Yesterday while sitting in Washington Square Park, I watched two boxy mini-cars trundle their way to NYU’s Library and park innocently out front. Plastered with the logos of the Pentax a camera company, the drivers lifted up their side panels revealing their cargo of gleaming lenses, dials and switches. Their smiling countenance backed by the multimillion dollar might of their slick corporate sponsors, they worked the crowd, putting hands to cameras and money out of pockets.
Next to them stood the Subway Sandwich One Dollar Off coupon man, perhaps the most consistent figure of my education at NYU. The first day I went to class, he was there; in the biting cold of winter, he was there; when the spring returned the next year, he was there. The Subway down the street buys his persistent call with no doubt meager wages: “Dollaroff, Dollaroff, Sabway dollaroff…”
Two weeks before the Pentax folks was the pomp and circumstance of NYU’s Welcome Week, inducting new students into the NYU community. Of course, this introduction wouldn’t be complete without spending, and NYU stepped in with chartered ‘shopping busses’ to ferry students to their Ikea, Target or mall of their choice.
Since then, the streets of NYU’s campus have been filled with hawkers, advertisers and marketing of all kinds. As students become increasingly unreachable by traditional means of television and radio advertising, companies wanting to exploit the time and money of students are forced to take to the streets and directly confront them face to face. And with the price of college going up and federal support going down, schools will gladly oblige companies looking to access a university’s 4-years captive audience – for a small fee here and there.
Looking around, you’ll see the struggle for eyeballs and student dollars spreading on college campuses. Food service contracts increasingly go to national chains (NYU has New York City’s only Chik-Fil-A, and the Kimmel Center for University Life now features a Yolato), buildings get named like sports stadiums (the University of Georgia literally had a Coca-Cola building), and public space becomes cluttered with underpaid sales workers touting special deals for college students if you act now.
The paradigm for any marketing campaign to college students is Facebook. Social networking sites embody the sycophantic relationship of marketers to students – young people voluntarily provide personal information in the course of trying to fit in and meet other people like them; Facebook takes that fairly humane desire and sells it to people with little to no interest in that person’s wellbeing. Connections made for dating or demonstrating become fodder to targeted advertising efforts of face-less corporations. The same goes for advertising on and around college campuses: the student’s desire to learn and live becomes the motor for marketing pushes that cheaply imitate the creative qualities of life that students produce.
And that’s the upshot: the ad campaigns that cover our campuses try to turn the creative energy of student life into a commodity. Turning our lives into sites for potential transactions cheapens them in ways that escape exact description. The quality of our lives falls when advertising puts our desires under an assault of images and concocted fears, backed by the daily blackmail of capitalism.