The canvas of opportunities

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By Gavin Mackenzie

There was a time not too long ago when universities were a haven from the markings of commercialism. The role of administrators, among other things, was to protect students from companies that wanted to peddle their wares on campus.

‘[Ryerson] will not allow any outside organization or any individual to use these premises for profit-making,” a Ryerson official said in 1976. “Once you start letting them in, where does it end?”

But after years of government funding cuts to universities, the once pristine hallways of academia have become a much sought-after canvas for advertisers. And as university administrators increasingly turn to the private sector for new sources of revenue, campuses are struggling with their identities, looking more and more like shopping malls than institutions of higher learning.

Brian Howlett, a designer at Toronto-based ad agency Axmith-McIntyre, says universities have become a favourite target for marketers because graduates tend to mature into high-earning consumers.

“This is a very important demographic for companies to target because this age group is at the point where they will develop brand preferences that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives,” he says.

“Today’s student is embracing advertising right now. They have been very responsive to the ads because they are catering to their interests and needs.”

Ryerson opened its doors to Montreal-based Zoom Media three years ago, signing a five-year deal with the company. Zoom is widely known for zeroing in on 18- to 34-year-olds with 30-by-40 centimetre ads mounted above bathroom sinks and urinals and on the back of stall doors. The ads promote a wide range of products, from cosmetics and cell phones to entertainment complexes.

“The decision to allow advertisers on campus was simply a matter of economics,” says John Corallo, Ryerson’s director of ancillary services. “There’s a lot more pressure these days to generate alternative means of revenue, and wherever we can pick up money here and there it really helps.”

Zoom first started appearing in college and university bathrooms in Quebec in 1994, and met with a great deal of hostility from students who vandalized its ads. In spite of this, it has become the nation’s largest in-door media supplier for campuses.

Zoom rents the space it needs from university and college administrators. In turn, companies pay Zoom between $42 and $100 to display each ad.

At Ryerson, 400 Zoom panels can be found around campus. Another 38 larger billboards owned by Clegg Campus Marketing adorn the school’s walls. Corallo says Zoom and Clegg ads generate $40,000 a year for the university.

The money he;ps defray the effect of federal and provincial cuts to education spending, days Martin Poitras, general manager of Zoom’s Ontario operations. “Timing was definitely important. We were in the right place at the right time,” he says. “Would this type of thing have happened in the seventies or eighties? Probably not.”

Research undertaken for Zoom found that 80 per cent of students notice its ads and enjoy seeing them. Only about 20 per cent are indifferent to the ads or don’t like them at all. Numbers like these have marketers clamouring for a piece of the campus advertising pie.

Ryerson’s student council president, Cory Wright, says RyeSAC hasn’t received complaints about campus advertising. He believes students here are less hostile toward advertising because they come face to face with tons of advertising every day going to school in the downtown landscape.

Wright himself doesn’t see any problem with campus advertising. “I wouldn’t agree with it at all if it was affecting the way we were learning, but it really isn’t.”

Not all students are as casual about the issue. Earlier this month, students at Concordia University in Montreal voted in a referendum calling for a ban on all forms of corporate advertising on campus. As a result, Zoom Media’s contract with the university has not been renewed.

“Students have spoken and reclaimed this public space to show who this university is for,” says Rob Green, Concordia’s student association president. “This space is not for corporate advertising. It is for students.”

A few months before the Concordia referendum, Zoom lost one of its largest clients the University of Montreal. Under pressure from students and faculty, university administrators dumped the $100,000 contract that allowed Zoom to erect 600 bathroom panels on campus.

But the vote came too late for history professor Thomas Ingersoll, who resigned from the earlier in the year because of advertising on campus. He issued this statement when he left: “How can I give my lecture about American feminism when outside the door is superbly mounted an ad showing a fragile woman, vulnerable, nearly nude, ultra-feminine and hawking perfume.”

Darryl Nicholson, media director of Toronto-based marketing firm Ammirati Puris Lintas, doesn’t think the ousting of Zoom at Concordia and the University of Montreal is reflective of the attitude students in general toward campus advertising.

“There is a group of militant people at every school,” he says. “Unfortunately, they tend to be a very vocal group, and they are blowing a very important opportunity for their schools to pick up much needed revenues.”

Ryerson doesn’t have a written policy on advertising, but it generally doesn’t allow ads promoting alcohol or tobacco on campus. Ads that are sexually suggestive or make reference to religious affiliations are also rejected. Corallo screens every ad, and says he’s turned away a few he felt were inappropriate.

So far, indoor advertising on Canadian campuses has primarily been restricted to static billboards. But David Chilton, senior media writer at Marketing Magazine, believe it’s only a matter of time before American-style campus advertising creeps up north.

In the United States, screen saver advertisements are popular in computer labs and libraries. When computers sit idle for a predetermined period, an array of ads start scrolling across the screen.

“Campus advertising is much more developed in the U.S. because American advertising tends to be more innovative,” Chilton says. “How long it will take these new marketing devices depends on the willingness of Canadian universities to embrace these new technologies.”

Chilton believes advertisers will eventually try to beef up their presence in Canadian campus cafeterias and hallways by covering the floor with decals and tables with ads, practices already prevalent in American schools.

One of the most intriguing advertising tools that might find its way onto Ryerson is Videoboard, created by Toronto’s NewAd Media. The 18.5-centimetre screens, which started appearing in bars last spring, use an infrared sensor to detect when an audience is within eyesight. A 45-second ad then starts rolling.

“We don’t have specific plans to expand to campuses with the Videoboards right now,” said Stephanie Emond, marketing manager for NewAd Media. “But that doesn’t mean that in a year or so we won’t be doing something on campuses.”

Corallo concedes “the sky is the limit” when it comes to the future of campus advertising. However, one thing he’s adamant about is that classroom doors won’t soon open up to advertisers.

“Advertising will not go into the classroom,” he says. “The classroom is a learning environment and the students should be focused on learning and not have advertisements in their face.”

While most students don’t seem to find hallway and bathroom ads offensive, Poitras says Zoom and other media suppliers don’t want any part of advertising in classrooms because they’re considered sacred ground.

“If we want to continue to be successful, we have to keep everyone happy,” he says. “You don’t want to create a backlash, because then you lose the students respect and you’re left with nothing.”

While it remains to be seen whether Ryerson embraces these ad technologies, Corallo says it’s naïve to think we can regress to the time when campuses were free of advertising.

“When you ride the subway lines it’s right there,” he says. “When you walk past a construction site you can see them stabled on the boards. It’s in magazines. It’s everywhere. It’s here to stay.”

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