Saturday, August 18, 2012

Buy Enema U!

It is that time of year again, and the students are returning to Enema U.  On campus, you see a few more of them every day.  They come looking for classrooms, trying to find the cheap used textbook, moving into the dorms, and seeking out professors for advising.  I generally enjoy the latter, even though I tell every student pretty much the same thing:  “Sex and real estate—get all you can while you are young.”

The university is doing a lot of advertising.  Signs, banners, and flyers are all over the campus.  Our bookstore has thousands of sweatshirts emblazoned with the school name and colors.  Every fraternity is pushing for fresh meat, professors are advertising half-filled boutique courses, and the Athletic Department is desperately begging students to attend games.  There is a frantic feel to some of the advertising, which is baffling when you consider that almost all of this can only be seen by students who have already “bought the product”.  Before any student sees this advertising, we have already cashed their tuition checks.

Instead of posting yet another flyer on an overladen bulletin board, perhaps the university needs to be a little more creative.

Years ago, I used to be a little more involved in advertising.  My company bought and sold computers and the various manufacturers all had co-op advertising programs to help small stores defray the large cost of marketing.  The typical arrangement was a 2% budget.  If I bought $100,000 worth of computers and printers from Epson, they would give me $2,000 for advertising as long as their products figured prominently in my ads.  I can remember negotiating a 4% budget once on a quarter of a million dollars of computers, but this only happened after the salesman and I killed two bottles of Absolut vodka in my backyard.   We woke up in the grass when the timer kicked on the sprinklers, but by then the contract had been inked.

Over the years, I have paid for advertising on the radio, have placed ads in newspapers, and have bought a lot of signs.  So it was only natural that, when one of my friends opened up a bar just off the docks of Galveston, he came to me for advice about how to publicize his new business.

“How much money have you budgeted for advertising,” I asked.

He scratched his head, looked at me and said, “I guess I can spare a hundred dollars.”  It was less than a week from the opening, and my friend had evidently thought that the advertising was something that would take care of itself.

Worse, the hundred dollars was not his advertising budget for the next week--this was all he could afford to spend for the next several months.  He had a bank loan to repay, and the bar wasn’t likely to turn a profit until the summer tourist season began in six months.  This was a challenge, but as we spent the evening testing his new bar taps, we worked out an ambitious advertising campaign.

This was more than thirty years ago, and the internet has changed our world so much that we missed the passing of some small ordinary items of our lives.  At one time, if you wanted to sell Aunt Tilly’s teapot, you posted a cheap ad in the local newspaper.  Before eBay, before Craig’s List, and before the internet, the local newspaper carried page after page of inexpensive want ads.  You could post a three line ad every day for a week for as little as $3.50.  This was a price that fit my friend’s advertising budget perfectly.

The first ad was posted in ‘Help Wanted—Professional’.  “Poet Laureate wanted for public cat neutering ceremony.  Apply Anchorage Bar, Canal Street,”

When the ad came out, I think it only took about four days before every person on the island knew about it.  By word of mouth, alone, everyone heard of it.  A few people even applied for the job, but they were disappointed to learn that the poet had to speak Gaelic.  Strangely, no applicant was qualified.

The second week, we posted an ad in the ‘Want to Buy’ section.  “Desperately needed, left-handed Camel blanket.  Anchorage Bar, Canal Street.”  No one showed up with a camel blanket, left or right-handed, but the need for one was discussed at length about town.

We offered employment for a steeple jack, but he had to be experienced and furnish his own safety equipment.  We also offered to sell the Canal Street lighthouse (there isn’t one), and at one point offered ‘Genuine Imitation Moon Rocks’ by the ton.  Business at the bar flourished, the newspaper probably sold more copies than normal, and we kept to the original budget.

Perhaps the university could try something similar.  They could try posting an ad in the student newspaper.  “Wanted—administrative harmony.”  “Desperately Needed--Students with a desire to challenge their preconceived ideas.”  “Library Seeking Patrons.”  “Now Hiring--Faculty who yearn for the classroom.”  “Lost--Regents who care more about the attendance in the classroom than the stadium. (Everyone will be rewarded).”

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