Swans Commentary » swans.com October 19, 2009  



Weakness, Ineptitude, And Folly
Scientistic Sensationalism and Corporatized Clichés of University Game Day Television Ads


by Harvey E. Whitney, Jr.





(Swans - October 19, 2009)   'Tis the season for pigskin tosses, tailgating, and fall frolic. Those of us living in college towns intimately know what that means. Traffic to and from college football stadiums will choke roads; coeds will freely traverse campus greens and dorms with open containers of cheap beer; and restaurants and saloons closest to the stadiums will double their prices on game day.

I began this article with a play on a common Yuletide cliché which probably annoyed the reader: if anything, he or she would call the cliché or various formulations of it "uncreative." Yet it seems that on every college game day morning or afternoon, television networks besiege viewers with an assortment of uncreative, cliché ridden, college advertisements. These ads, which sell a particular contest's university or college participants, seem to go unnoticed not only for their lack of creativity but their often false or misleading claims.


Physics Equations, Test Tubes, and Robotic Arms

There is first the scientistic pitch in these ads: the university seeks to market itself as a beacon of science or scientific research. Usually the viewer will see a blackboard of physics equations, atomic structures, a student or professor writing such, or a student injecting or drawing fluid from a test tube or flask. Physics or chemical equations may be imposed on the video footage or running across it. Another scientistic image is the robotic arm or mechanism: the fruits of applied physics. The prominence of these images, either by the length of their duration in the ad or the number of instances they appear, gives the viewer the impression that the university is all or mostly about the hard sciences. Let's take a look at some sample videos from several football powers: the University of Tennessee, Georgia Institute of Technology, Florida State University, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Rutgers University, and Purdue University.

The narrator in the University of Tennessee ad begins talking about the perception of the school as a "fanatic" football Mecca but then suggests that it is much more. (1) Notice the images thereafter. The UT logo dissolves into shooting atomic spheres. The university wants to be perceived as a scientific institution as well as a football school, and the order of images suggests that physics, the branch of learning that deals with atoms, is the paradigm or highest form of knowledge. At best, this suggestion or intended message is a value judgment that is unsubstantiated. The atoms in the ad then change into a double helix (genetics and/or molecular biology). Afterwards, the narrator briefly promotes UT's forensics program.

So as a science powerhouse, how does the University of Tennessee rank among universities with strong physics, molecular biology, and forensics programs? I will use three ranking standards. According to the 2008 U.S. News and World Report's college rankings, the university ranks 76th out of 95 ranked universities for graduate study in physics. (2) There are more than 95 schools in the survey but not all of them are ranked. From the standpoint of graduate studies in physics, a 76 out of 95 rating among ranked schools certainly does not warrant being thought of as a physics powerhouse. At PhDs.org, a Web site that ranks graduate programs according to data from National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, and the National Center for Education Statistics, Tennessee ranks 112 out of 179 in physics: still mediocre. (3)

Let's observe Tennessee's rankings in molecular biology (4) and genetics. (5) U.S. News and World Report does not place Tennessee in its top ten for either subject. Tennessee is also absent from Science Watch's rankings of the top ten institutions in both molecular biology and genetics. (6) So much for being a major player in molecular biology and genetics. As far as the forensic sciences are concerned, this is a somewhat recent field that only a few universities have begun to add to their catalog of majors and there is just not enough data available to compile school rankings for this major.

So how do these findings reflect on Tennessee's promo which suggests that it has "made a name for" itself (i.e., "distinguished" itself in the sciences)? The claim or suggestion is at best unfounded: at worst, the deluded musings of a bad storyboard writer in the university's media services department. Of course not all universities have their own internal media departments: some will hire private media consulting firms to help craft their corporate image or brand. The University of Richmond, the current champion of the former NCAA Division 1-AA subdivision, reportedly spent in the late 1980s five to seven thousand dollars (7) on a study for changing its logo (8) and hired a Boston design firm to fashion the final choice, (9) which has been compared to everything from the Purina logo (10) to the Croatian coat of arms. (11)

The Georgia Tech ad (12) is straight out of the Terminator movie franchise: compare the robotic arm's design in the promo to that of a terminator arm. (13) At least the arm dances to the school's fight song and the writers should perhaps be applauded for their humor. (Imagine that: humor can actually be found at universities that are still weathering the contentious storms of the culture wars and political correctness!) But the school makes clear from the ad that it is all about science, engineering, and mechanics: you wouldn't believe that the school taught anything else. Tech actually does have a liberal arts curriculum (14) but its emphasis seems to involve connecting literature and history to technology: in other words, the human disciplines are only relevant if they are scientized or made to serve technophilic ends. What is rather interesting about Georgia Tech's School of Literature, Communication, and Culture (LCC) is the poverty of technical degrees held by its faculty. If the reader peruses the curricula vitae of the LCC faculty, most of the professors have only traditional English or comparative literature doctorates and yet a student can acquire a Bachelor of Science in this major. (15)

Florida State's promo discusses three attributes of its students: strength, skill, and character. I will only talk about skill and character here and ignore strength since this would only be relevant for athletic competition. The ad seems to suggest that skill only relates to science as we see the young lady in the promo holding a laboratory flask when the narrator's mention of skill occurs. What is misleading here is that if skill only relates to science or is an attribute of only scientists, what explains why Florida State's creative writing programs have excelled in recent years? (16) Writing is a valuable skill but you would never know that from the university's ad. And of course the real reason that most universities would not even dare using the success of their writing, English, or humanities disciplines to promote themselves at halftime during their football games is to cater to the chauvinistic perception that writing, English, the languages, and/or other humanistic disciplines are "feminine" subjects. Only the "masculine" subjects (e.g., physics, chemistry, and mathematics) sell: especially during an event that is historically male-dominated at most levels (from players, to coaches, to game announcers).

So what about the attribute of character that Florida State suggests uniquely identifies its students? There's probably no need to discuss Florida State's littered past of transgressions committed by its athletes but the most recent cheating scandal that throttled the athletic program certainly shows that either character is a much desired trait at the university or that some caution should be exercised in generalizing a specific moral quality for a group. (17) The hypocrisy of this is that the athletes involved were not expelled (they were suspended from games) whereas an ordinary student found cheating would have probably been promptly booted. While Florida State's policy on academic conduct (18) suggests that probation is one of several possible sanctions against the offending student or students, schools that have stricter, zero tolerance, honor codes (19) would undoubtedly see Florida State's probation sanction as too permissive.


Ostentatious Display of Gothic or Romanesque Campus Buildings and Infatuation with the Archaic

I have already written at length about the universities' infatuation with church bells and gargoyles in another place. (20) All that I want to add here is that universities have long showed off their gothic or Romanesque architecture of campus buildings in halftime television ads and hopes the viewer associates these images with some vague notion of prestige or pedigree. The first image in the Florida State ad is the Westcott Building, which has Romanesque elements (e.g., rounded archways for doors and windows). The voice in the ad says (as the image of the Westcott building appears) "for 150 years, the values of Florida State University remain unwavering. . ." (21)

Institutional incorporation is perhaps one of the most laughable aspects of university identity branding because the goal is to keep moving the university's date of incorporation back as far as possible to encourage the prospective student to associate the university's longevity with that same vague notion of prestige. Florida State was incorporated as Florida State in 1947 but its seal lists 1851 as the date of its beginning. (22) The problem is that Florida State was not known as Florida State in 1851; the institution that existed on its grounds in 1851 was not called Florida State. The problem is compounded by the fact that 1851 is the most recent date the university has settled on: a previous seal lists 1857 as the date of incorporation. (23) One wonders whether the university will settle on a date earlier than 1851 to give the public an even more exaggerated impression of its prestige. The problem with moving incorporation dates back is that the date a university is founded does not or should not be an indication of an institution's academic quality. Reed College is regarded as one of the nation's top liberal arts institutions and was founded in 1908; UCLA, a world-renowned public institution, was founded in 1919.

Rutgers University, an emerging football power for the last several years, immediately tells viewers of its ad that it was founded in 1766: before the first college football game was played. (24) But soon afterwards the viewer is bathed with images of science: there is Rutgers as the institution where scientists discovered the "breakthrough antibiotic" before there was a cure for tuberculosis. The question here is the odd insertion of the term "discovery" when discussing science. Is science essentially and/or exclusively a discipline of discovery? Or is it a more creative discipline that constructs knowledge by novel ways of appropriating already existing facts? Are facts independently "out there" in the world or are they merely occasions that satisfy our epistemological preferences and world views? The Rutgers ad is extremely problematic because it gives the impression that science strictly discovers facts (scientists also like constructing theories from facts) and that facts are also given independently of human interests and concerns.

Virginia Tech's promo uses the Romanesque imagery of its buildings as well as the natural scenery of the Shenandoah Valley region to sell itself as a pristine place far removed from urban ills such as poverty, gun violence, and pollution. (25) Homelessness is an issue in Blacksburg; (26) the Virginia Tech shootings were a clear indication of the presence of gun violence; and much of the town's electricity is coal fired, (27) which is obviously bad for the environment.


Image of the Approachable Professor and Small Student Faculty Ratios.

This image appears in the Rutgers ad I discussed above. The professor in the video is teaching hands-on to four students, and the viewer is left to assume that there are small class sizes and approachable professors. This image conflicts with the dirty reality that at least with public institutions like Rutgers, graduate assistants (28) and adjuncts (29) are assuming more of the university teaching load while tenured professors do research.


The University as the Exclusive Domain of "Ideas"

Universities like to see themselves exclusively as storehouses of ideas. Observe the Purdue ad here (30) where the narrator suggests that students come to the university to "encounter ideas." This suggests the long discredited educational model in which the student's mind is to be viewed as a "blank slate" or "empty vessel" to be imprinted upon or filled with knowledge from the universities. This raises the question of why we ought to consider the university to be the only place where ideas can be encountered or where anything useful can be learned.


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Notes (all links were valid as of October 6, 2009)

1.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMCAy0LRGtQ  (back)

2.  http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-physics-schools/rankings/page+4  (back)

3.  http://graduate-school.phds.org/rankings/physics/rank?w1=5&w7=5  (back)

4.  http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-biological-sciences-programs/molecular-biology  (back)

5.  http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-biological-sciences-programs/genetics  (back)

6.  http://sciencewatch.com/dr/sci/08/may25-08_4/  (back)

7.  http://collegian.richmond.edu/gsdl/collect/richcoll/index/assoc/19880128.dir/doc18.pdf  (back)

8.  http://collegian.richmond.edu/gsdl/collect/richcoll/index/assoc/19900906.dir/doc59.pdf  (back)

9.  http://collegian.richmond.edu/gsdl/collect/richcoll/index/assoc/19900906.dir/doc59.pdf  (back)

10.  http://collegian.richmond.edu/gsdl/collect/richcoll/index/assoc/20050922.dir/doc46.pdf  (back)

11.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Coat_of_arms_of_Croatia.svg  (back)

12.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMuKywDJ45c  (back)

13.  http://www.collectoybles.com.au/catalog/images/terminator_sideshow_endo_arm.jpg  (back)

14.  http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/people/fahttp:/www.lcc.gatech.edu/people/faculty.phpculty.php  (back)

15.  http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/people/faculty.php  (back)

16.  http://www.fsu.edu/news/2007/07/27/creative.writing/  (back)

17.  http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=3245751  (back)

18.  http://www.eng.fsu.edu/~peterson/fsuhc.html  (back)

19.  http://www.usma.edu/Cpme/SCPME_About/Honor/honor.htm  (back)

20.  http://www.the-vu.com/2009/05/bells-gargoyles-and-university/  (back)

21.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsKYQKbJkuY  (back)

22.  http://www.fsu.edu/.element/img/2.1/headerFSUSeal.gif  (back)

23.  http://www.fsu.edu/images/FSU_seal-medium.gif  (back)

24.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oy-_J8T-clw  (back)

25.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wojuKgIXYeg  (back)

26.  http://www.roanoke.com/news/nrv/wb/193424  (back)

27.  http://www.roanoke.com/news/nrv/wb/137412  (back)

28.  http://www.collegeguide.org/itemdetail.aspx?item=ebd19020-88b8-41cc-a67f-0df788f7bef5&page=3  (back)

29.  http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/11/12/adjunct  (back)

30.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggoZvJ5RvcI  (back)


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About the Author

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a PhD student in history at Florida State University. His main areas of concentration are the history of science, environmental history, intellectual history, the academic culture wars, and the relations between technology and culture. He also loves art and formally practices fine art and graphic design.



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Published October 19, 2009