A great university deserves better marketing than this

Want to know what’s the worst thing about this new “market place” for education? You know, where universities have to compete for our business? It’s not the fees. Or the interminable customer surveys you have to fill in between essays. Or even (if you're a professor) the sense of entitlement your demanding 18-year-old clients surely must feel.

Nope. It’s all those god-awful adverts on the Tube. The ones inviting you to “grow your skills” (or whatever) with a “world-class education” (or whatever).

At the No.2 (post-1992) university in the north north west of East Anglia* (or wherever).

And you know what? It’s clear many of these ads haven’t been run by anyone with a) an academic background or b) any marketing nouse.

Not convinced? I here present Exhibit A, from multiple offender SOAS.

SOAS, you’ll recall, appeared in our previous perp lineup for the excruciating strapline “Embrace colourful language”. (What? When you open your statement from the Student Loan Company?)

The “colourful language” ad made me laugh. But the one pictured above just made me cross.

I see several problems with it. But they’re all symptoms of one overarching problem I see all the time.

In advertising. In magazines. In clients I’ve been forced to drop.

I call it Wallpaper*isation. Or the prioritising of pictures over words.

Fine to do, I suppose, if you’re touting page after inane page of designery nick nacks to the spawn of the international oligarchy.

But, as I recently heard Brian Sewell declare on the Today programme, coffee table books appeal to coffee table minds.

And, wrinkly old guy aside, this ad is pure coffee table.

Don’t get me wrong, Leena AlBelooshi, Human Rights Law MA’s picture is great, I’m sure (not a visual person, sorry).

But I’m actually more interested in what Leena AlBelooshi, Human Rights Law MA has got to say about her Human Rights Law MA.

You can hear the marketing strategy meeting: “SOAS is all about students – let’s include them in our advertising!”

But did anyone actually talk to any students about what they love about SOAS?

No. Instead, this failed attempt at inclusivity replaces authentic student voices with a “vibrant” photo of the exotic east. And a load of dubious guff about “cultural perspectives” (Did the marketing team not get the memo that the “O” in SOAS doesn't stand for “orientalism”?).

If anyone in the marketing team had actually talked to any students, do you think any one of those students would have said: “I came here to explore cultural perspectives in a unique campus environment along with people from 130 different countries”?

No. I bet they'd have said things like:

“Yeah, Cambridge wanted me. But, y’know, Cambridge doesn’t have the British Museum, two opera houses, bars, nightclubs, brilliant farmers’ markets…”

“A year in Beijing? Where do I sign up?”

“Love, love, love the Hare Krishna guy! Who wouldn’t want free food every lunchtime?”

“Name me one other place in the world I can study Islamic Law. Without having to give up craft beer. Thought not.”

Instead, we got:

That feeble headline

What does the wishy-washy diversity-speak that is “Explore cultural perspectives” actually mean?

Conduct research into other cultures?

Challenge your own understanding (i.e. prejudices) about other cultures?

Write a thesis on how people from different cultures understand (and misunderstand) each other?

All sound more interesting – but, crucially I suspect, harder work – than “exploring cultural perspectives”.

Yeah, I know it’s a headline and needs to be snappy. But “explore cultural perspectives” might as well have read “Come to SOAS – no thinking involved!”

Misleading, non-specific crap about a “unique campus environment”

Unique? How exactly?

I walk through the SOAS campus several times a week. It’s a series of rather unlovely buildings.

It’s not unique (unless you count the Hare Krishna guy who gives out free food every lunchtime).

Oh, and “unique campus environment” is different from “campus”, how? As far as I know, SOAS does not have its own microclimate.

That meandering 30-word sentence

Look, I know you’ve got me captive on the tube. But please don’t take me on a tortuous tour of every feature of SOAS you regard as a benefit before coming to a full-stop.

Face it. It’s a poster. You’re going to have to leave something out. Better to grab my interest than to know you can sleep well at night because you can tell your boss you shoehorned in:

the thing about the expertise and cutting-edge research

the stuff about the campus environment, and

the reiteration of the wishy-washy diversity-speak about 130 different countries and differing cultural perspectives.

Oh, and, yes, I did spot that excruciatingly embarrassing spelling error

Now, I’m not massively prescriptivist about language (really, I’m not).

And I don’t actually think great spelling’s that important in a writer.

(It’s fixable. We all do it and it's impossible to proof your own work. Just make sure your message is clear and concise, and I’ll be happy.)

But c’mon.

This is an advert for a university, which by definition assumes a fairly literate audience that cares about precision.

So you’d think before paying a fortune to get it printed and put up on the Tube they’d have run it by a proof reader.

The sort of proof reader who snarks at you for not knowing the difference between complimented and complemented.


1. Words are just as important as pictures. More so, perhaps.

2. Features (130 nationalities) are not the same as benefits (“have you seen how hot the guys at SOAS are?”)

3. Copywriting is easy. Just talk to your customers then write down what they say.

4. Please, please, please, get a second eye on your proof before you send it to print.

Join me on the evening of 19 February for "How to craft a message that sticks, inspires and goes viral", a talk on how to incorporate storytelling into your comms. Followed by networking and drinks with other professionals. Book here.