University advertising is necessary duck-facing

But a little truth wouldn't hurt, particularly when we are asking post-secondary students to make huge investments in time, money and hope

TORONTO, Ont. Dec. 28, 2016 / Troy Media / – What guy wouldn’t want to be the Marlboro Man?

Tall, square-jawed and ruggedly handsome, the Marlboro Man lives an unfiltered existence wrangling steers with a cigarette dangling coolly from the corner of his mouth.

The truth is different. That cowboy has yellow teeth and a smoker’s cough. He’s not the existential man living independently on the plains, he’s alone. The faraway look in his eyes as he lights another cigarette is regret.

No, most guys would rather not be the Marlboro Man if they saw the real thing in advertisements. That’s why, in Canada, we don’t allow cigarette companies to advertise anymore. They lie.

So do booze companies promising happiness to those who drink a little (a lot) more. Ditto with politicians who say only they can deliver a better future. (No, he won’t Make America Great Again.)

It’s the same with every advertiser, including universities and colleges. With more ways to learn becoming available, the questionable value of some degrees and fallow career prospects for many graduates, educational institutions must work double time to win the hearts and tuitions of future students. The result: hundreds of millions of dollars spent on manipulative advertisements.

The ads vary in quality but most show handsome, ethnically-diverse students having fun.

Some schools appeal to the ego. York University recently featured students speculating on how, in the future, they will change the world – inspiring sentiments all tucked under the egotistical tagline: “This is my time.”

Some schools tap into what’s fashionable, like the current hysteria for “innovation.” At the University of Ottawa, they urge students to “Defy the Conventional.” Does conventional mean full-time faculty and physical classrooms?

Other advertisements communicate nothing. Take, for example, Humber College’s perplexing tagline, “We are Humber.” What?

I cringe whenever I see one of these ads online, on public transit or in a theatre before watching an action movie. To me, viewing one of these ads is like looking at a photo of an attractive person whom I admire duck-facing (Ed.: selfie pose with lips compressed and cheeks sucked in) for the camera.

I can hear the response: “Hey, universities must sell themselves in today’s educational marketplace. Don’t pretend otherwise.”

Grudgingly, I agree. I need tuition-paying students in my classes as much as the next overworked sessional instructor. As with any online dating profile, schools need to show a little skin, create a little fantasy if they want to hook up.

This is the educational system we have created and so we live with it.

But can we have more honesty in educational advertising?

In the spirit of season, I offer these tag lines to interested schools, at no charge.

“It’s probably worth the debt.” Now that’s honest advertising.

Or how about these gems? Apply them to the school of your choice. “Be one among hundreds (in every class).” “Where A is the new C.” “No math? No problem.”

I like this one: “Your degree is what you make of it.”

The text of the advertisement might read:

“You can, if you want, earn a degree without trying. Many of your peers will.

“But if you want to learn, you must work hard. You will cry. You will doubt your decision to attend school.

“If you are one of the few who wants to learn, to understand the human experiment, you will discover the rich history of your country and the world, you will read the same great literature people wiser than you have read, you will consider the wisdom of philosophy and religion, you will marvel at the sciences, the music of mathematics and the truths of the world outside yourself.

“You might fail. You will probably learn from your failures and appreciate the friends you made at school who helped you get back up.

“And you might find that what you learn as an undergraduate does not become meaningful until you enter middle age. When that happens, you will say, ‘Yes, I am glad for the toil and tears of the real education I gave myself.’”

Because students shouldn’t want to be the Marlboro Man – they should just want the truth.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto. Robert is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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