Ear to the ground: Students wary of campus marketing

For marketers who set their sights on the much-sought-after 18- to 24-year-old crowd, the university campus is the ideal frontier. After all, where else can they find a captive audience that also happens to fit their target demographic so precisely?
Marketing activities vary from campus to campus, and can range from washroom advertising to sampling and event sponsorship. And while the presence of brands on school grounds may be on the rise, it's not necessarily acceptable to the target.

For marketers who set their sights on the much-sought-after 18- to 24-year-old crowd, the university campus is the ideal frontier. After all, where else can they find a captive audience that also happens to fit their target demographic so precisely?

Marketing activities vary from campus to campus, and can range from washroom advertising to sampling and event sponsorship. And while the presence of brands on school grounds may be on the rise, it’s not necessarily acceptable to the target.

According to Darren Cooney, VP of student affairs at Toronto’s Ryerson University, the majority of students may not care either way about advertising initiatives, but the minority that does is quite vocal. ‘Some campuses have voted ads off the campus, and we’re currently looking [at] whether or not to endorse that [action] at Ryerson,’ he says.

Part of the issue is that students are cynical about corporations, which they believe take advantage of cash-strapped universities, by using deep pockets to declare ‘open season’ on academic institutions, according to Stephen Wicary, a student at Ryerson who also attended Ontario’s University of Guelph for four years.

‘The amount of revenue gained from advertising contracts is miniscule compared to the costs associated with the sacrifice in scholastic integrity they entail,’ he says, adding that administrators need to look into the matter more seriously. ‘It’s still an issue to politically-minded students and those who believe an academic environment should be kept as pristine and free of commercial messages as possible.’

Ryan Kennedy, entertainment editor at The Ryersonian university newspaper, agrees. He also considers much of the on-campus advertising to be intrusive – it will often even turn him off a brand. ‘There’s such a thing as too much advertising, to the point where you just tune it out. It’s an annoyance and it’s taking up space that could have been used in creative ways.’

Of course, the message factors into how students respond. For example, a recent backlit billboard by Montreal-based agency Bos for Fido’s text messaging services depicted two students using mobiles to cheat during an exam. It caused a backlash at Ryerson, says Cooney. As a result, the student council is working on a screening process for future ads.

Meanwhile, Mary Guiao, VP of operations on the University of Toronto’s student administrative council, points out that companies would be better off if they approached students in a more respectful manner. For instance, instead of a credit card company enticing undergrads with a free CD, they’d be more successful if they actually spoke to them about their needs.

‘Students are not mechanical consumers that will buy things because people suggest them,’ she says. ‘[A product] needs to be practical for students, it’s not about spend, spend, spend.’

Be that as it may, not all are averse to on-campus marketing, especially when it involves giveaways or discounts, maintains Ryerson student Domini Clark.

‘I love getting free stuff, so I’m not about to complain about samples and incentives being given out on campuses,’ she says. ‘One could argue they’re exploiting young people who are playing carefree with their newfound independence and credit cards, but hey, if I can get cheap cable, magazines or whatever else, I’m happy.’