Sunday, October 31, 2010

Advertising universities

In recent years more and more universities have taken to advertising themselves, ranging from the subtle such as railway station signs that tell us the suburb or town is "the home of the University of X" to the more in your face posters and billboards. I was a little taken aback the other week to discover a billboard for one university lurking under a bridge in Limehouse. You have to give the institution marks for ambition, if not quite for placing (the road under the bridge has been severed and although there's a nearby main road the board was against the traffic flow).

But however wild it may seem at the moment it's not yet reached the heights of some past institutions. Back in the days when I collected US comics I'd often come across 1960s & 1970s issues that contained adverts for the grandfather of aggressively marketed universities - LaSalle Extension University.

La Salle was a distance learning institutions founded in 1908 and lasted until 1982. More details about its rise and fall can be found at Boing Boing: LaSalle Extension University, snail-mail generations' University of Phoenix; suffice it to say it's the adverts that stand out to me the most.

Perhaps the most famous are the "Look who's smiling now!" set. These regularly appeared in magazines and the like in the post war period, telling of the success of one of the LaSalle graduates. The photograph might change with the ages but the message remained the same - here was a way to advance one's self through signing up to the university. The adverts appeared in many places, including those that even today you wouldn't expect to find universities advertising, such as comics. (That LaSalle advertised in comics is amazing in itself but it indicates one of two things. Either they were well ahead of almost every other advertiser in realising that even then comics were not just read by children but also by potential respondents. Or else they were trying to advertise to children to tell their parents. Given the tone of the adverts I'd incline towards the former as LaSalle were frequently ahead of the game.) LaSalle advertised elsewhere, even on matchboxes!

LaSalle also run some highly targeted adverts. To the right is one from a 1914 edition of the International Socialist Review. It's nicely targeted piece that knows the precise audience reading it and pitches explicitly to it. I find it hard to imagine the Open University ever running an advert like this!

Do adverts like this mean that LaSalle was an inherently left-wing institution? I doubt it. The next advert is not exactly left-wing after all!

This time the target is not the potential student themselves but rather bosses, telling them that the best way to deflect requests for wage increases was to direct their employees to LaSalle. It's a nice subtle trick, not dissimilar to adverts today that are designed to appeal to children to make them suggest the product to their parents.

Of course there were conventional pieces as well, such as this one advertising the university's home study law programme. This was the university's most popular programme but also the one that was ultimate LaSalle's downfall, as no state would accept a home study law programme as sufficient for qualifying to practice law. The Federal Trade Commission brought several actions and finally in 1980 LaSalle ended the degree before the university finally folded in 1982.

Still it left a legacy through its many graduates. As with many other distance learning institutions it did a lot to make university education accessible across society and in the era of segregation LaSalle provided a route to advancement for those to whom many conventional institutions' doors were closed. And the aggressive marketing practices have been picked up by other institutions around the world in an era where competition is ever fiercer.

You can see more adverts on Flickr at LaSalle Extension University ads.

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