Joy of Painting was a beloved show that ran on PBS in America from the beginning of 1983 until May 1994. The show was half an hour long, and every episode had the host Bob Ross painting a landscape from start to finish. As he painted, he talked the audience through the process; his gentle, soothing voice turning what might have been an otherwise daunting prospect into a relaxing and seemingly doable endeavour.
The show won three Emmy awards by the time it finally finished its run, and it had a huge effect on the audience—kids like me—who grew up watching it. It’s only just occurred to me, though, that Joy of Painting might just be one of the best examples of content marketing out there. Given that the show debuted before the age of the Internet, and before content marketing became a bandwagon that businesses were keen to jump onto, this is even cooler.
I didn’t know until recently that Bob Ross hosted Joy of Painting for free.
According to Two Inch Brush, Ross went into the show fully intending to use it as an advertisement for his line of art products—not in an infomercial sort of way, though. His idea was that people would watch the show to enjoy it, and to learn how to paint, but that by following along with Ross’s work they would be naturally inclined to use the same materials he was using in order to replicate the kind of results he was getting on the show.
If you’re familiar with content marketing, is exactly how it’s supposed to work!
Lots of businesses, particularly those who are new to content marketing, tend to treat the content they make as commercials for products or services they hope to sell. The problem is that if your content tries to give your audience a hard sell, then there’s no real difference between what you’ve made, and a commercial. Plus your audience grows wary of anything else you might have to say.
If you watch Joy of Painting, Ross never comes across as a shill for the art products he’s using. He’ll mention them, but in a casual sort of way. As if he wants the audience to know what he’s using, so that they can use it if they want to.
I personally believe he genuinely wanted to help people learn to paint. The show is focused on technique, on learning, and on providing value to the audience. It’s primary goal is to be engaging. And engaging it was. And is. The man’s an icon.
Putting the audience first, then, meant that the show grew. The more people it reached, and the more exposure it gained, the more people who would hear Ross mention the kind of brush he was using, or the exact kind of paint he recommended for a particular landscape. And while not everyone who watched the show would go out and buy those things, enough people would that the show helped Ross build his brand, and sell his product.
The key takeaway from looking at Joy of Painting as a marketing example is that its message is so subtle that the audience doesn’t even notice it. It’s almost like subliminal messaging, because people who are so focused on duplicating Ross’s technique may not even be aware that they’re being told to go buy a certain kind of paint. That is what made the show so successful as marketing. It put the content, and the audience, first. It grew their interest, and then their trust. Those who trusted Ross would listen to his advice—it was as simple as that—and sales grew from there.
It’s a brilliant example of an art form that many have attempted, but very few have truly mastered.1