As I sit here writing this, a PSU music department orchestra isbelting out some grandiose anthem fueled by booming tympani swells,string flutters and a staccato brass section melody. It’s grandiosemusic worthy of a monumental occasion, which this Thursday might aswell be.
The orchestra’s presence is part of the Student Activities andLeadership Program’s Art in Spring festival and it’s certainlybetter than what students endured earlier this week.
A walk through campus Monday or Tuesday of this week meant beingtargeted by the Advertising Management Marketing 443 class’promotion of People magazine using lots of pink balloons, flyers,t-shirts, information tables, a giant truck with loud speakers andan unavoidably large screen displaying ads as well as a fashionshow. All demonstrating just how sexy and cool (skinny and typicaldressed) one could be if they kept up on celebrity news and otherimportant information in People. The students were competing in anational contest in which the winner gets a trip to Washington D.C.and People magazine gets a lot of almost free publicity andsubscribers.
The “Sexiest Deal Alive” pink shirted gang’s presence wasn’twithout controversy or opposition. Most of the grumbling Ioverheard was about the oddly placed park block fashion show,disagreeable pop music from DJs, and especially the big, loudadvertisement truck on Broadway. It’s shocking for students to finda public space as unique and generally pleasant as the Park Blocksturned into a giant advertising space. Yet each year it happensbecause any student group or class can borrow the space foreducational activity. When the activity is learning how to sell aproduct to consumers we get the insulting ad campaigns.
The transformation by the marketing classes may be the biggestand the ugliest but it is certainly not the only aesthetic assaulton students. There are preachers, LaRouche cultists and vendorsbetween buildings with various types of clutter promoting one thingor another, usually school related. Perhaps the worst was the twoweeks of wasteful clutter littering campus during studentelections, a tactic which won Harper and Klute the election.
Representatives from the campaign told KPSU’s Scott Owens theyhad every right to advertise People magazine on campus. They saidthat since they are doing the work for a class it was a justified,educational activity, and if it were not allowed their educationwould be compromised. This was the only way for them to learn howto conduct an ad campaign and most students were enjoying it.
The larger issue at hand here is not a particularly annoyingcampaign for a celebrity gossip magazine. The problem is thepresence of private sector interests on a public university campus.Portland State’s motto is not Let Knowledge Serve the City’sBusiness Interests, but the City. The city – like the university -is a public entity that cannot be bought. The campus is designatedas an ad-free public space for the use of 20,000 plus students,regardless of how educational an infringement on their space maybe.
Because of campaigns like this one, the line between public andprivate is becoming increasingly blurred. Accusations of corporateinfluence in government are being proven daily and as publicinstitutions lose governmental funding they increasingly have toturn to the private sector. Colleges already do enough for theprivate sector: we give them qualified workers already indenturedby thousands of dollars of debt. We don’t need to give corporationsunrestricted access to advertise so blatantly to students. Themarketing class has every right to engage in educational activity;however, if they are going to be on campus, maybe they shouldmarket a local social justice or environmental non-profit. If theywant to help a corporation they should do so in a designatedcommercial venue, like a shopping mall.
Students form their identities through the media and, in turn,through advertisements. This marketing class has obviously learnedthat selling an image is important, hence the fashion shows andsexy titles and slogans like “buy me for a buck.” Identities arealso formed in college. I trust the influence of the amazinginstructors at this university much more than I trust thecommercial media. I will gladly tolerate Art In Spring or evenlocal vendors and student elections, but let’s keep our publicspace free of commercial advertising.