On Campus

Swallowing the college pill

Can a new advertising campaign make you choose college over university?

Recently, Colleges Ontario launched a very creative media campaign fronted by a fictional drug called Obay, marketed as the final solution for parents whose children are developing ideas of their own. The campaign itself is newsworthy, and was picked up by multiple media sources. But entirely aside from the creative elements, the very idea that Ontario’s colleges would feel a need to promote their message in this way suggests deeper questions about our priorities in education.

So we decided to go right to the source, and Linda Franklin, the president of Colleges Ontario (a trade association for public colleges), agreed to an interview on the subject.

Teaser ad (go on to next page for interview)

Maclean’s: This Obay campaign falls loosely under what might be termed guerrilla advertising, viral marketing, and similar. What prompted you to adopt this approach?

Linda Franklin: Well, it wasn’t initially our thinking, but we had done a lot of surveying in the last couple of years, and we also had a really extensive study done by a professor at Queen’s – Alan King – who looked at all the double cohort students, about 5,000 of them, and some really clear findings emerged. The top two of which are that kids are unduly influenced by their parents around their post-secondary choices, and that parents overwhelmingly direct their kids towards university. So we started to probe that further and we found that there are some heavily entrenched views about this and mostly they’re not rational. So when you ask people “Do you think colleges do a good job of educating?” they say “Absolutely!” “Do you think colleges provide a worthwhile experience?” It’s “Absolutely!” “Are there good careers coming out of college?” Parents say “Absolutely! But not for my kid.” […]

These are very entrenched views that people probably don’t understand very well themselves. So the first thing you’re going to have to do is cause a head snap. You’re going to have to cause people to stop in their tracks and say “What?!” so you can get them thinking about the real issue. So the genesis of the Obay campaign was to try to do that. To stop people in their tracks and have them say, “Oh my God, what’s going on? You don’t want to do mind control on your children, this is entirely inappropriate!” And then hopefully drag them into a debate or a discussion about how that perception plays out in a post-secondary context.

M: During the teaser part of the campaign, when you had the messages out there but without an explanation, that was already getting attention. There seemed to be a lot of speculation this was intended to be an attack on the pharmaceutical industry. Was that any part of your intention?

LF: Oh no, no more than the intention that it was a message from Scientology, which is also something that we got in huge numbers. Those two notions basically competed for most of the viewpoint about what was going on. But we got everything from the idea that it’s a trailer for an Adam Sandler movie to just about everything imaginable. So no, it wasn’t our intent, although it was certainly in our thinking that it was sort of a funny spoof on all the pharmaceutical advertising that’s out there now, with such a huge range of possible products. So it was a mild takeoff on that kind of campaigning, but not otherwise directed at them.

M: Given the theme of parental control, do you see any natural parallels between a desire to medicate children and attempts to control their decision-making?

LF: Well, no, we just don’t draw that parallel. For us, the idea that children should have a full range of options in front of them regarding education, and should discuss them with their parents, is entirely different from medication and the issues that go along with that. This campaign was just a handy way to start the dialogue, but it wasn’t meant to draw that connection.

Hoax revealed! (Interview continues on next page)

See all the Obay ads here.

M: Increasing levels of parental involvement in post-secondary education is a topical issue. Outside the specific thrust of the campaign, would you care to comment on this trend? Do you feel this is good, bad, neutral? Is it just something that’s happened as children become more dependent on their parents later in life?

LF: You know, I don’t know. I’m a Baby Boomer, so I understand this. I mean, I never let my kids go out on Halloween without standing at the bottom of the driveway, meanwhile my parents never knew where I was half the time, on Halloween or any other time. My parents were interested in the fact that I was going to university but I don’t think they could have answered three questions about my choices as I was going through them. We are, as a generation, much more heavily involved in that. I think it’s all very well intended, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with parents being concerned that their children are happy, healthy, have good careers, do the sorts of things they need to do to have good lives ahead of them, and so on. And I think that’s what the motivation for all of this is. I think the big challenge, though, is making sure that this wonderful and appropriate motivation doesn’t turn into the sorts of thing the Obay campaign is showing, where without any information, reacting only on gut, and without taking into consideration what your children’s aspirations are, you try to force them down a path that in fact may negate all your good intentions about seeing them have happy and fulfilled lives. […]

M: Do you think parents are just completely off base here, or are they simply operating under conceptions of post-secondary education that are thirty years out of date?

LF: I think it’s some of the latter. In our day, going to university was relatively rare. So the notion of your child getting to university was a very powerful one. So I think you’re right: a lot of this is a very outdated notion about the difference between not finishing high school and finishing a university degree, rather than the difference between just finishing high school and various choices about post-secondary education afterwards. And remember, too, for most of the Baby Boom generation we were born before community colleges even existed. I think for most of us, there’s this notion that community colleges are just about skilled training around apprenticeship. Frankly, there hasn’t been a real understanding of the range and breadth of what colleges have to offer today. And that’s partly the fault of colleges. So to some extent we have a job to do as well.

M: So if parental pressure aids universities, and costs colleges, do you believe to any extent that universities may be actually encouraging this? Are they inviting greater parental involvement to drive students in this direction?

LF: I think it’s a challenge for universities also. We hear a lot of stories about helicopter parents. Just the fact that we’ve titled them says that this is a pretty big phenomenon. I don’t think that’s helpful to the university system either. There’s a big challenge generally, about how parents interact with students at a time when they’re really going off on their own. But for us, it isn’t really about colleges or university. We don’t have any concern about parents who honestly and legitimately work with their children and decide that their best student experience, for them, is at university. We need to grow the post-secondary enrollment everywhere, so it’s not just about colleges. Our view is simply that it’s better when we’re doing it from an informed perspective. So we’re doing what’s right for the student. I’d expect that universities would share that view. […]

M: We’ve talked a lot about what you’re trying to get out to parents, and on the surface of the ads they certainly seem to be directed at parents. But with viral marketing as an approach – that’s a very young kind of advertising – and they’re almost all on transit, would it be fair to suggest that this is a message about parents that you’re trying to get to students?

LF: Absolutely. Ultimately we want there to be a dialogue. As a case in point, Anne Sado, the president of George Brown College, has two sons, and one of them came home one night and said, “Oh my God, you wouldn’t believe what I saw on the subway!” He was just railing about these Obay ads, and what do they mean? So she got to see, first-hand, what the impact of those ads was on students of that age range. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. We’re as pleased if students come home and say those things to their parents as we are if parents look at the ads and think, “That’s not right, what’s going on?” […]

M: So we’ve answered this already in several contexts, but do you think that too many students are choosing university as an automatic choice over college, with or without overt parental pressure? Or are you just trying to get more students into the post-secondary system generally?

LF: It’s a little of both. You do hear the stories quite often, from guidance counselors also. For example, I heard from one guidance counselor who found a college program that was beautifully suited for a student and they were all excited and the student came back the next day and said, “My father won’t let me go to college.” So there’s enough of that out there that I do think we need to fix that. […] And students spend two and three years in university and there’s a fairly high dropout rate in university, and some of that is just students who aren’t finding themselves in that environment. That’s something that needs to be addressed. But equally, from our perspective, we want more students to go on to post-secondary education. Fifty percent of students don’t go on past high school initially. Some of them come back to college later on. But we still have about thirty percent of the population that never goes on to post-secondary education. And frankly, in ten or twenty years from now, that’s not going to be a pretty picture for those students when they are out in the workforce. […]

M: Certainly you’ve mentioned some of this already, but would you care to comment on some of the other merits of college, as a potential direction for students?

LF: Oh sure! One of our college presidents likes to say, and I think it’s a good analogy, is that today we tend to think of post-secondary education as a kind of vertical hierarchy. University is at the top and if you can’t quite make that then you go to college. And if you can’t quite go to college then it’s apprenticeship. And if you can’t do that, well, go find yourself a job. Our view is that all of these avenues have great opportunities if you’re the right kind of person for them. So we’d like to see this as more of a horizontal plane, where students should try to figure out the best match for their skills and talents and interests. So, try to figure out what’s going to make you happy and what you want your lifestyle to be and then try to figure out the best place to go to achieve that. When you look at colleges, there’s such a huge range of things you can do. It’s a much more practical education. We find many students come from the more theoretical education of university and then come back to college, about ten percent of them now, to get a practical education, so we think there are lots and lots of people for whom this is a good, solid education that leads them someplace that creates a good lifestyle, and there are a lot of good job opportunities. Ninety-six percent of students are well-employed six months after graduation. Those are pretty good stats if you’re looking for a good job.

M: Other than viral ad campaigns, aimed at getting attention for this issue, what kinds of initiatives do you take to get more detailed information out there?

LF: Our hope, and so far it’s been successful, is that the advertising will direct students to the new website that we have, at www.ontariocolleges.ca. It has information about the choices students have at college, debunking some of the myths, and over time we’d like to build it into a much stronger career-planning tool that parents and students can use together. And so far, in the last eight days since the campaign was revealed, we’ve had 24,000 more hits on that site, the portion of the site for applications, than we had at the same time last year. So it’s making a big difference in terms of people looking at the information. In the longer haul – I mean you can’t do a campaign aimed at changing people’s minds and hearts for just six weeks – having seen the success of this phase, we’re going to have to sit down with the college presidents and say this needs to be long-term. We’re going to be running this for the next decade if we want to be really successful. So what are the next steps? We’ve gotten people’s attention, we’ve gotten that head snap, so now we need to keep their attention and keep the dialogue going and change some hearts and minds.

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