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Obay Phase Two Revealed

Phase Two of the much-blogged Obay campaign is hitting the streets, having been “unveiled” in a press conference at Centennial College this morning. Linda Franklin, President & CEO of Colleges Ontario—the advocate for the province’s 24 colleges of applied arts and technology—was there to divulge details of the “top secret” campaign. Shocker: it has to do with parental mind control.

“There is a conventional stereotype and a public perception that college is a lesser alternative to university,” Franklin said. “We seek to expose the biases held by parents that post-secondary education is a vertical hierarchy… and invite them to consider all that colleges have to offer.”
Recent research undertaken by Colleges Ontario shows that 98% of parents talk to their children about post-secondary education, that they favour university over college as the number one choice for their children by a 3–1 margin, and that almost 30% would be disappointed or embarrassed if their child went to college.
Beginning today, the Obay ads will be plastered with faux-guerilla marketing (like the one pictured above). The new stickers deliver messages to parents, such as, “Your kids should be allowed to make their own decisions, especially when it comes to their post-secondary education.” The ads point people to Ontario Colleges’ website, which has a special section devoted to the ads and the meaning behind them. It’s not revolutionary, nor should it be necessary, but it’s certainly an interesting way to tackle the academic snobbery of which colleges have long complained.
Of course, many handclaps should go to the creative communications agency behind the Obay ads, Smith Roberts and Co. The campaign is creative in the truest sense of the word, plus it’s totally hooky (while falling just shy of hokey). We didn’t just buy it—we’re their best customer, the biggest cog in the spin machine.
And we think that’s okay. We’re not the most enthusiastic fans of advertising when it intrudes excessively on public space, offends our aesthetic sensibilities, and/or bombards us with nationalist guilt because we really, really don’t care about the new CBC lineup. But ads are also a necessary part of the urban consumerist landscape, and since they have to be there, they might as well entertain and provoke discussion.
It seems Obay is winning on both fronts. Malcolm Roberts (pictured above), President of Smith, Roberts and Co, called the response “overwhelming,” citing hundreds of phone messages, tons of blog entries, mentions in newspapers as diverse as The New York Times, and even Facebook and Flickr groups that he swears have nothing to do with his agency (we almost believe him).
Roberts also said 90 percent of people who saw the ads believed they communicated an “insidious idea.” (Well, yeah. What we want to know is, who were the 10 percent of parents who were like, “Gosh darn, well isn’t this just the trick we’ve been waiting for? Honey, call up and see if you can order by the case!”)
Colleges Ontario hopes the wildfire reaction to the ads will spark informed dialogue between parents and students about post-secondary options. And to further fuel discussion, they’re launching three cinema ads that poke sharp-edged fun at overbearing parents and teachers. The 30-second spots can be viewed on YouTube.
Photos by David Topping. Obay ads courtesy of Colleges Ontario/FlexPR.


  • David E

    How much of taxpayers’ money was spent on this silliness? It could have been used to better purposes such as books or improved services to students.
    I believe that the advertising contract should be gone over carefully and–if possible–handed to a more responsible party.

  • antiboy

    Every time I see those ads, I’ll feel like I’ve been bludgeoned with a giant (smelly) trout. I like the message and I guess it’s kind of a good thing it’s so freaking obvious now, but geez… did it have to be that in-your-face?

  • Ryan L

    I disagree. This is exactly what post secondary needs. When I was in high school I was pressured into ONLY applying to Universities and talked out of pursuing something I was actually interested in. This was by ALL of my teachers AND guidance counselors.
    They said I had the grades to get into University courses and fed me the logic that the higher the grade requirement the better the program.
    A friend of mine decided to graduate in grade 12 (this was back when we had OACs). He was the only one in our circle of friends that did this. Everyone talked about why he’d want to go to -college-. Everyone was disappointed in him. His parents, his teachers, and even, sadly, his friends.
    He graduated in 2000, a year before the rest of us. He currently owns a house, a car and earns a very respectable wage for someone who was only in high school 8 years ago.
    in 2001 I was accepted into several Universities and headed off to U of T.
    February 2008: I’m currently in my last semester of COLLEGE. University led me nowhere. Friends graduating with HONOURS in some of the toughest courses in Canada are working for cab companies, retail stores and call centres. The mid to high 90s requirement has landed them jobs that just barely pay the rent.
    In 2 months I graduate. I already have a job lined up, in fact I’ve been interning with them for 3 weeks now. On my first day I will be making more money than friends who have been working for a few years after graduating Universities with high marks. AND, the job is FUN.

  • Jeni

    I’ve been following this story and have to admit that I’m *still* not clear on who the target audience is for these ads.
    If it’s parents, do they really think that suggesting (to parents) that they’re being selfish and manipulative is going to encourage more open and progressive thinking?
    And if it’s students — who now more than ever need the financial assistance that some parents can provide — do they really think that these kids need to be reminded that whether they like it or not, sometimes Mom and Dad can be pushy?
    I’ll assume that Colleges Ontario is sincere in its hopes that “the wildfire reaction to the ads will spark informed dialogue between parents and students about post-secondary options.” But frankly, all I’m seeing is Colleges Ontario calling parents a bunch of misguided, overbearing *ssholes, and I hardly thing that will foster productive conversation around the ol’ dinner table.

  • Miles Storey

    In England there was a similar two-tier perception of under graduate education, universities and polytechnics. Universities were hardest to get into but polytechnics were far more vocational, work experience was almost exclusively the domain of polytechnics.
    The government ‘solved’ the disparity by doing away with the name polytechnic and calling them all universities.

  • Carly Beath

    I’ve gotta agree with Ryan – I think the ads are great. I’m saying this as someone who graduated from university, because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do, and is now in college. University, for me, was not worth the insane amounts of debt I incurred. So what if the ads offend some pushy parents? Maybe it’s what they need to realize that they shouldn’t be so overbearing – I know some parents who’ve picked out the specific program their kid takes.

  • rek

    I like the campaign, but I think it fails to communicate the message about the stigma about college and not succumbing to pressure to go to university. I’m sure the website goes into all that, but phase two of the print campaign should have found room for it.
    I grew up thinking university was the obvious choice, and college was for dummies. I was offered thousands by Ottawa and Waterloo if I decided to go there, but in the end I’m the guy who went to college (Seneca) when all of his friends went to university. With the exception of one (who quit university to go to college) they’re all in the service sector now in one form or another, while I’m working in my field. I took a half-year sabbatical last year, paid for in cash, while they’re still living with their parents or splitting the rent three ways…

  • james a

    I work with a lady who had picked out her daughters university program -and graduate program for after that- when the daughter was 16. The daughter, at 19 and living away from home recently went on her first date and the mom came to work in hysterics ’cause her daughter was growing up… Wacky parents, she’s probably sad to see that these ads were only satire. :)

  • dowlingm

    Ryan L’s point is an excellent one – perhaps the advertising that Ontario Colleges should be putting up is in guidance counsellor offices. Virtually all teachers have been to university and it is only natural that they self-validate their choice by recommending it to others.

  • matty

    Why did people think that they “saw these ads in new york” when they are ads for a local school?

  • Amanda Buckiewicz

    Is that an actual bottle of Obay? Where can I get me some of that (to fill with candy, natch)?

  • matty

    Also if you back to the older threads on this it seems like no one “got” the message and there were many different interpretations about what it was supposed to be.
    If this was art, then I guess that would be a good thing, but the fact that they had to reveal what it meant after the fact shows that they are bad advertisers. Though someone could say it was effective “guerilla marketing” but that’s just a cop out, imo.

  • David Topping

    re: #11: The bottles of Obay were on display at the press conference––media got one as they left, half-filled with green Jelly Belly jelly beans, and an Obay USB key shaped like a big pill. Down even to that detail, this is by far one of the best-executed and most successful ad campaigns that I can remember. Here’s hoping we don’t have thousands of companies trying to duplicate it with bad knock-offs––I don’t know how many mystery ads we can take.

  • beth maher

    I also agree with Ryan L.
    I’m not even going to go into how messy my post-secondary educations was, but I can summarize by saying that I do not have a degree or diploma of any kind, and am still floundering around unsure about my life and it pretty much 100 percent due to parents and teachers pressuring me into going to University when I should have taken my time and actually been able to explore my options.
    Meanwhile, the friends I have who took their time, who maybe took a year or two off and then chose to go to college – own houses and cars and are really happy and settled and successful in their lives.
    The most insidious thing I found about the pressure teachers put on students is that they not only present University as the only option, they often present only Med, Law or Business school and, of course, Teachers college as the only viable option in life. I left high school thinking that my artistic inclinations were going to lead me into a life of poverty. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.

  • AR

    That advertising money could have been spent to paint the walls of University College. The horror, the horror!

  • Apricot

    I agree with Jeni. Although not a bad ad campaign, I think that it doesn’t seem to have been made with a target audience in mind. I don’t imagine that many people with highschool/post-secondary-children have been talking about it. Or feel less inspired to pressure their beloved child into accounting.
    The prejudice against a college education goes further than just the parents! Take a look at job postings. I’m a college graduate in Engineering Technology. The biggest consideration for me for education was price. I was able to found my education through scholarships, grants, co-op terms and a year off to work after highschool – no OSAP, no $Ks of debt. The program was good; challenging enough to make me work. But I still feel that I am left uneligible for any job posting specifying a uni degree!
    Is the workplace ideal really to get both a university AND college education? Who the heck has the time or money?