one that immediately lends itself to talk of media kits and corporate sponsorships. It's a rambunctious, irreverent community that still feels underground despite its growing ubiquity. Some of the best shows take place in less-than-glamorous bars and the performers have, if not completely abandoned, at least modified, the classic bump n' grind routine; trading in feather boas and satin gloves for anything from neon body paint to Chewbacca suits. Gapay, with the help of co-founder and veteran performer Angie Pontani, nurtures this subculture successfully while still attracting major sponsorship. The "natural choice" for liquor sponsors, according to Gapay was pbr, to whom she was referred by media sponsor and former employer the Village Voice, and Jägermeister, with whom she has partnered for the infamous Greenwich Village Halloween Parade (another occasion where feather boas and Chewbacca costumes mingle naturally). Both sponsors were immediately on board.
"It was clear that the demographic of the attendees, and nature of the show, were a natural fit the Jägermeister brand image," says Kate Laufer, director of public relations at Sydney Frank, the company that imports Jäger. She describes the Jäger brand as one that is "known for supporting local talent, especially independent, free-minded individuals" and is "associated with fun." While they had not collaborated with pbr before, she thinks the partnership made sense since "their loyal consumers are similar to ours." After all, you need something to wash down that ice-cold shot, and what better than a cheap, watery can of beer? For PBR, whose growing popularity among urban hipsters is no secret, the event was a no-brainer. (And to be consistent with their hands-off approach to advertising, when asked to comment for this story, a rep said only that he hoped I had enjoyed the festival as much as he did.) The burden fell on Gapay to present the brands in a creative way that would work within the context of a cabaret show.
Gapay and her team wrote a series of "infomercials": a combination of old radio-style skits and songs in the "now a word from our sponsors"
vein. The show was "interrupted" between acts several times throughout the night by a "spokesman" who read from what sounded like a bad press release, and acted oblivious to the dozen nearly naked
ladies who danced around him pretending to swig Jäger and mock him as only ladies in pasties can do. In another "infomercial," a can of PBR was placed strategically in a dancer's sequined-string
bikini top to maximize, er, visability while the one-eyed Miss Astrid sang a mocking tribute to the iconic brand. You can't buy a
placement like that. Well, actually you can.
As it turns out, and not so surprisingly, most of the on-stage product placement had been planned and approved in advance. "We had free reign with PBR," says Gapay, "but all Jäger skits and song lyrics needed to be approved by the legal team at Sydney Frank." But this a live show, an uninhibited one at that, and the liquor was free-flowing (both brands provided complimentary beverages to all performers, and, most apparently, the giant electric blue bunny MC). After a couple hours, scripts tend to get blurry and even the most well-rehearsed production becomes subject to a little creative improvisation. Would Sydney Frank's legal team have approved the Blue Bunny simulating fellatio on the Mega Meister? "Admittedly, I did not personally see him," says Laufer. While they are "still awaiting event specifics" before deciding, Laufer was pleased that they "received great exposure [no pun intended] that reinforced the off-beat, passionate nature of Jägermeister." Off-beat is certainly one way to describe it.