Temple does not specialize in cola, running sneakers or wholesale Angus steaks. It sells students the promise of a good-to-great education, which is absolutely not something one should be buying at the recommendation of a billboard hovering over a freeway.
This football season, the Temple Made campaign has gone national. During Temple’s first away game against Notre Dame, a gigantic owl’s yellow eyes peered over Chicago from a billboard like a feathered T.J. Eckleburg, announcing that Temple’s “Owls have landed.”
According to the Inquirer, the university’s PR wing will be plastering their spirit animal’s feathered face on billboards across the country during the course of the next semester, prompting prospective freshmen and curious adults alike to track Temple down online while stuck in traffic on interstate highways. Passersby will be treated to slogans like the aforementioned, “The Owls have landed,” as well as catchy phrases like, “Owls on the prowl,” and “Owls: ready for anything.”
President Theobald recently told the Inquirer that “boosting the profile of athletics is key” in drumming up university support, an idea that not only seems incongruous with the university’s founding principles of affordable local education, but begs an interesting question: Can a marketing campaign truly transform the face of a university?
A college education is not an impulse buy at a supermarket. Prospective students don’t choose between Temple and Drexel like they choose between Pepsi and Coke before rushing home to catch the start of “Duck Dynasty.” Flooding national TV channels and interstate highways with advertising works for a company like Taco Bell because there isn’t much thought that goes into a $3 purchase of D-grade “ground beef” wrapped in an oversized Dorito.
In contrast, a college education is often one of the most expensive things a human being pays for in his or her lifetime. The process involves widespread planning over the course of an entire high school career, parental approval and the commitment of anywhere from a few thousand dollars to about $200,000, sometimes even more.
Americans aren’t going to be any more willing to sign up for three decades of student loan debt just because they saw Temple’s name jammed into their city’s skyline next to an ad for Hank’s Used Hyundai Emporium. That’s just not how the process works.
“I’d never heard of Temple before my guidance counselor told me to apply here,” Kyle Knouse, a junior chemistry major from the Harrisburg, Pa. area, said. “Even if I’d known about the school, I don’t think any commercial would have made me more excited to go here.”
The product Temple is selling hasn’t changed. It’s still only U.S. News and World Report’s 125th-best university, and it plummeted to No. 418 under Forbes Magazine’s 2013 ranking system. Temple’s class of 2017 may have set some modest new admission records, but according to Time Magazine, application numbers, enrollment and average SAT scores have been on the rise across the nation over the last decade, thanks in part to the online application process and better high school advising. It’s just the packaging that’s different, and when people are doing years of research into a product before they buy it, the packaging surely isn’t going to matter.
No program at Temple embodies this concept more than the football team.
In the words of advertising pioneer David Ogilvy, “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.” In 2012, Temple football rejoined the Big East, the major football conference that it had been kicked out of for being unequivocally horrible in 2004, only to watch some of the conference’s biggest powers, namely Rutgers and Louisville, walk right out the door for greener pastures and better television coverage.
Temple now sits in a conference only marginally stronger than the one it left, with the added bonus of being shafted by the very schools it thought it was worthy of playing. Temple’s only major bowl game was the inaugural Sugar Bowl, which occurred in 1935 when doctors were still prescribing cigarettes to their patients. The Owls lost.
The Temple Made campaign can’t change the 28-6 trouncing our football players received at the hands of Notre Dame during the first football game of the season, one of only two currently scheduled games against ranked opponents. Nor can it advertise away multiple charges of assault against players in the past two years.
Expensive yet vapid marketing campaigns simply don’t put fans in seats. Just ask the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh Pirates, Columbus Blue Jackets or even Philly’s own 76ers, all teams historically plagued by poor in-game performance, poor attendance, television blackouts and team relocation rumors. To this day, Phillies fans still only show up if the team’s on a hot streak. Advertising a terrible team just makes it suck even louder, and in Technicolor.
This isn’t to say that Owl football is currently abysmal. All things considered, this is most likely one of the best times in history to be a Temple football fan. But there just doesn’t seem to be a real reason to spend anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000 a year on advertising when the money could be put towards making Temple more affordable for people that really need the money, or at least improving our on-field athletic performance.
The Owls may have landed, but they’re certainly still stuck at the gate.
Jerry Iannelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jerryiannelli.