Archive for October, 2007

Harder and harder to impress

October 31, 2007

In his book, Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins of MIT writes, “…the American viewing public is becoming harder and harder to impress.” (I always love it when I find authors who state the obvious in such a dead-pan tone). In this context Henry is speaking about the American Idol phenomenon, and my embellishment of his argument is that stories, personalities, surprises are the magnet that can get people involved enough in a media event to not only watch it passively, but engage in other points of contact such as music purchases, websites, related products, concerts, etc. Dr. Jenkins describes the approach of one consultant, Initiative Media, in attempting to measure a new category of viewership called “expression”. Expression as Jenkins retells it means not only time spent watching a program, but degree of loyalty, affinity for the program and its sponsors, and cultural or social expressions of that affinity. This could mean wearing a T-shirt, posting a message on a website, creating a parody of a commercial, or recommending the show or a product to a friend.

Applying this principle to the college admissions market, I would say that savvy college admissions officers have been pursuing “expression” techniques for years, though they still might not have a way to measure it. College wearables, athletic events, concerts, sib weekends, websites and microsites, email campaigns, etc. are all long-standing ingredients of the admissions marketing soup aimed at “expression”… multiple points of involvement as opposed to merely college-initiated contact.

And yes, it’s harder and harder to impress them, either with a viewbook/brochure or a video/DVD. The key is DO NOT TRY to impress. Forget making it ideal. Just make it real, self-effacing, humorous, modest, blunt, edgy, unfinished, ongoing, serial, engaging, open-ended, fresh….honest in the eyes of a skeptic.

True to the light

October 31, 2007

Phedon Papamichael, the cinematographer for 3:10 to Yuma, is quoted in American Cinematographer as saying, “There’s only one moon, and I tried to stay true to that.” Love those genuflections to reality.

But his point is important. He describes the elaborate rig he uses, not to create an artificial, idealized “look”, but to portray something that looks authentic. In the case of moonlight, it had to be harsh, a single source, with the same levels everywhere in the scene. And when the actors are wearing wide-brimmed hats, the faces would be completely lost in black shadows if the DP didn’t use a bounce card to get a little bit of light up into the eyes.

As the DP on college admissions productions, I often grapple with the same issues. There was a time decades ago when I used multiple sources, dramatic lighting, even color gels to add stereotypical “high tech” or mood light to some scenes. But over the years as cameras have improved and, thankfully, the popular tolerance for hype has decreased, I have increasingly sought to do what feels right to me: natural situations with natural lighting.

For starters, I turn off the “edge” circuitry that gives video that “video look”. Then, I’ll turn off the fluorescents if I can, but sometimes the most natural way to see classroom activity is even in that style of light. I’ll add a tiny tungsten to a dorm room, but mostly shoot it using the light that’s already there. I’ll shoot a day interview by window light, only adding my own 5600K sources to make it look to the eye like the window is doing all the work. Or I’ll shoot an outdoor night gathering by firelight or street lighting and only add what I need to get the lighting up to what feels natural. There’s only one moon. There’s only one “real”… and the best way to make a message credible is to illustrate real, heartfelt words with truly realistic images. – Watch more free videos

“Exploration of identity”

October 31, 2007

NPR took on the college admissions imbroglio in an excellent 7-part series last February. (Sorry but I just discovered it!!!) One of the things I enjoyed in reviewing their work relates to a great interview of Beverly Daniel Tatum, the President of Spelman College in Atlanta. When asked if the 10 to 15% of black students who attend HBCUs are involved in “self-segregation”, Dr. Tatum replies with elegance and aplomb. She says in part,

“If we think about the college years as a time when you are really exploring who you are, what you hope to be, how you want to define yourself — AND if you are from a group that has been historically marginalized and under-valued — having the opportunity to attend a school where … you are at the center of the educational experience, where your educational development, your leadership development, is at the core of the mission of the institution, is a very empowering experience which is hard to find in the context of a society that still advantages those who are white, disadvantages those who are not. I think recognizing that important exploration of identity, and recognizing who you are, who you can be in the world, at a particular moment in your development as a young adult, is really critical. Certainly when we think about the opportunity for young people to get to know each other across racial lines it is very important to create places where that can happen. It is important in K-12 to provide schools that are racially integrated. But just as women’s colleges are still important because of the confidence that they provide for women … in the same way I think we can point to historically black colleges as creating an important opportunity during a critical period in one’s life.”

She goes on to relate both advantages and disadvantages in her personal experience (and that of her children) in predominantly white institutions, and the benefits she sees among Spelman students and her own children in an environment she describes as “affirming their identity.”

Let me state the obvious by saying that “exploration of identity” is the most important part of the coming-of-age years, regardless of race, geography, sex, or even socio-economic level. As a middle-aged white guy who went to an all-white high school (except for 3 blacks who voluntarily rode the city bus to get away from a very real segregation in Columbus, Ohio caused by “white flight”), I have always felt deprived of a first-hand sense of black identity, and how that relates to the privileged majority experiences I grew up immersed in. Looking back to my earlier years, I remember being shocked by President Kennedy’s assassination, but crying, angry and raging, when Dr. King was shot. (I was 15) My identity came from the subgroups I associated with, including rocket makers, chess players, musicians, and nerds. A black chess player or musician I could deal with easily. What has never been obvious to me was how to relate to segregated clumps of blacks. When I tried to enter lunch-room discussions with the 3 at my school, I was awkward in my attempts to show that to me race didn’t matter, and that I appreciated their struggles and accepted responsibility for the systematic ethnic tyranny my forbears had inflicted. Of course, those big-picture issues weren’t issues at all; rather, there simply was no easy connection of shared culture. It was more like a language barrier… as if I had grown up speaking French, and treated other non-native French speakers with a hint of disdain… and so they found it easier to hang with their friends. So while I continued to live in unintentional isolation from the black community, I raised my kids on Roots and dinner conversation about Denmark Vesey.

In recent years, having read John Wesley’s tract on slavery, and then Randall Robinson’s articulation of the destruction of African identity, I felt better able to understand… but unable to really communicate because the fact is that I’m still living in a segregated society.

That’s why I appreciate what Dr. Tatum verbalized. There is a black identity, an African-American identity, and it continues to be necessary and distinct because of the “constant under-valuing”, as she put it, of black personhood, black aspirations, and black pain. If blacks had remained in Africa, their identity today would not be racial but more familial or tribal, the way whites in America form Italian or Jewish or Irish identities. But since the historical fact is that whites from multiple tribes, religions and cultures conspired together to subjugate, transport, and dehumanize blacks from multiple tribes, religions and cultures, and then exterminated their languages, their religions, their cultures, and even their individual identities, we should not feel surprised that the black soul, as Robinson puts it is “immortal, [and] has lost sight of the trail of his long story.” It needs some time to reawaken.

And Beverly Tatum’s message on NPR was, that’s what the HBCUs can help do, even today, 125 years after “reconstruction”. Dr. Tatum helped me understand that while integration is important for healthy cultural diversity during the period of attitude formation (K-12), there comes a time when many black young people are better off exploring their identity… in an environment where the dominant mood does not explain away and negate their need to remember, to console, to encourage, and to gather internal strength for a life-long marathon of struggle as an under-valued minority. As Robinson quoted Ralph Ellison at the beginning of his book, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” Let the exploration of identity continue!

Hottest thing since coed dorms

October 30, 2007

Sierra says “Big Green” is “the hottest thing since coed dorms”. Eco-friendly campuses that integrate a commitment to sustainable living into campus life are attracting students. Millennials have the sense that “environmental problems, especially global warming, [are] the challenge of their generation”. Colleges that respond creatively to this groundswell of feeling are also noticing an admissions marketing benefit.

Key points:

Sierra’s Big Ten of Cool Schools

October 30, 2007

Sierra magazine, (yes, it’s printed on trees*) lists the top 10 “cool schools” — that teach ecological sustainability by precept AND example. #1 is Oberlin just up the road from me, which offers locally grown foods for 1/3 of its menu, a pioneering car-sharing program, subsidizing public transportation with student activity fees, half its electricity from green sources, and real-time data collection on dorm electrical usage… setting the stage for future conservation measures. Even commencement at Oberlin is now eco-friendly, with biodegradable utensils and programs on 100% recycled paper. It’s a start, eh? The rest of the Big 10 are Harvard, Warren Wilson College (Swannanoa, NC), U of California system, Duke, Middlebury (VT), Berea College (KY), Penn State, Tufts, and Carnegie Mellon.

I think it’s important to feature authentic, integral-to-campus-life elements of green coolness in all admissions marketing efforts. But if its not authentic and integral, wait for your campus to walk it before talking it.

*Nov/Dec 2007, p. 34

Chase is chasing Millennials

October 29, 2007

The marketing department of Chase certainly keeps up with the Millennial generation demo research. In a letter to my daughter promoting the Chase Plus 1 Student Mastercard, notice how many hot button phrases get dropped in one short paragraph: “it’s about being a part of something… Totally new way to hook up your friends, your community, and yourself…Earn points on Facebook…use Karma points for music, DVDs, electronics…” Yep, Millennials like significance, community, Facebook, religious pluralism, music, DVDs, iPods, and “hooking up” … no doubt the double entendre was intentional.

dim white kids

October 29, 2007

Peter Schmidt of the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoans the privilege of wealth which allows full-pay students with alumni or political connections to get into elite colleges without elite credentials. He cites research by the Educational Testing Service which claims 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at US top-tier colleges are “white teens who failed to meet their institutions’ minimum admission standards.” While I’m sympathetic to the egalitarian idealism Peter advocates… and amazed by the evidence he cites in the 2nd half of his article … I also suspect that the economics of college tuition discounting make it likely that a percentage of full-pay students are necessary to keep the wheels turning and the grants flowing for need-based “scholarships”.

generation Q

October 29, 2007

Thomas L. Friedman wonders what to think of Millennials in an Oct 10 New York Times Op-Ed piece. He seems to pay homage to The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, when he calls Millennials the “Quiet Generation”. It is not a compliment. Friedman is concerned about what he sees as too much passivity among Millennials: “Generation Q may be too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the country’s own good.” He wants to see them more angry about what we’ve done to them — saddling them with debt and multiple deficits.

Strauss and Howe use the phrase “New Silent” to describe the cohort to be born from 2005 to 2025, and Silent Generation to describe those born from 1925 to 1942.

To Strauss & Howe, Millennials are anything but Quiet. He calls their group the “Hero” saeculum, and sees them not as passive and lazy, as Friedman seems to feel, but as engaged and sacrificial compared to Boomers whose activity is often accompanied by a quest for power, or at least self-actualization.

My take is that Millennials are more verbal and more confrontational than their parents … and more willing to play a heroic role than either their parents (Boomers) or the constantly cautious Gen X.

Ford goes to “real stories, real people.”

October 29, 2007

Ford is using edgy documentary style video for its “Swap Your Ride” promotion. People are given a Ford car to replace their car for a week, and the results (that is, the ones that favor Ford) are made available on the website. My point exactly! For colleges, the testimonial experience of actual students is far more compelling than glitzy spots and brochures. Millennials are looking for authenticity. Warts-and-all unscripted personal stories are the way to get there.

Welcome. Let the Ztories begin!

October 27, 2007

Welcome to the new Ztories branding blog by Ork the Caveman on My goal is to spark creative thought on the best practices for college communication. And the communication challenges are daunting — distinct audiences who inhabit entirely different worlds: Millennials for admissions, alumni from Silent Generation to Gen X for advancement. In a time when the stakes have never been higher and for the first time in history, the supremacy of American higher education is being questioned. I welcome your comments and look forward to vigorous dialog, sharing of media, and lots of laughs.