After months of a dingy, icy, gray and white landscape, the campus finally has seen its first hint of green. Unfortunately, it came in the form of chartreuse paint poured on a mountain of snow in front of Coffman Memorial Union. But it was not green snow alone: Coca-Cola Co. pulled out all the stops to promote Surge, its latest carbonated wonder. It gave us a consumer extravaganza that included hot tubs, radio remotes, T-shirts, banners and plenty of free samples. Surge mountain not only formed a temporary, albeit jarring, monument on campus, it also inspired protesters who challenged the corporate-sponsored festival, and defenders who support Coca-Cola’s contract with the University and the company’s right to market. Only spring itself could get people so heated up.
Aside from the color, so far the most extreme thing about Surge has been the marketing. The freebies are gone and now we have to pay for our Surge. But the snow’s still there, and so is Surge’s massive advertising campaign, which is aimed at the young and the edgy who stay up all night and live life to the fullest, even if it’s just to write a paper or work a part-time job to pay for school. We have seen the target market, and it is us.
For corporations, the University is not an educational institution, it’s 60,000 potential consumers. Students are the core of the coveted 18 to 24 demographic, and marketers think they know how to reach us. U Magazine, distributed once a month with the Daily, is full of ads aimed at our own hip selves. Coffman Union usually has a table or two of energetic folks from phone or credit card companies willing to give us fabulous services (as well as free candy) in exchange for our business. Coca-Cola gave the University $28 million in exchange for a pop monopoly, and last week it showed us that it’s ready to market … oops, party. But do these companies really think we’re that dumb?
The so-called Generation X is not an easy group to target, but corporate America has certainly given it the old college try. It propagates its own notion of hipness, but at the same time acknowledges our advertising savvy through self-aware ads. “Be your own dog,” but drink our beer. This bizarre reverse psychology doesn’t really sell products. Quality and personal taste determine what we buy. Ads may amuse or annoy us, but seldom do they affect our product preference. Surge gives us images of sweat- and mud-covered bodies scrambling over old couches in alleyways and through the rain to the sound of loud guitars and pulsing beats. Fine. But, for those of us less prone to mountain biking off of cliffs, or even digging through green snow for a can of soda, all of this just looks silly. We are quite aware that Coke is appealing to our pocketbooks and unless Surge is remarkably tasty, we’re not going to drink it. Remember OK Cola?
The role corporations should play at educational institutions is certainly worth debating. It seems to be a question students are interested in, evidently more so than tenure, unionization or Margaret Sanger. But for right now, it would be nice if the advertisers would stop pretending to be young, hip and smarter than their audience. The transparent marketing ploys project an image that has little to do with us or even what we want to be. And would someone get rid of that snow?