Failures In Craft Marketing

Here is an anecdotal case study of how craft kits get it wrong and actually detract from the art experience:

This past Halloween, my ex wife hosted her annual pumpkin carving party for our five-year-old son and all his friends, and I helped as usual.

The party was the same format as previous years, but my ex-wife bought some pumpkin carving kits that were so flawed in both concept and execution that I find myself still thinking about them. In fact, the kits seem to epitomize what is wrong with most craft kits and craft products in general.

Traditional pumpkin carving is a great opportunity for ordinary people to work with their hands and make some art, and for many people it is probably be the only visual art they make the entire year. No special equipment is needed, and a person gets to make their own design. In my opinion, this is what makes pumpkin carving an important form of art, and I mean art in the highest sense of the word, Art with a capital A. Traditional pumpkin carving is also a great practical exercise in how to render personality and emotion with a few basic lines and shapes.

Contrast this with the pumpkin carving kits:

In order to appeal to the person buying the kits, the kits contained patterns for elaborate designs, designs that were impressive mostly because they were so elaborate, designs that ensured that most people using them would be totally focused on getting these professional results instead of self expression. The kit’s packaging featured pictures of pumpkins decorated with these over-the-top designs because that was their main purpose: to sell the kits.

Clearly these pumpkins had been carved by someone with an advanced experience level, and in all probability the professional artist who carved them needed several hours to do so, and probably needed more than a few practice pumpkins. From my own experience in art and manufacturing, I strongly suspect that several practice pumpkins were abandoned almost immediately due to early cuts that didn’t go as planned.

The pumpkin designs on the kit’s packaging included fine details that most people could not even sit down and draw much less carve. In fact, some of the designs were so filigree that you would have had to keep your pencil sharpened continuously just to be able to draw them. Think a lacy spiderweb spelling out “Happy Halloween” in the strands of the web. Some of the other designs were naturalistic renderings that required complex shapes be duplicated exactly for the image to look right. Think a light-and-shadow rendering of Boris Karloff’s face as Frankenstein.

So how did my ex-wife’s pumpkin carving party go? Exactly as I thought it would: Instead of getting to make their own designs and experience art, the children quickly became frustrated and annoyed and then required the help of all their parents, who also became frustrated and annoyed in varying degrees over time. Unlike previous years’ pumpkin carving parties, people could barely socialize because they had to do a task as intricate as threading a needle, and do it in fading outdoor light with impatient children looking on.

Of course, I tried to explain all this beforehand to my ex-wife, but like most husbands and ex-husbands, it doesn’t matter how many degrees or accomplishments we have. When we speak with our humble wives, we are all village idiots that don’t know anything. My two engineering degrees, a childhood spent in the mechanical and building trades, a lifetime of making art, a 13+ year stint running my own art supply business with all that entails in terms of consulting on school art projects and studying market trends, all of that was completely irrelevant.

At least it was until the party began…

I brought three pumpkins to the party. I didn’t even think about designs beforehand, I just made sure that what I carved used simple bold lines and no more detail than eyes and a mouth and maybe a nose. All of the expression was in the size and shape and spacing of these fundamental elements, yet each of my pumpkins distinctly conveyed the different emotion for which they could have been named: Scary, Scared and Silly.

Needless to say, I had finished all three of my pumpkins well before anyone else had made much if any progress at all on their pumpkin. I placed my pumpkins in a row near the edge of the snack table, and arranged them so that Silly appeared to be laughing at Scared, who appeared to be startled by Scary. Then I went around the patio and tried to help the demoralized children and the increasingly frustrated adults, some of whom were struggling not to cuss in front of the 5 and 6 year old children.

Meanwhile my ex-wife walked out with a tray of drinks and saw my pumpkins arranged in a row and said, “These are great! They look so good together like that. I told you the kits would be a good idea.”

Of course, she didn’t have to spend too many minutes out with the other parents on the patio before they had helped her revise her opinion of the kits, and that was before the cheap plastic handles started breaking on the cheap cutting tools. After that started happening, I think there was at least one or two parents who would have gladly lynched the creators of the pumpkin carving kits.

Yes, part of the problem was the fact that my ex-wife rather mindlessly selected a kit geared toward advanced designs and used it in an inappropriate social setting, but that only aggravated problems that already existed with the kits: The kits were about producing over-the-top results instead of experiencing a traditional art form in the way it had been experienced for generations. But even that statement does not adequately explain what was wrong. The kits were about PROMISING over-the-top results, but they were pretty weak in the delivery.

What disturbs me most about pumpkin carving kits is that all of its flaws seem to represent fairly prevalent trends in craft kits as a whole:

  • A strong emphasis on packaging and presentation.
  • Cheaply made tools and materials, sometimes so poorly made that they probably cost the manufacturer less than the packaging and presentation elements.
  • An emphasis on professional-looking results instead of an emphasis on the design process or the art experience or what could be learned in doing the project.
  • Encourage users to copy expertly made prototypes instead of making their own designs.
  • Kits more designed to be sold than used.
  • A complete disregard for what negative impacts the kit might have on traditional crafts, art education, the art experience, etc.
  • Use of designs that are cutesy or calculated to appeal to the overly competitive host. Think of pumpkins carved with words to show off what a clever homemaker you are instead of jack-o-lantern faces.

One way the pumpkin carving kits differ from what I’ve seen in other craft kits is that these other craft kits increasing try to make things easy or foolproof by eliminating most of the actual work. As if eliminating the design process weren’t enough, many kits try to eliminate the potential for failure by eliminating most of the activity of making the project. Instead of having the user do the different manufacturing processes, these type kits usually have things pre-painted or pre-wired or pre-whatevered, and all the end user does is snap things together. In fact, there are craft kits you can buy where I suppose unwrapping the kit and checking the materials would take more time than assembling the kit.

I guess that is nice if your goal was merely to possess the end product, but not very nice if you actually wanted to learn very much about woodworking or weaving or whatever type of craft it was supposed to be about. At least I can say that for the pumpkin kits my ex-wife picked out: they left you plenty of work to do, and you were free to fail from the get go.

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