When bad advertising happens to good universities

Tips on making your marketing dollars count

Some colleges and universities don’t need to market themselves to prospective students. Names like Harvard, Princeton and Stanford are the academic equivalent of Rolex, Tiffany and Mercedes. Other schools don’t have it so good.

So more of them are advertising these days. But some, paradoxically, seem to do it without much use of what is presumably their stock in trade: expert knowledge.

Case in point

In January, a rural state university ran a full-page, four-color display ad in the Sunday print edition of a big city daily. The ad announced a cut in tuition charges for the next freshman class. The tab for running this kind of ad one time is almost $15,000. One wonders why the university spent this kind of money on an ad that in so many ways displayed a lack of the most elementary marketing knowledge.

Let’s take a look at some of the problems with the ad.

  1. The main point of the ad, the price cut, was not in the headline but appeared half-way down the page. But if an ad’s headline doesn’t grab you, you’ll never read anything else.
  2. The large-type headline was just the name of the school. Such a headline will attract only the tiny percentage of readers already interested in a not-very-prominent, out-of-town university.
  3. The theme of the ad was the school’s three “New Year’s resolutions.” But two of the three were promises just to “continue to” do what it said it was already doing—even though resolutions are usually thought of as commitments to do something new or better.
  4. Price cuts are widely used by manufacturers and retailers to attract trade, but the university’s was a trifling 3 percent. No business would advertise a price reduction of less than 10 percent. That doesn’t even pay sales tax anymore.
  5. Two other “resolutions” were vague, unsupported boasts. Promising to continue to provide “premier academic programs,” the school failed to define either what “premier” programs are or how it would continue to provide them. The school also resolved to continue to be “the best” in its part of the country. But it neglected to say what it was the best at and by what data or whose judgment the superlative was warranted.
  6. Every one of the ad copy’s six sentences ended with an exclamation point. The university’s enthusiasm for itself, it seems, could hardly be contained.
  7. Five uncompelling photos pictured campus life, none with captions, which could have been used to make a point.
  8. The colors of the type and background were the school colors rather than colors that would attract the most attention and enhance readability.
  9. The ad “asked for the order,” concluding with the exhortation to “Apply today.” But what university expects a student to apply for admission to a lesser-known school in an out-of-the-way location based solely on skimpy information such as this ad provided?

Missed opportunity

Surprisingly, the advertiser is a university with a lot going for it that the ad was mystifyingly silent about. The campus has an advantageous student-to-faculty ratio, with full-timers teaching almost all classes. U.S. News, The Princeton Review and others have given the school good ratings. The school guarantees that none of its charges will increase during an undergraduate’s four-year career. And it has extended to all U.S. students the lower rate normally offered only to in-state residents.

One suspects this university was simply the victim of a lazy or inexpert advertising agency. Other schools have also run inept advertising, suffering similarly from marketing malpractice.

Everything a higher ed institution does says something about how well it fulfills its mission as a center of intellect and expertise. Even in universities’ newer activity in advertising, that reality may be worth keeping in mind.

John L. Gann is president of Chicago-area-based Gann Associates, and consults, trains and writes on marketing. He is author of The Third Lifetime Place: A New Economic Opportunity for College Towns.


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