Marketing Resistance in Higher Education (Archive, 2010)

(I recently revisited this post - which I wrote in 2010 - as I was preparing notes for a longer essay. I hope you find it interesting. The company I use as an example - Straighterline - is one of the more interesting and important vendors of the past 20 years, in my opinion.)

Traditional advertising continues to seek out ways to circumvent consumer fatigue and resistance to its messages.

A common approach, particularly since the 90s, involves leveraging the consumer's resistance to consumer culture, and then redirecting that resistance into supports of the vendor's brand. If, in other words, the consumer is cynical, define the brand as a reflection of that cynicism. 

Redirecting Consumer Resistance

Certain industries have launched advertising campaigns that reflect consumer fatigue and resistance to advertising. Kotex (see video below) and Dove are two well-known examples. 


This tactic offers consumers an alternative vision and exposes the logic behind the mainstream messaging of the vendor's competitors. The campaigns deconstruct what’s behind the strategies of its competitors and consequently manages to position the advertiser in alignment with the consumer.

The campaign by Kotex attempts to draw the consumer's attention to the marketing tactics of its competitors. The premise of the message is that other vendors in this market are speaking down to its audience. (Best line in the ad: "You can relate to me because I'm racially ambiguous.")

The advertiser attempts to offer the audience an opportunity to belong to a group of people that are socially sophisticated enough to recognise that other advertisers are untruthful, even manipulative. But like the vast majority of appeals made by multinational corporations that employ this strategy, all consumers can belong to this "exclusive" club. 

Resistance in Higher Ed Marketing

Although this advertising tactic is widespread, you likely haven’t seen it being used in higher education.

Few organisations in higher education veer far from the safe and predictable in their marketing efforts. Advertising in higher education regularly focusses on the promise of the institution to transform the student; to open up new possibilities for their lives and careers.

I was surprised, then, to come across marketing from Straighterline (SL) that deviated from the norm. Like the examples of Dove and Kotex, described above, SL is critical of the practices of its own industry (i.e. higher education).

Straighterline is a Baltimore-based company that offers online general ed courses at significantly reduced prices. The credits earned from SL courses can then be used at various colleges with whom SL has an alliance, or at school that accepts ACE-evaluated credits. SL is one of the few business models that has successfully addressed the problem of tuition increases in higher ed. This factor alone places SL in a select category.

In 2010, Straighterline released a white paper of sorts that positions SL not only as an alternative to traditional higher education but in opposition to its practices.

"8 Secrets Colleges Don't Want You to Know"

Yes, American colleges face hard times. But they aren’t talking to reporters or mentioning these problems on their websites. Why? In order to generate income, colleges need students – lots of them – which they won’t attract if they hang out their dirty laundry for prospective students and their parents to see.
Just the opposite ... many colleges want to distract would-be students from noticing what’s really happen- ing on their campuses. They have unpleasant secrets they don’t want you to know.

The eight secrets provided are . . .

1. Financial Aid Is Not What It Seems
2. Courses and Professors Listed in the Catalog Might Not Be Available
3. You Could Be Required to Take Courses Elsewhere
4. Students Get Pushed Out of Classrooms and Into Computer Labs
5. Your College Might Want You to Drop Out
6. State and Public Colleges are Losing Their Bargain Status
7. Colleges are Doing Weird Things to Achieve Higher Rankings
8. Colleges Favor Income-Producing Applicants

The SL campaign emerges at a time when criticism in higher education is especially heated. As Peter Sacks notes:

College bashing is very much in vogue. A batch of new and recent books portray the campus culture in dark tones: College is an expensive fraud, pandering to its entitled student customers with soft courses and inflated grades; college is for dummies, it's bad for your brain, and it's even worse for your pocketbook, your children's, and the financial well- being of generations to come.

There's much to admire about the Straighterline campaign. It’s certainly more honest than most. And to the extent that it might help create a more informed customer, it’s useful. Lack of understanding about the costs and value of higher education is a theme that runs through many of the current debates in higher education (c.f. For-profit higher ed and gainful employment).

Tactically, though, this campaign is more difficult to understand; here's why. In one respect, Straighterline is positioned as an alternative to higher education, in so far as students can take the SL courses independently of an accredited institution. Here, adopting a contrary stance in relation to higher education makes good marketing sense.

But the SL business model is also dependent on institutions within higher education to serve as its partners. In many cases, the students will take their credits obtained through SL to the partnering institutions and apply them towards an academic program. The value that SL offers in these instances is highly dependent on a securing a wide range of partnering institutions. Could SL - by adopting this stance in relation to higher education - act to discourage traditional colleges from partnering with the company, and thus reducing its value proposition? I don't know. But it certainly can't help.

Further Reading

If you're interested in the ways in which alternatives to higher education position themselves in relation to the traditional higher education sector, you may wish to check out these two sites:

PersonalMBA. “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.” This online collective of learners uses widely available readings and peer-to-peer learning to mimic an educational experience that typically costs tens of thousands of dollars, and two years of lost wages. The significance of the PMBA is, first, that it targets a well-known and often profitable university franchise. Second, the tone and language used in the PMBA community often reflect a willful rejection of traditional ideas about what constitutes legitimate learning.

UofPeople. "Join the Education Revolution." This is the online initiative started by Shai Reshef. U of People offers learners not merely a chance to learn, but to be part of a "revolution" that challenges the ways that higher education traditionally operates.

Keith Hampson