Saturday, September 18, 2010

What The Heck Are They Advertising?

There is something funny about advertising – if done correctly, it can galvanize people into reacting the way the advertiser wants; if done incorrectly, it can take down a product line or an entire company. The latter is rare, but Classic Coke is the perfect example of a product not living up to the hype of the campaign. I have been in this game in one form or another since 1971. A long, long time that doesn’t seem possible to me until I look in the mirror or see photos of myself. I have seen a lot of good and a lot of bad advertising in my day. I have produced a lot of good and a lot of bad advertising in my day. And I had thought I had seen almost everything when it comes to advertising prowess (or lack thereof).

I was wrong. Oh, so very, very wrong.

Commercials for colleges are a very tricky thing. They want you to know how strong an education your child will get if they go there, they want to show off the campus with the monolithic buildings and areas of peace and calm where students can escape the daily rigors of higher education and contemplate lifeforms living on a dust mote and whether we, too, are living on some dust mote in some other universe. Colleges want to show solid and long-term quality of education. These elements are what build trust. The last thing a college wants to show is weakness. A college doesn’t want to get on Playboy magazine’s list of the Top 10 Party Campuses in the nation. No. They want to show serious academic credentials and, in the case of the larger colleges, collegiate sports prowess. Preferably the college can show both. Watch a college football game to see what I am talking about.

Let’s travel to Middle Tennessee and an art college that has recently moved into a new building that has some wonderful features that make the campus green and inviting. I would have said high-tech, but it isn’t quite there yet; there are elements that have to be updated but won't be for a while. As part of the overall awareness campaign process, a new web site was launched, new swag was produced, and a new advertising campaign was launched. The web site is nice, although it has many grammatical and factual errors on it. (Not good for an institute of “higher learning”.) The swag, I’m sure, is of the highest quality. A recent tweet saying the people at this college really know how to party is a bit iffy when it comes to the message of how serious the college is about its curriculum and the education their students recieve. (I know the mentality, though....'we're an art college so we don't attract the typical student. This is what our students will think is "fly"'.) But it’s the TV commercial that has me – to use an old, granny-like term – flabbergasted. Proudly stated in this thirty-seconds of typographic mayhem is the fact that the college has a new faculty and a new curriculum.


Does this mean for the past 37 years their curriculum and faculty – gasp!— sucked? Does it mean that their awarded diplomas were given via inferior instruction and an inferior course of study? Does this mean that all the students over all the years were short-changed? I’m not even sure how this can be argued into positive positioning for the existing students and the parents of potential students.

“Hey! Up to now you’ve gotten sub-par coursework. We’re correcting that.” Nope. That doesn’t work.

“We did the best we could, but now we have good people in here to teach you. The other instructors were not as good as we wanted. The new instructors can handle the tougher courses we’re now teaching.” Nope. That doesn’t work.

A constantly evolving curriculum is expected and doesn’t need to be part of an advertising campaign. I expect that a medical university is going to continually update its coursework to meet the needs of a changing technology. I expect that an architectural curriculum would evolve to teach the most recent advances in the field. That goes without saying. Ohio State, Western Kentucky, Harvard, Bubba’s College of Hair Design…none of them ever, ever, ever would put a commercial on the air or information on their site that suggested their curriculum was inferior and needed to be changed. (OK, maybe Bubba’s would, but let's not focus on them.) By stating they have revamped their curriculum this college has stated they didn’t know what they were doing before. Even with all the award-winning, highly successful instructors they had teaching there. Even with the awards they proudly state their students have won over the years. If I were the competition, I would be jumping all over that college’s message and stealing students away by the droves. No matter how you slice it, an institute of higher learning spouting that it has a new faculty and a new curriculum does not engender confidence.

Colleges have a fine line to walk. They have to make parents feel confident their children will get the best education possible while making the potential student salivate to go there because of all the college has to offer. Confidence does not spring forth if you advertise the fact that you really, really screwed up - for almost four decades. It springs forth over the fact they have been around for that amount of time and they have been successfully growing to meet the students’ needs. I’m thinking this is what was trying to be stated, but it doesn’t come across that way. Not in the least.

Choices in words are critical when creating advertisements. One wrong word, one wrong inflection, one misspelling can tear an entire campaign down, whether it is in print, on-air or online. An idea might seem really ‘cool, yo!’ on the outset, but by taking a step back and looking at the message from all angles, you can catch glaring mistakes like this which can ultimately hurt the company you're trying to promote.