Sports Nut

Those Weird College Ads

If you like our football team, you’ll love our chem labs full of Asian students.

College-football bowl season is a time for America’s top corporate sponsors to strut their stuff on a national stage. But it’s not just corporations like Gaylord Hotels, Meineke, and who plaster their names and logos all over our television screens. The 56 universities represented in this year’s bowlapalooza also have the chance to sell themselves to a national audience.

And no, they don’t let their football teams speak for themselves. America’s colleges and universities try to make an impression with “institutional spots”—trade parlance for the promotional television commercials they use to sell themselves. The ads typically run for 30 seconds during halftime. As state-school spokespersons are quick to point out, colleges don’t pay for the airtime—the slots are provided at no cost under most college-football television contracts.

The standard mise-en-scène of the institutional spot will be familiar to any dedicated college-sports watcher: campus greenery, one-on-one pedagogy, chemistry labs, black gowns and mortarboards, and laughing/hugging students of as many colors as possible. Those are just the ingredients, though. A survey of more than 30 of this year’s bowl ads reveals many different tactics for selling higher education.

Play up a campus landmark: The University of Georgia’s ad kicks off with a shot of a 220-year-old campus arch, then segues to the school’s research accomplishments—”Today, we’re leading in plant genomics!” The tagline: “The Archway to Excellence.” The winner in this department, though is Boise State’s “Beyond the Blue,” which points out that there’s more to the BSU experience than the football stadium’s famous blue turf. The university also rolls out the “Red Carpet” for prominent guest speakers and gives a “Green Light” to financial aid.

On Wisconsin Embrace the cult of Apple: Wisconsin’s spot offers a classic montage of campus scenes, smiling faces, and dancing students set to the school fight song. But don’t be so quick to dismiss the Badgers as too stodgy. The commercial reveals that the song—a beat-heavy “On Wisconsin” remix—is playing on a female student’s iPod.

Go international: To snag applicants who might be worried that Gainesville, Fla., isn’t cosmopolitan, the University of Florida plays up its global reach. Florida’s ad culminates with a professor arriving at an unnamed Asian airport. As he walks out of the gate, a man shouts to him; the subtitle says, “Go Gators!” TCU’s ad promises potential applicants that they won’t be stuck in Fort Worth, Texas, for the rest of their lives: “I applied what I learned here at my internship with NBC in London!”

Play to adolescent self-centeredness: At Penn State, “It’s Your Time!” As a series of placards held up by a diverse cast puts it, it’s also “Your Love,” “Your Choice,” “Your Friends,” and “Your Future.” (Even if it is Dad’s money.) Oregon prefers to ask the big questions: “Why do you work so hard? What message are you sending the world? What legacy do you want to leave?” The University of Southern Mississippi, though, wins the Ayn Rand Memorial Self-Actualization Award. What do a pensive painter, a guy in a library, and a woman at a computer have in common? “The courage to think for themselves and a university that fosters it. Southern Miss: Freeing the power of the individual.”

Turn negatives into positives: Concerned you’ll be lost in the crowd at a big state school? “UCLA is big,” the spot concedes. But don’t let that worry you: “Nobody at UCLA keeps score on who you are,” says a guy standing on an outdoor basketball court. “They just want to see what you do.”

War Eagle! Encourage alumni networking: USC’s stirring, sepia-toned Rose Bowl ad opts for the time-tested approach of listing famous alums: John Wayne, Neil Armstrong, George Lucas, Marilyn Horne—and Paul Orfalea. In Auburn’s ad, two alums brighten up a crappy day at the airport by sharing a spirited “War Eagle!” chant. Viewers are invited to send in their own War Eagle moments.

Trim the fat: The University of Toledo’s minimalist ad leaves out almost everything—buildings, people, even cameras. On a plain blue screen (and accompanied by what sounds like a Collective Soul outtake), letters dance around to form phrases that contain the highlighted letters “UT.” The lines vary from specific and meaningful—”A Reputation of Excellence” and “A Beautiful Campus”—to the vaguely Dada—”Impressive Outcomes” and “Career Clout.”

Bait the Ivy League: “Two years ago, the University of Alabama won another national championship, with more USA Today Academic All-Americans than any other school. Harvard was second,” beams the SEC school’s promotional spot. “Now the 2005 results are in, finding the University of Alabama again leading the nation. Do I hear dynasty?” When questioned about the budding academic rivalry, a Harvard spokesperson told me, “There is no response available.”

Adopt the language of debt-consolidation commercials: “If you got the brains, but not the bucks, the door’s open,” says the University of Virginia, plugging its AccessUVa financial-aid program. “Can’t afford it? Now you can. Worried about debt? Not anymore. Don’t feel welcome? Sure you will!”

Think You Know FSU? Sell the nerds: Virginia Tech’s ad depicts Blacksburg as the kind of place where you’ll be hoisted up by a cheering throng while wearing a lab coat and holding an Erlenmeyer flask. “Think you know Florida State University?” asks Dr. Greg Boebinger, director of the school’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. The spot goes on to re-educate those who perceive FSU as little more than a haven for over-age quarterbacks and unintelligible coaches. There’s the 900MHz Ultra Wide Bore magnet, too! It’s “an unrivaled scientific marvel that’s yielding important discoveries in chemical and biomedical research,” beams Boebinger.

Do damage control: A diverse group of students recites the campus creed: “At the University of Colorado, we act with honor, integrity, and accountability in … interactions with students, faculty, and staff.” The honor and integrity of the school’s football recruiting techniques are not mentioned.

Disclose divine nature of admissions committee: The season’s most memorable institutional spot won’t be playing during a bowl game. Notre Dame will introduce a new ad for the Fiesta Bowl, but the school will have a tough time encapsulating the smug Golden Domer attitude any better than it does in “Candle.” A girl lights candles at her church, ostensibly for many years, until a thick letter arrives from the Notre Dame admissions office. A glance to the skies confirms just who’s responsible for her shot at a “higher education.” Prayer for personal triumph: It’s not just for end zone celebrations anymore.