Just This

Inside Van Gogh’s Bedroom

Next week, The Art Institute of Chicago closes what has proved their most popular special exhibition in 15 years – Van Gogh’s Bedrooms. It’s hook is the convergence of three Van Gogh paintings that have never before been exhibited in one place. A potentially obscure conceit – this is not Van Gogh’s sunflowers, or any major career retrospective – the Art Institute has managed to elevate three versions of the same painting into a not-to-be-missed cultural experience, garnering national publicity with their innovative marketing and owning the local outdoor ad space.

And all of it has this marketing nerd totally geeking out.


I first noticed the campaign in a train ad at my home stop. So simple it could go completely unnoticed, it was nothing more than a classified ad with an SMS call to action (text Apartments to 970-00). If it did mention the Art Institute at all, it was in a small logo in the bottom corner. This version I found online doesn’t even appear to include that.

I couldn’t resist: I texted in immediately, mainly out of curiosity. I’d used a similar effort for a film release (and in fact, the same shortcode/SMS service!). Our objective was to get audiences to download an app that offered additional content while you watched the film. While our results were less stellar than the Van Gogh campaign, I felt I had a strong understanding of their goals, and I was super interested in seeing how it played out.

From the very first message, about the exhibit and Airbnb, I knew this was something special – mainly because it ended with the directive, “Write back.” So I did, with a simple “Cool.” “I think so,” came the reply. The reply?! I have never seen an SMS campaign take on such personality. They must’ve received hundreds of initial texts, and plenty of people who took them up on their suggestion to write back. Turns out, there was a 6-person team working on replies! (That links to a really great case study on the whole campaign, worth a read.) I enjoyed a couple fun exchanges with Vincent, usually along the lines of:


Shortly after the classified ads teased the campaign (and started more than a few interesting conversations, I’m sure), traditional advertisements started popping up around Chicago. It wasn’t long before you couldn’t ride a train or a bus or walk down the block without seeing an ad for the exhibit. Papering the city effectively turned the exhibit into the must-see event of the season. “Have you seen Van Gogh yet?” and “When are you going to see Van Gogh?”  became refrains at water coolers across town.

But the Institute (and their genius agency) weren’t done yet. The most ingenious part of this already-compelling plan launched last: an accurate, life-sized recreation of the room, bookable for a stay via Airbnb. Genius!

This last stunt is what really took the whole effort over the top, in the very best way. The press understandably ate it up, and those lucky enough to book a night apparently had a great time (check out those reviews!).

Even the exhibit’s website is clever, with an “Ask Vincent” advice column (who is this copywriter and how did they nail such a fantastic voice?!) and an interactive quiz to text your knowledge about all things Van Gogh.

What’s most incredible to me about this whole effort is the Art Institute’s willingness to have fun for fun’s sake. The wit and whimsy with which this campaign was executed undoubtedly sold more tickets – their main goal. But it did it in such a way that it wasn’t about “capturing the lead” or otherwise scrambling to get their message across. There is nothing pushy, nothing tacky. It was well planned, consistently on message and expertly implemented.

Oh, and the exhibit is pretty dang great, too.