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HomeBusinessExclusive: UBC spends millions of dollars on ads to counter negative headlines

Exclusive: UBC spends millions of dollars on ads to counter negative headlines

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Bob Mackin

The University of British Columbia has spent nearly $4.5 million on advertising since the NDP came to power in 2017.

Documents released to theBreaker.news under freedom of information show that the most-recent campaign, which ran last fall and into early 2019, cost $2.88 million.

The “Potential is yours” ads, created by Taxi and placed by MediaCom, highlighted seven professors and students who appeared in the ads with images projected on and behind them.

UBC student Alicia Lau in the Potential is yours campaign (UBC)

UBC did not fulfil a request to interview president Santa Ono. Instead, it delivered a prepared statement from Rick Hart, the university’s senior director of brand and marketing.

“The ads challenge the audience, as we at UBC challenge ourselves, to not accept the status quo,” Hart wrote. “We’re very proud of the work of our researchers, students and staff in embodying that spirit and the advertisements reflect their work.”

Hart said it was the first time UBC advertised nationally and the cost of media space in Eastern Canada runs six to seven times more than in B.C. The lion’s share of the campaign, almost $1.26 million, was spent on TV ads. It also included $322,000 for ads in newspaper ads and $274,000 on websites and social media. 

The previous UBC campaign cost $1.55 million and was themed “For a better B.C.,” a variation of the NDP’s 2017 campaign slogan. One of the ads featured a student wearing an NDP orange toque. The amount spent on ads in the last two years is the equivalent of one year’s tuition for 842 nursing, science and arts students. 

Scenes from University of B.C.’s “For a better BC” ad campaign, including Okanagan student Tim Abbott (UBC)

A two-and-a-half page client brief by Taxi about “Potential is yours” was fully censored because UBC considered it policy advice. However, a similar document about the 2017 campaign was not censored. It said “it is imperative that UBC invests in its profile and reputation — locally, nationally and globally.” The 2017 Provincial Tactical Positioning Campaign was intended to create “positive perceptions regarding the mission of the university to the benefit of industry, government and NGO partnerships and projects.”

The Sept. 13, 2018 report to the UBC board of governors justifying the latest campaign said UBC’s reputation was affected by “a series of negative news headlines through 2015 and into 2016.” The subjects of those stories were not mentioned. That period included the controversial departure of president Arvind Gupta the year after he was hired, sexual assault allegations by female students against a grad student and professor and campaigns for and against ex-Vancouver 2010 Olympics CEO John Furlong’s speech to an athletics department fundraiser after he was accused of abuse by aboriginal students he taught four decades ago.

“Global competition for the best students and faculty, funding investments and charitable donations continues to increase,” said the report. “For all these reasons, defining UBC’s brand proposition and communicating it broadly take on heightened importance.”

UBC’s increased ad spending reflects a trend in the U.S., where paid advertising by U.S. institutions hit a record $1.65 billion in 2016, an 18.5% jump over 2015, according to research by Kantar.

UBC was supposed to deliver the records about the latest ad campaign to theBreaker.news by March 21, but missed the deadline because it claimed it has a large backlog. The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner intervened and the documents were finally released April 18.

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