It Pays To Advertise
Readers of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal recently were confronted with prominently placed advertisements bearing a cryptic headline: "Why the St. Grottlesex education you enjoyed might not be the best idea for your daughter.''
Placed by the Emma Willard School, a 177-year-old boarding and day school for girls in Troy, N.Y., the ads were promoting research indicating that young women perform better and express greater confidence in a single-sex setting.
"St. Grottlesex,'' of course, is imaginary, an amalgam of top, formerly all-boys preparatory schools in New England that became coeducational in the 1960s and 70s. Such schools presumably were the alma maters of the affluent business executives who were the targets of the ads, which appeared on the arts page of the Journal and the opinion page of the Times.
The ads caused a mild stir among America's leading independent schools. "The coed schools have not been happy,'' says Robin Robertson, principal of the Emma Willard School. "They perceived the St. Grottlesex headline as a potshot at them.''
Although the school has taken a break from the high-profile ads for now, they reflect an important new trend in the way such schools are presenting themselves to the public: Many are moving beyond the traditional glossy brochure and are promoting themselves by placing paid advertising in local newspapers and regional and national magazines and by buying time on radio and television.
While private school advertising is not by any means a new thing, the current emphasis represents a marked change from the ethos of the past. Independent day and boarding schools "have scoffed at advertising for years,'' says Stewart Dunlop, admissions director of Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H. "They have been reasonably elitist bastions, and they have looked at marketing as something beneath the schools.''
Now, however, the slow economy and demographic trends that have reduced the ranks of potential applicants in the upper grades are forcing schools to be more aggressive in attracting students. Brewster is participating in an effort of a kind that is quickly gaining favor: collaborative marketing by schools grouped by region or common characteristic. Approximately 40 schools belonging to the Independent Schools of Northern New England, a regional association comprising institutions in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, hired a marketing company to develop ads designed to pique parental interest in private school education.
The association has placed ads in The Boston Globe and the regional advertising pages of such major magazines as Newsweek and The New Yorker. "We have met with tremendous success, with over 1,500 requests for information in the first year,'' Dunlop says.
A similar effort involving about 60 of the 80 member schools of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools is also under way. The participating schools all contribute a relatively small amount of money, which then enables the joint campaign to purchase ads. "The motive is less marketing than market development,'' says CAIS executive director, Peter Tacy. "The research has shown that a huge segment of the public doesn't know what independent schools are.''
City and regional magazines are popular places for private school ads because their readership demographics often match the independent school's main target market--affluent parents.
The Western Boarding Schools Association, a group of about 30 schools, has used a variety of magazines to place ads offering a directory of its members to interested parents. The magazines include regional titles within their geographic area, such as Sunset, Alaska Airlines, and Stanford magazines, plus out-ofregion magazines such as Texas Monthly and Southern Living. The association has also placed ads in general-interest, upscale magazines such as Smithsonian and Gourmet.
Expanding the focus of advertising can have its pitfalls, however. Such ads sometimes bring inquiries from parents who are not fully aware that the member schools largely serve a successful, college-bound group of students. "There are a lot of requests that we can't serve,'' says Sue Nicol, admissions director at the Oregon Episcopal School in Portland. "If we get respondents who say, 'His parole officer thinks he needs a boarding school,' then we can refer them'' to an appropriate alternative.
Still, advertising by private schools is not as recent a phenomenon as some make it sound. The back pages of The New York Times Magazine and other Sunday supplements have long contained small ads for a variety of private schools.
And, in The Catcher in the Rye, the J.D. Salinger classic first published in 1951, the character Holden Caulfield mentions with disdain the ads for his boarding school, the fictional Pencey Prep. "They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hot-shot guy on a horse jumping over a fence,'' Holden complains. "Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was play polo all the time. I never even once saw a horse anywhere near the place.''
One strategy that is clearly different, though, is the way many independent schools are taking to the airwaves to promote themselves. The Church Farm School in Paoli, Pa., about 30 miles outside of Philadelphia, shifted to radio commercials three years ago when inquiries from its newspaper ads declined. Since the school serves students from broken homes, it had to expand its reach beyond the traditional independent school market. It has run commercials on radio stations in the Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pa., and New Jersey markets. "We have tried news stations and other formats, but our most successful [format] is country and western,'' says Jack Kistler, the school's admissions director.
The Emma Willard School, meanwhile, is also making use of public television to spread its message. The school is the sponsor of the local broadcast of the popular new educational game show, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and advertises in the local public television station's program guide.
Although administrators at Emma Willard hope the controversial ads they placed in the Times and the Journal will attract new students to their gate, they do not see themselves as the only benefactors. Every all-girl independent school, they say, should also benefit.
"We did not see it just as an ad for Emma Willard,'' says principal Robertson. "They truly are position statements on the value of single-sex education.''