When Bad Advertising Happens to Good Universities: Tips on Making Your Marketing Dollars Count

By Gann, John L., Jr. | University Business, March 2016 | Go to article overview

When Bad Advertising Happens to Good Universities: Tips on Making Your Marketing Dollars Count


Gann, John L., Jr., University Business


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. …

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