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Even worse collegiate marketing slogans

Topics/tags: Miscellaneous, marketing, language, academia, short

Over the years, I’ve complained fairly regularly about some of Grinnell’s marketing campaigns, from the legendary No Limits to the current ungrammatical phrases and twoish-word flags. But none of what we’ve done comes close to the stupidity of the new University of Wyoming campaign, which is The World Needs More Cowboys. You may think I’m joking, but I’m perfectly serious. You can read a bit about it in Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed.

What’s wrong with that phrase? Well, what characteristics do you associate with cowboys? That’s right … white and male. So, at face value, the term does not feel very inclusive. If you’re a woman, or reject the gender binary, or are a person of color, or you were born in America, I would expect that the marketing slogan would suggest that UWyoming wants people other than you. And if you’re a Native American, you might feel like UWyoming wants more people to commit genocide.

As you might expect, a wide variety of folks [1] at UWyoming raised these kinds of concerns. But the marketing folks feel differently. The goal of the campaign appears to be to undermine the traditional concept of cowboy and to make it a more inclusive term. For example, here’s a comment from the Chronicle article.

Baldwin said the results of a market-research survey conducted by a third-party firm show that the campaign is, in fact, effective in dispelling the stereotype of a cowboy and in enticing prospective students to apply. The survey, of prospective college students nationwide, found that a majority of respondents said the promotional video had changed their perception of what it meant to be a cowboy, and had made it more likely that they’d apply to the university [2].

I’m a bit stunned that people would take this seriously. After all, how many people who are not paid or otherwise incentivized to watch a promotional video for an institution actually watch it. Certainly, when I look at my kids, videos are among the things they are least likely to check out. A cool marketing package? Maybe. An informative Web site that they can explore? Maybe. An online video? Probably not.

However, it appears that administrators everywhere lack a clue. In spite of the concerns people have raised, UWyoming has decided to trust their marketing consultants and to go ahead with the slogan.

Do they not realize that cowboy also has other, less positive, meanings? When you call someone a cowboy today, you often mean someone who ignores rules for their own pleasure or benefit. It’s easy to find that out. Urban dictionary describes cowboys as follows.

Wild, impulsive, living on the edge and taking risks without worrying about the consequences.

They are not alone. Wiktionary describes cowboys as follows.

(informal) A person who engages in reckless behavior, especially for the purpose of showing off.

Yeah, the world definitely needs more of those people [3].

Of course, you may not trust these newfangled, crowd-sourced reference materials [4]. So you might turn to Merriam-Webster. But they have a similar definition and even add some examples to the mix.

one having qualities (such as recklessness, aggressiveness, or independence) popularly associated with cowboys: such as a : a reckless driver b : a business or businessperson operating in an uncontrolled or unregulated manner

Yeah, the world definitely needs more reckless drivers and unethical business people.

That model of cowboy is also fairly exclusive. I will admit that every time I hear the term cowboy applied in this way, I think of a white man. I’m pretty sure that most people do, too. We don’t normally call reckless women cowboys. We don’t normally call reckless people of color cowboys. I guess we can make the term more inclusive, but it’s not a positive term.

How about The world needs fewer cowboys?

Maybe I’ll stop complaining about our marketing campaign. It’s not nearly that bad.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s a big conspiracy among marketing folks to see what they can convince their clients to do. We have a client whose mission is to help students understand how to be responsible citizens. We convinced them that No Limits made sense. We convinced our client to name their team after a group of people and to use an insensitive caricature of those people as their logo. We convinced our client to use a display font in 6pt for the text in their everyday letters. We convinced our client that The World Needs More Cowboys is an inclusive phrase. You win.

[1] For example, faculty, folks in the diversity offices, students, other administrators outside of marketing.


[3] I do my best to limit the political comments in my musings. You can fill in the obvious one.

[4] You may also doubt the tendency of linguists to say that at least in American English, we should be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Version 1.0 of 2018-07-25.