The New York Times reports on corporations using college students as “‘brand ambassadors’ or ‘campus evangelists’”:
Companies from Microsoft on down are increasingly seeking out the big men and women on campus to influence their peers. The students most in demand are those who are popular — ones involved in athletics, music, fraternities or sororities. Thousands of Facebook friends help, too. What companies want are students with inside knowledge of school traditions and campus hotspots. In short, they want students with the cred to make brands seem cool, in ways that a TV or magazine ad never could.The Times article highlights a move-in-day crew of students wearing American Eagle t-shirts and a Hewlett-Packard student-rep who wears an HP shirt and sits with her HP laptop in a wi-fi spot.
What I find especially irksome about these corporate efforts is the way they exploit the decency and naiveté of young adults, few of whom would be willing to tell a fellow student, any student, to take a hike. The sighing response of a student who received help and merch from the American Eagle crew: “I’ll probably always remember it.”
More troubling to me though are advertising efforts that originate on campus. Electronic signage, mixing advertisements and announcements, is a recent collegiate innovation that threatens to make every sighted member of an academic community a member of a captive audience. Such signage comes with an assurance that alcohol, tobacco, and weapons will — of course — not be advertised. I find nothing reassuring about that assurance, because I conceive of a college campus as something close to a sacred space, set apart, dedicated to purposes above commerce. I would never object to advertising in a stadium (where I never have to set foot if I so choose). But the prospect of quads filled with glittering commercials is intolerable. And there’s no telling a sign to take a hike.
Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1999 about ads on university websites, former Indiana University president Thomas Ehrlich described his struggles with creeping commercialization. While president, he once “in a moment of weakness” approved a large sign for announcements and ads. It came down when “faculty and others howled.” Ehrlich’s conclusion:
Higher education is a calling, and its mission is to enhance society by teaching, research, and service. Colleges and universities have obligations, as well as opportunities, to strengthen the fabric of our society by stressing essential dimensions of life that are not commercial — in particular, the moral and civic responsibilities of every student, faculty member, and administrator on campus.Would that everyone in higher education saw it that way.
[The Chronicle piece is behind a paywall. Orange Crate Art, by the way, will always be an ad-free blog.]