It turns out to be surprisingly easy to make an argument against the obvious. I oppose marketing the university as though it were like toothpaste. It seems exactly the opposite of what I spend my time doing, teaching students that life is complex and hard, to reduce to a few simple slogans. But here come the marketing gurus, with their positioning statements, brand characteristics, target audiences, and downloadable logos. I find this stuff so painful, they might as well be poking me in the eye with a chopstick.
The problem is that only a fool would argue that we don’t need the help. How else to explain the bulletin board opposite my office, a cacophonous mess of nonsensical messages and misguided slogans? My recent favourite is a colourful sign for an “interdisciplinary conference” titled “Clinical Debates in Evidence-Based Medicine”, surely one of the strangest designations in advertising history. Is there some alternative I should know about? Has my doctor been winging it all these years, relying on her natural wit to dismiss that growing patch of green skin on my forehead?
But I digress. It’s not that evidence-based medicine doesn’t make sense. So much of life just doesn’t lend itself to scientific study, so I imagine there are all sorts of effective medical procedures that grew out of experience. I mean, how do you gather evidence on choking? If a paramedic offers you a place in a double-blind study of the Heimlich manoeuvre, just make sure you don’t end up in the placebo group.
No, it’s all a question of marketing. If a whole conference of scholars—interdisciplinary, at that— couldn’t think of a term that didn’t imply my doctor stirs toenail clippings into vats of boiling garlic, then it’s about time to open the door to some advertising expertise.
Listen, I’m not blaming them— it’s not like I could do much better. I couldn’t come up with a direct statement on an intellectual subject to save my life. The conclusion to almost all my lectures is, “The situation was very complex.” At demonstrations, people yell “Tory! Tory! Tory!” and I shout back, “They have consistently adopted policies that are likely to shift the burden of recession onto the pocketbooks of the poor, who tend to spend more of their net income on locally-produced goods, which has a multiplier effect of greater proportion than tax breaks for the upper income brackets.” (Usually, by time I finish, the demonstration has packed up). When my six-year-old has a tantrum, I generally tell her that her grievance “is an expression of a particular social conjuncture.” Heck, I can’t even remember the exact words of standard proverbs, so I constantly confuse my family with this less-than-sage advice: “If you can’t stand the kitchen, get out of the kitchen.”
Well, these inconvenient truths make it somewhat difficult to marshal an evidence-based argument against marketing. But if my doctor taught me anything, it’s this: when all the evidence points in the wrong direction, you’re best to fall back on experience. Consider this: when I was 10, we invited my cousin Hollis to stay the weekend, and he still hadn’t left when I graduated from university. Sure, branding gurus could come up with something better than “evidence-based medicine,” but once we start downloading their logos, they’ll just never go away. Inviting input from marketers is the advertising equivalent of telling a sidewalk preacher that you’ve been thinking a lot about spirituality lately.
So forget the evidence, it’s a slippery slope. Pretty soon, these marketers will be sending us chain letters and forcing us to rap to our classes. It’s like I tell my six year old, “if you give ‘em an inch, they’ll take an inch.”
Steve Penfold is Academic Matters’ humour columnist. He moonlights as an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is The Donut: A Canadian History (University of Toronto Press, 2008).