Isabelle Poniatowski, the student union president at Lakehead University, had no idea what to expect when the school’s Vice President of Finance Johnny De Bakker called her into his office, “laughing hysterically.” That, she said, was the first she heard of “Yale Shmale,” the Canadian university’s new advertising slogan.
The recently-launched and controversial campaign involves ads featuring President George W. Bush’s ’68 portrait above the text “Yale Shmale.” The ads, which are intended to show that an Ivy League education is not right for everyone, have elicited responses ranging from amusement to disgust on and off both campuses.
Poniatowski is one student who is not laughing at the new ads, and she said she was shocked that the school would adopt such a “low-brow campaign.”
“It does not take very much class to knock President Bush,” Poniatowski said in an e-mail. “It is amusing, but it’s also low-class and inappropriate for a university.”
The ads directed prospective students to visit the web-site www.yaleshmale.com. The site featured a similar setup to the posters, including a photo of Bush, the catchphrase “Yale Shmale” and text reading, “Graduating from an Ivy League University doesn’t necessarily mean you’re smart.” It then invited those who agreed to click a link bringing them to a Lakehead University Web site where they could request more information about the school. Lakehead has now moved into the second phase of its new ad campaign, which features the words “be Smart!” in place of “Yale Shmale” and no longer mentions Bush.
The campaign has generated substantial publicity for the school, as the story was picked up by a diverse group of news media and individuals ranging from BBC News to the popular video Web site YouTube.com, where archives include television broadcasts covering the story. Whether the publicity is positive, however, is another matter.
“I have been approached by many students, faculty, and even staff embarrassed by the tone of the campaign,” Poniatowski said. “My views are that such advertising may serve to damage Lakehead University’s reputation as a place of higher learning, and the views I voiced received a lot of support on campus.”
But Lakehead University President Fred Gilbert defended the intentions of the campaign. Gilbert said he was surprised by the sometimes extreme reactions he received from those who saw the posters.
“We looked at [the campaign] as we thought most would look at it: that there would be the understanding that this is a campaign to raise awareness [of Lakehead University],” Gilbert said.
Although many Yale students were unaware of the campaign’s existence, most displayed a reaction similar to Poniatowski’s when they heard about it.
“The campaign comes across as very immature and unprofessional [in my opinion],” Rena Traube ’09 said.
Traube, a member of the Yale College Republicans and a contributing reporter for the News, said the entire concept is not as original as it appears.
“It’s not exactly groundbreaking to be opposed to President Bush these days,” she said. “It’s more like jumping on the proverbial bandwagon, not pioneering an avant-garde sentiment.”
Neil Kalwani ’09 also said he finds the campaign to be funny but an unsophisticated way of attracting students.
“It’s a nice joke, but I think it’s a joke more appropriate for, say, a Harvard student’s T-shirt at a football game than it is for a college advertising campaign,” Kalwani said.
Some Yale students said they do not consider the campaign to be amusing at all. Grayson Walker ’07, a member of the Yale College Democrats, said he does not think Yale would ever adopt a campaign like this one and that Lakehead’s strategies would not have any effect on Yale’s applicant pool.
“I agree with the basic premise that students need to choose the school that’s right for them, but I fail to see how attacking Yale leads to the conclusion that Lakehead is the right choice,” Walker said in an e-mail.
Gilbert denies that Lakehead was attacking Yale in any way with its campaign, and he said that the campaign has nothing to do with Yale as an institution.
“In the [ads], there is nothing that impugns either Yale University or the United States President,” he said. “The message is simply that an Ivy League school — and that includes Yale — may not be right for you for a variety of reasons, and on that same premise, you should look at Lakehead because it could be [right for you] … How could one discredit Yale? It’s one of the best universities in the world.”
The fact that Lakehead chose to use Bush as an emblem for Yale was unsurprising to many Yale students, who said Bush is bound to be associated with the school.
“Any time a graduate is that much of a public figure, it’s natural for people to connect the two,” Kalwani said. “I think in reality most people who look at the University understand that one graduate does not represent an entire institution.”
The campaign was spearheaded by the McLellan Group, a Toronto-based advertising agency whose Web site states that the intent of the ads was “to unify [Lakehead’s] identity and help position the institution as Canada’s number one value added university.”
But Walker said the campaign may have the opposite effect.
“I suspect that most prospective students would interpret the campaign as a sign of desperation rather than strength,” he said.
Even so, Gilbert said the campaign has been a success because it has garnered attention for the Canadian school. Some Yale students, who are now discussing a school they had previously never heard of, said they agree.
“If they’re trying to make a name for themselves, they should go for it,” Traube said. “I mean, it definitely got people talking.”