By John F. Di Leo -
Coors Light is the official beer of the Fighting Illini.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Coors Light was voted on by the student body of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or that the school’s sports teams drink the stuff at halftime or wear its logo on their cars. No, just like dozens of other products from soft drinks to gym shoes, it means that the company signed a sponsorship deal with the University of Illinois.
Now, I don’t know how you feel about it, but with the cost of college skyrocketing, I’m inclined to think that almost any revenue stream that doesn’t require tax increases or tuition hikes is worth considering. If the product is legal – and beer has been legal in this country for eighty years now – it’s legitimate for a sponsorship deal.
Within months, the sponsorship was paying dividends. MillerCoors worked with the university to develop artwork, and promptly – multinational corporations know how to move fast – MillerCoors was advertising the school along with its product, on barroom tabletop tents and posters, on coasters and print ads and billboards around the Urbana-Champaign area.
That’s when the school’s worthies (or whatever passes for worthies at that school) threw a hissy fit. “We didn’t approve billboards!” they screamed, and they demanded that the billboards come down.
Part of the beauty of our capitalist system is how broad every deal’s effects can be. A big advertising deal doesn’t just create revenue for the advertiser (if it’s successful); it also creates work for advertising agencies, copywriters and printers, photographers and models. The companies that print the tabletop tents and posters, the campus magazines and community newspapers that can only afford to be printed if they sell these full page ads, the bartenders and shopkeepers who sell the products being advertised… these all benefit from a successful ad campaign.
This deal isn’t just about selling beer and raising revenue for the school, it’s part of the diverse economy of the United States.
Billboards are a key part of that world. There are four key costs in any billboard ad: producing the artwork, putting it up on the board, taking it down, and the monthly rent of the space. The shorter the duration, the more expensive it is; the longer, the more cost-effective. By demanding that these billboards be taken down immediately, they’ve robbed the billboard rental businesses of critical revenue. If the advertiser only wants to run the ad for a month or two, or if the campaign fails to be effective, then that’s life, the luck of the draw. But if an outside entity, a pompous and self-righteous college administration, interferes and calls off the campaign early, that’s an unfair attack on the advertising marketplace.
MillerCoors didn’t enter this deal intending to create business for all those advertising media; that’s just the beauty of capitalism. It happens automatically. MillerCoors did it for the school and for beer sales; the school agreed to it for the revenue stream. A win-win, you might say… until MillerCoors objected, after the fact, after the deal was agreed, after the billboards were up.
The university claims that the billboards might reach underage students who aren’t allowed to drink beer. But that’s true of newspapers and campus magazines, true of radio ads, true of the posters in the windows at campus bars. The under-21 undergrads in the Urbana-Champaign metro area don’t automatically avert their gaze if they encounter a beer ad in print or walk past a bar. Why should a billboard be different?
Let’s think about all the people who a beer advertiser is targeting, in a college sponsorship agreement. There are students, faculty and other staff at the University, and others in the neighborhood who identify with the school. Some are underage, sure… but in a campus the size of the U of I, most are of age. There are millions of alumni, and the parents and friends of students too; most of these too are of age. Billboards on nearby roads and highways are one of the most effective ways of reaching these markets.
The school has forbidden this ad campaign, forbidden this most critical part of the deal, because of some distaste for billboards, or beer, or both. But if they have such distaste, why did they agree to the advertising deal in the first place? And why do they have the pompous, offensive audacity to renege on the deal?
It’s difficult to assign blame here. Is it a hostility to beer that we can attribute to anti-alcohol groups like MADD or the WCTU? If it were, they had no business approving a partial deal without billboards; that’s pretty hypocritical, isn’t it?
Is it a hostility to billboards, one that can be attributed to the anti-American “highway beautification” projects of the 1960s associated with Lady Byrd Johnson, who tried to destroy this entire branch of advertising by banning billboards outright on our nation’s highways?
Is it a hostility to capitalism, drawn from the peculiar modern tendency of the Left to endorse struggling little projects, but oppose success, oppose activities on a large scale? Tabletops yes, billboards no; it just looks too big for them. Capitalism can’t be tolerated if it’s obvious, only if it’s not noticeable… could that be it?
There are certainly grounds for limiting a licensing agreement. The university could have approved tabletops and posters, but not radio commercials and billboards, if they had wanted to. Lots of sponsorship agreements have tiers, setting the rate higher and higher as the product advertiser uses the name more and more. But the U of I didn’t do that here. They saw dollar signs and jumped at the chance, then saw the billboards and jumped back.
I believe educators have a word for that. It’s called cheating.
It reminds me of a particularly memorable episode of L.A. Law, many years ago. Corbin Bernson played an entertainment lawyer who represented sports figures and other such stars in contract negotiations, and one of his clients – an athlete or TV star, I believe – decided to demand a midterm renegotiation of his contract for more money, and to walk if they didn’t agree. He had no grounds for it, no right to demand it; he just wanted to. The greed and irresponsibility was too much, even for Bernson’s rather questionable character, and he blew up at his client. “What is it about you people” he screamed, “that makes you think contracts don’t apply to you?!”
That’s the problem here. The University of Illinois signed a deal, accepted the money, then tried to walk it back, costing a lot of people a lot of money as a result. Is that the kind of lesson our nation’s colleges want to give their students?
The U of I has a rather impressive business school reputation. Their MBA program is usually rather highly rated in national rankings, placing highly in comparisons even with such stellar business schools as Northwestern University’s and the University of Chicago’s.
If the college wasn’t happy with their choice, they could easily have decided not to renew at the end of their agreement, or to negotiate new limits at renewal time. But walking it back like this was dirty pool.
It doesn’t speak well of a university, to see how severely they misunderstand the capitalist system, to see how prejudiced they are against the advertising medium, to see how irresponsible they are in their contract negotiations. Perhaps it’s time for them to put an asterisk by some of the degrees they offer – not all of them, just the degrees in business, marketing, philosophy and law – leading to a footnote:
“Do as I say, not as I do.”
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. A typical Italian drinker of wine and liqueurs, he is not a partisan for beer, and has no connection to the U of I or the billboard industry. But he IS a partisan for capitalism, for the advertising industry, and for honesty in contract negotiations. And yes, he likes billboards!
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