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Slate's Sports: Rating College TV Ads

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

If you watch the upcoming Rose Bowl game or any other college football bowl game this week, you're going to see a TV ad, or maybe two, for the colleges playing in the game. These ads--they've got lots of shots of shiny, clean classrooms and sunlit campuses and diverse groups of students. Here's one.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Man #1: UCLA does more than pass out knowledge.

Unidentified Man #2: They create it.

Unidentified Man #3: Nobody at UCLA keeps score on who you are. They just want to see what you do.

CHADWICK: These ads are called institutional spots and the television contract signed by the schools generally give them the air time for free to boast about themselves. To see how colleges are using that air time, we turn to Mike DeBonnis. His article titled If You Like Our Football Team, You'll Love Our Chem Labs Full of Asian Students ran in the online magazine Slate.

Mike, what are the colleges trying to sell with these institutional spots?

Mr. MIKE DeBONNIS (Washington City Paper): Oh, all sorts of things, Alex. Clearly the first thing that pops to mind is to prospective students. They want to get some applications coming in to the admissions office. But that's only one of several audiences for these. Alumni--trying to let the alumni know the latest things that are happening at the college. And it's just also just like any other product. One thing the marketing directors that I talked to for this article said that in a lot of cases, it's about branding, which is, you know, a word you'll hear plenty of marketing consultants talk about when you're selling any other product, but it goes for colleges too.

CHADWICK: You write about a number of distinct styles for these ads. We have the campus landmark spot and the famous alumni spot. But one interesting style is the `you'll become a member of a lifelong club' spot. This is from the University of Florida.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Man #3: There is no bond stronger than the one formed when you become a member of the Gator nation.

CHADWICK: Mike, what is the strategy here? You're always going to have someone to cheer with at the local bar when you're watching the game?

Mr. DeBONNIS: Yes, and even if you're walking out of an airport somewhere in Asia, someone will be there to call `Go Gators' to you in a foreign language you may or may not understand. I think that was one of the objectives of that ad. Another one was to play up the University of Florida's global reach, so to say. So I think that's pretty appealing to someone who might think, `You know, here's the University of Florida. When I think of the University of Florida I think of football. I think cheerleaders. Once in a while they have a good basketball team.' And, you know, maybe now you'll `Hey, they've got a great international reputation.'

CHADWICK: Speaking of reputation, here's this pitch from the University of Colorado.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Woman: At the University of Colorado we act with honor...

Unidentified Man #5: ...integrity and accountability.

Unidentified Woman: In my interaction...

CHADWICK: So there it is, the University of Colorado touting honor, integrity and accountability and...

Mr. DeBONNIS: ...and most people who aren't very big sports fans but are just kind of news dilettantes might know the University of Colorado from their football recruiting scandal of two years ago. Just to explain what happened, the football team was accused of plying the recruits with alcohol, women and all sorts of other unsavory activities and it got a lot of press. And, you know, I should preface this by saying I talked to no one in the Colorado administration who said that this commercial was directly intended to rebut those concerns, but you can pretty much read between the lines. When they're reciting their campus creed about accountability, honor and integrity as saying, `You know, don't believe everything you've read in the papers. This is just an isolated incident.'

CHADWICK: Finally, Mike, we have an ad from Notre Dame called "Candle." It may be the first of its kind pitch for college admissions. Tell us about it.

Mr. DeBONNIS: This is one of the more professionally put together ads. It begins in a Catholic church. A young girl comes in and lights a candle and over this there's some kind of stirring kind of ambient music. And then at the end, you cut to this kind of suburban subdivision. She opens her mailbox and, lo and behold, there's a thick letter in there from the Notre Dame admissions department. She picks it up. She looks at it. She smiles. She looks to the sky. The camera rolls up to the sky and then it--the super says University of Notre Dame, a higher education. The impli...

CHADWICK: We've got God on our side.

Mr. DeBONNIS: The implication is that if you're going to get into the University of Notre Dame, a little prayer certainly wouldn't be a bad thing.

CHADWICK: Mike DeBonnis, senior editor of the Washington City Paper. His article about the ads that colleges run during football games, with a lot of clips from the ads, is at slate.com. Mike, thank you.

Mr. DeBONNIS: Thank you, Alex.

(Soundbite of march music)

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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