Lessons Learned from Ballerinas on Social Media

Having trained in classical ballet from the age of three until I left for college, I have developed a deep fondness and respect for the elegance, athleticism, passion and discipline involved in the art of dance. As such, I can’t help but take note when ballet dancers appear on social media.

The rise of social media has opened doors for artists to infinitely expand their reach, delivering quality creative content on widely public platforms and creating audiences that would not have otherwise existed. It has also enabled the kind of advertising and marketing content that once appeared only on cable TV or billboards to go viral, multiplying impressions and reducing the need for companies to exhaust their ad budgets on the aforementioned mediums. While dance may seem like a very niche subject, the ballerinas occupying our news feeds these days offer relevant takeaways regarding businesses’ uses of social media.

Exhibit A: The Ballerina Project

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For fourteen years now, NYC-based photographer Dane Shitagi has dedicated his ongoing photo series to showcasing the strength and soul of the country’s professional ballet dancers. As social media materialized, Shitagi adopted all platforms through which he could exhibit this project, which now maintains a following on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest. The Ballerina Project currently boasts one of the largest audiences of the world’s ballet-related Facebook pages, and its more recent upsurge of Instagram popularity has garnered a good deal of positive press over this past year.

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Of course, other photographers and artists can benefit from Shitagi’s comprehensive social media strategy. But the Ballerina Project success story also demonstrates how social media creates opportunities for effective business collaboration. As the project’s social following took off, retail apparel brands began to team up with Shitagi, outfitting the ballerinas in his photos for the purpose of social media marketing. Activewear and high fashion labels alike appear in @mentions and hashtags of Instagrams in which stunning ballerinas don their brands’ clothing. And let’s not forget the exposure that these professional dancers gain from the series, their personal accounts tagged to pictures that broadcast their talent. With the Ballerina Project, social media has encouraged the worlds of photography, dance, and fashion to collide for a mutually beneficial, effective marketing effort.

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Exhibit B: Misty Copeland for Under Armour

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Anyone clued into the ballet world has heard of Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theater soloist. At the below-average height of 5’2”, and having begun ballet at the above-average age of 13, Copeland has an inspiringly unlikely success story—one on which Under Armour has now capitalized for its #IWILLWHATIWANT campaign. This past summer, UA released Copeland’s first commercial spot, which includes a voice-over reading of a ballet school rejection letter that Copeland actually received as a girl. Copeland’s UA sportswear provides limited coverage, allowing the camera work to highlight her insanely toned physique while she dances with the utmost power and athleticism against the defeating conclusion of the voice-over.

Sharing and discussion of the Copeland spot on social media outlets have since brought widespread attention to UA’s female-targeted campaign, which includes its own social web page for women to follow elite athletes and to connect with each other—the “I Will What I Want” fitness community has now amassed upwards of 88,000 followers. The ad, with its tone of female empowerment, also takes a strategic jab at athletic wear competitor Lululemon, which suffered a PR nightmare last year after its CEO blamed women’s body types for the sheerness and pilling problems customers found with the brand’s yoga pants. Ultimately, Under Armour understood that a powerful video clip is inherently suited for viral sharing, and after signing the right endorser and developing the right message at the right time, let social media pull the marketing weight.

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Exhibit C: Free People’s Flub

While Under Armour understood how to steer the rampant nature of social media in its favor, Free People let it spark a disastrous domino effect with a parody-bound video. In May, FP published an ad on its YouTube channel to market a new dancewear collection. The ad shows a pretty and thin young woman dancing around on pointe shoes, dressed in the line’s stylish warm-ups, voice-over narrating her passion for ballet. The problem? Free People hired a model to pose as a ballet dancer, outraging their target consumers.

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The model’s lack of technique or training is so horrifyingly apparent that even a non-dancer would probably find it laughable, and according to the storm of angry YouTube comments, people with dance experience took major offense to Free People’s lazy casting decision. Much of the discussion on social media involved concern about the dangers of dancing on pointe without proper training, as the camera work in the ad focuses on the model’s weak, sickled ankles.

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(Screenshots courtesy of this en-pointe buzzfeed post).

All and all, Free People’s poor marketing effort provided social media users, including world-class dancers, with plenty of ammo to publicly roast the brand. Parody videos sprung up on YouTube as part of the backlash, and a beautiful short film published on Vimeo demonstrates exactly what the FP ad should have looked like. Free People proved that social media has the multiplying power to make or break a marketing campaign; a company must understand and cater to its audience if it doesn’t want to suffer the latter result.

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8 comments

  1. Great post Emily! As a fellow dancer I am also obsessed with the Ballerina Project and stalk their Instagram on a regular basis. What I loved about the Misty Copeland ad was that they highlighted her struggles with a “non-perfect” ballerina body. At only 5’2, Misty Copeland is much shorter than the desired height of professional ballerina’s and yet in this Under Armour ad Copeland has shown her unbelievable skill. Under Armour was highlighting Copeland’s struggles, talent, and their overall brand. This is exactly where Free People messed up. They focused on their products instead of the ballerinas. I personally think they deserve the backlash they received.

    Another really good use of ballerinas in social media is the video the NYC ballet released to honor New York on 9/11. A really touching tribute that shows the resilience of the people of New York. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zMCxmdkcRY

  2. Such an awesome post, Emily! Along with you and Hannah, I have also been a dancer for 18 years and appreciate the significance of the ads as well. It is so wonderful to see brands such as Under Armour acknowledging the hard work and discipline of ballerinas and dedicating their digital and social media marketing efforts to the art and designing apparel for dancers. I, too, am extremely captivated and moved by Under Armour’s commercial. There is a definite trend in social media marketing, especially for athletic apparel companies, to always portray the athletes’ triumphs – their moments of total glory. I love this commercial because it displays disappointment and rejection, followed by extreme resilience and determination. The honesty on social platforms that at times can mask reality is refreshing!

  3. Really interesting post Emily! With regards to The Ballerina Project, I’m curious about the relationship that exists between Shitagi and the ballerinas. Do the ballerinas pay to be featured? If so, is this indicative of a trend we may begin to see? Where individuals can do freelance work for a client’s social media presence?

    Second, regarding Free People’s Flub– I watched the video before reading your comments about it and having had little exposure to ballet I personally wouldn’t have been able to guess that she was not a dancer. But the fact that it caught the attention of a segment of the audience who had a level of knowledge about ballet and then sparked a critical conversation surrounding the ad speaks to the power of collective knowledge and the challenges this poses for advertisers.

  4. Hey Emily! I also thought this was a great post. I saw ballerinas taking photos like these around Boston a few weeks ago, so I’m glad to now understand what was going on! Although I’m not a dancer myself, I love the concept of the Ballerina Project.

    As it relates to your post, I found Free People’s PR nightmare particular interesting. I feel like an unintended benefit of advertising on social media is that it “forces” companies to be more transparent, honest, up-front, etc. with their consumers. These days consumers, more than ever, are in the drivers seat – so companies that attempt to mislead them, will most likely bring more harm than good to their brand.

  5. Great post. I love ballet and try to attend class once a week in Brookline. When the Under Armour ad first came out, I watched it repeatedly as it was absolutely captivating. It was important to see a ballerina that was not the traditional body type or race but I was also thrilled to see a sports company advocate ballet as a sport in addition to a form of art. On the other hand Free People made the mistake of trying to create the illusion of a ballerina as hip and fashionable with no regard for technique or spirit.

  6. Emily, I really enjoyed this post. I love that you chose to write on something that connected with you on a personal level.

    What I found interesting is the way the Ballerina Project was noticed by brands and taken advantage of as a way to reach their target audience- people who are interested in ballet and who are likely dancers themselves. Not only is this an artistic use of social media, but it is a useful way to market products. Like the Misty Copeland commercial, there is a sense of authenticity with this type of branding where real ballerinas are willing to pair up with these comapnies to promote them. The dancers seeking to emulate these featured ballerinas are then going to be more encouraged to wear the same brands as them.

    The Free People faking it method may work just fine with those who don’t take dancing or ballet very seriously or just want to replicate the ballet look in a fashionable way. However, for those that can tell the entire story behind their commercial is false, it’s understandable that they would be turned off to this products.

  7. Really an enjoyable post, Emily! I particularly appreciated you provided a balanced report to illustrate the multiplying power of social media and gave very concrete supporting examples! I am not very familiar with ballet and wouldn’t have expected such blacklash people had on Free People’s commercial. Though I suppose such “not knowing your target audience” is a justifiable excuse for Free People especially when it meant to sell the dance wear to the dancers! Using models in the commercial may be fine to non-dancer but somehow break the authentic connection with the dancers, who really are its target consumers. Really a great takeaway for every social media marketers.

  8. Wow – I loved this post. No part of me could ever be as graceful or elegant as a ballerina, but the style of dance is incredibly inspiring. You brought up some awesome examples of how ballet is being showcased through social media. I am in absolute shock over the Free People video! There are so many things going wrong here. There is absolutely no good reason to have not used an actual ballerina for the video – they really missed out on a chance to penetrate another market as a result of their lack of authenticity. This is a great lesson to us all when making decisions regarding content for social media – creating an authentic voice and brand is absolutely imperative if your message and content is going to be spread to such a large scale.

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