UW Professors Examine Long Marketing Life of the ‘Oz’ Myth

UW News

Little did anyone know that when L. Frank Baum wrote the classic book “The Wonderful World of Oz” — which, in turn, produced the worldwide phenomenal film “The Wizard of Oz” — the Oz name would still be wildly popular nearly 120 years later.

Baum’s book spawned a highly successful 1902 musical, the Judy Garland classic film, Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel “Wicked” and the 2003 Broadway musical “Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz.”

It seems that the Oz myth is the gift that keeps on giving.

Not only is it the most performed narrative in American history — stretching from 1900 to the present day — but it keeps on reinventing itself to new times and new audiences. How exactly does it do so?

That is the major focus of the book “The Road to Wicked: The Marketing and Consumption of Oz from L. Frank Baum to Broadway,” written by University of Wyoming professors Kent Drummond, Susan Aronstein and Terri Rittenburg. The book was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Drummond is an associate dean in the College of Business, Aronstein is an English professor, and Rittenburg is a professor emeritus of management and marketing.

Even though the more than 300-page publication is an academic book that delves into marketing practices, Drummond says the book will be of interest to the public — just because of the connection to the Oz name.

“The minute we told people we were writing a book about Oz, they would smile. This story has immediate recognition across all age groups. Older consumers recall gathering around a neighbor’s color television set once a year to watch the classic film ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” Drummond says. “We were all terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West — not to mention the flying monkeys. Younger consumers are drawn to newer retellings of Oz, such as the Broadway blockbuster ‘Wicked’ and the box-office smash ‘Oz, The Great and Powerful.’ The lifespan of this story is never-ending.”

A flying monkey graces the cover of the professors’ book.

The authors will give a public reading of “The Road to Wicked” at Coe Library Thursday, Nov. 29, from 4-5 p.m. Copies of the book will be available for purchase during the free public event.

As the three UW professors describe it, the book was born “on a balmy summer night in New York City in 2013.” They were passing the famed Gershwin Theatre late in the evening when a rush of theater patrons came out the front doors, excitedly discussing the stage production of “Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz.”

They noticed some were wearing tiaras, others dressed in green, and they even spotted a few sporting ruby red slippers. That got them thinking: How has Oz resonated so well through generations, and how many times can different versions of Baum’s original book be told through different platforms?

The three professors’ book examines the long life of the Oz myth through the marketing machinery and the consumption patterns that have made its sustainability possible. Drawing on the fields of marketing, literary and cultural studies, and remediation theory, the authors examine key adaptations of Baum’s original publication.

“For me, the biggest surprise was Baum himself. He wasn’t the impractical ‘dreamer of Oz’ we see in television movies,” Aronstein says. “Rather, he was an astute and savvy pioneer in the newly professionalized marketing field, and he used his experience to market and brand ‘Oz.’”

Examples include the much-loved 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz”; the groundbreaking 1970s musical “The Wiz”; and the record-breaking Broadway production of “Wicked.”

The three UW professors supplement their analysis of “Wicked” with dozens of revealing interviews from consumers and producers who explain the show’s hypnotic power.

In the book’s concluding chapter, the authors offer a foundational framework for a new theory of cultural sustainability based on the ever-evolving trajectory of the Oz myth.

“There is a lot of research into the dimensions of environmental sustainability and economic sustainability, but less examining social sustainability and cultural sustainability,” Rittenburg explains. “As we began to explore consumers’ experiences with the Oz stories, the concept of cultural sustainability emerged as a natural fit with the findings we had from our study.”

They propose a set of conditions under which any artistic experience — or any service experience — may achieve it.

Jonathan Schroeder, the Kern Professor of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says the UW professors’ book makes an original contribution to interdisciplinary efforts to understand and theorize the growth of branded entertainment marketing.

“It should be useful to researchers and practitioners in a wide range of fields, as well as fans of Oz, Dorothy and her little dog, too,” Schroeder says. “It’s a wonderful book that offers an insightful and innovative case study of cultural sustainability — how stories like Oz stay popular over time, across cultures and reinvent themselves for new audiences.”

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