Last year, Utah television viewers began witnessing a new trend in higher education -- broadcast ads promoting colleges as a means to economic opportunity and personal enrichment. In the face of a looming budget crisis, three universities are investing in media campaigns to build enrollments or their public images.
Weber State University waded into the waters first with its "Get Into Weber" campaign, whose hallmark ad features actual students and faculty. It received generous prime-time airings on KSL Channel 5 during the Beijing Olympics. In one striking image, former theater student Ibsen Santos talks to a skull, enacting a famous scene from Shakespeare's "Hamlet." In a clever segue connecting the arts and sciences, the shot cuts to a classroom where zoology professor Ron Meyers shows his class a human skull. The goal: to point out career paths emanating from a Weber education, such as crime-scene investigation, stargazing and teaching.
Utah legislative and education leaders, such as Sen. Lyle Hillyard, a Logan Republican and member of the Executive Appropriations Committee, say they don't object to the media expenditures because the schools involved are exceeding private fundraising goals. And, they note, such ads promote the notion of higher education itself. While enrollments have spiked at some Utah schools, overall participation rates are trending downward.
"That's potentially an ominous sign for the economic vitality of the state," said Weber spokesman John Kowalewski. The school conceived its 30-second ad in-house and began airing it in the summer of 2007, paying between $150 and $4,300 for each spot on Salt Lake City stations. It was keyed with ads on UTA's moving billboards, which cost $5,535 to "wrap" three buses for a month.
"We crafted a message that appeals to many different demographics," Kowalewski said. "You want to be hip and cool for the high school set, but at the same time you want to appeal to prospective students already in the work force."
Utah State University and Utah Valley University likewise embraced the airwaves, while Southern Utah University and Snow College post their messages on UTA buses.
Everybody's doing it
Use of limited resources to brand public colleges was unheard of a decade ago, but is now ubiquitous nationally as institutions increasingly compete for students and faculty. The flagship University of Utah uses television to promote cultural and athletic events and specific units within the school. But it almost never pays for ads that position the institution or target prospective students.
"We haven't found it necessary since we don't have open enrollment," said Fred Esplin, associate vice president for institutional advancement. "We have considered doing it. In light of the tight financial times I'm not sure we could afford it. The value is it reinforces the nature and the image of the university."
But the U. has crafted a 30-second ad for national audiences who watch sports. The voice-over extols the U.'s world-class research environment, while a student toils in a lab then dons goggles to go enjoy Utah's world-class snow.
"Every time [Ute teams] are picked up on national TV you get a 30-second spot. You get a freebie at halftime," Esplin said.
Utah State's "A Higher Education" campaign was launched last month with the first of three ads that will be broadcast through the spring. The $79,000 campaign is timed to reach high schoolers as they're deciding where to go for college, said USU spokesman John DeVilbiss.
The initial ad is bookended by shots of the mountains circling the Cache Valley, identifying topographic elevation with the lofty aspirations of USU students and faculty.
"At Utah State University, we are enshrined by our mountains but we are enlivened by accomplishment. To help a child hear, to reach the stars.?To touch minds, to touch hearts and to reach that one step higher," says the voice-over narration, provided by NFL Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen, a 1961 USU graduate and Logan native.
Neither the land-grant institution's agricultural heritage nor the word Aggie appears in the ad, not even on the jersey of basketball All-American Jaycee Carroll. Athletic images, including the former Aggie guard as well as a pole vaulter, frame the ad, which highlights USU's technological and cultural achievements. (Aggie spirit and tradition are the themes of the two follow-up ads.)
"We have lots of institutions in Utah. We are increasing the number of universities at the same time the number of students are going down, so the pie is getting smaller," DeVilbiss said. "It's important to keep our market share. ... Television is an important way to do this. We would like to do a billboard campaign this spring."
While Weber and USU hope to build enrollment, Utah Valley University is using television to build awareness of its recent transition from a state college to a university with booming enrollment. The "It's Your University" campaign features on-camera appearances by community leaders, such as time-management guru Stephen Covey, health-care executive David Clark, and trustee Janette Hales Beckham. The business figures praise UVU's contributions to the local economy and quality of its education.