Hate the idea of marketing education? There’s an alternative…

Alberta Languages Initiative - Language Learning - Second LanguagesWhen I was starting my PhD program in 2005 I was planning to research the marketing of a new government initiative in Alberta that would have brought in mandatory second language students for all students in grades four to nine across the province. The Ministry of Education had prepared a “Tool Kit” for schools, which was a set of advertisements to be included in school newsletters, stock articles that could be printed and sent home to parents, slide presentations that could be given at information sessions and a few other resources for schools they could use to promote the new initiative. My research was going to involve working with schools to find out how they implemented this Tool Kit and marketed the languages initiative.

The second edition of 101 Ways to Market Your Language Program had just come out and I was excited to start my research.

A conversation with one of the Russian professors at the university changed everything for me. She asked what I was going to research and when I told her it was the marketing of the soon-to-be-rolled-out Languages Initiative, she said, “This isn’t marketing. It’s propaganda. Trust me, we Russians know all about propaganda. When the government tells you that you must do something and they make all kinds of posters and do news articles to try and convince you it is a good thing, that’s not marketing. Don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of the Languages Initiative. I believe that everyone should learn a second language… But make no mistake. What you’re studying is the propaganda around a new government program.”

She was right.

I was so excited about the thought of second language learning coming to all Alberta schools, I lost sight of the very essence of marketing: choice.

The idea of marketing as a business practice today dates back hundreds of years when farmers and other vendors would take their wares to the market in the town square and sell them. “To take items to market” is one of the definitions offered by the Oxford English Dictionary (Eaton, 2009, p. 189). From there vendors would compete for customers’ money in a variety of ways… displaying their products attractively, calling out to customers to buy their wares and so forth. The line between marketing and selling gets blurred at that point. But at the very core of it all is that people have a choice.

Yes, I want this product. No, I prefer that product.

We don’t like the word “propaganda” in the Western world. It has echoes of the Nazi regime and its associated horrors, of foreign governments (and possibly our own) that pit us against one another as human beings as if we were animals, ultimately trying to convince us that “we” are good and “they” are bad; whoever “they” are (it changes depending on which government is issuing the propaganda). It is designed to convince us, not to invite us to question and explore.

Governments, school boards and other institutions mandate policies that require convincing people to “buy into” the idea. Propaganda isn’t always bad. Campaigns promoting the law that people have to buckle their seat belts are essentially propaganda. At the heart of it, people don’t really have much of a choice. There are punishments (fines and possible jail sentences) if people don’t comply. Seat belt laws are designed to protect us and they’re there for our own good. It’s not really open to debate. We may call it “propaganda” or we may call it by its newer, more culturally palatable name, “communications”, but the bottom line is, it’s not marketing.

In terms of education, there are mandatory aspects of education that we generally consider good. You may have read my recent rant against the abolition of mandatory second language learning in Calgary’s elementary public schools. Basically, my point was that our local school board was targeting second language programs in the wake of massive financial cutbacks. They weren’t making all subjects voluntary. Sciences, math and other subjects are still mandatory. Its just the second language programs that are being offered as a “choice”. Having some subjects as mandatory and some subjects as a choice in elementary school setting is not something we have typically done. School boards are charged with the responsibility of providing a solid foundation in important subjects to children that they can build on in later grades. At that age, educational experts are charged with the responsibility of educating them and making that choice on their behalf. It’s never really been open to debate.

Marketing, by its very nature (and if it is held true to form) involves research, exploration and questioning… What will people choose? Why will they choose it? What do they want? Why do they want it?

Marketing of education is a tricky thing… There’s a fine balance between what’s mandatory (or what should be) and what governments, school boards and institutions of higher learning decide to give people a choice about. Olga, the Russian professor who cautioned me about confusing “propaganda” with “marketing” was right.

As it turned out, in 2006 there was a change of Ministers and the Alberta Languages Initiative was canned. The Tool Kit was all but shelved and although a few school boards kept the mandate of second language learning, many did not. Learning a second language in Alberta continues to remain optional in many areas. People debated whether language learning should be optional or not… This debate has always fascinated me.

Nevertheless, the implosion of the mandatory second languages initiative meant the end of my proposed research project. Instead I went back to the original idea of studying marketing of language programs and conducted a case study looking at how English as a Second Language (ESL) programs at the University of Calgary were marketed. I looked at programs that were truly marketed… students had a choice between programs and schools. They could attend any program they chose, anywhere in the world. Marketing of ESL programs is a global business.

At that point, I became more convinced than ever that marketing, when it’s done right and held true to its purest form, is a good thing. Marketing involves choice, lots and lots of research and a long and arduous process of thinking things through. It’s that last bit about thinking things through that some organizations forget to do… Once you take the thinking out of the equation, you’re not marketing any more.

The alternative to inviting people to think, to question and to make decisions on their own is to make things mandatory and bombard them with propaganda convincing them to comply.

Education isn’t really been clear about which way it wants to go.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


4 Responses to Hate the idea of marketing education? There’s an alternative…

  1. Marketing culminates with “taking items to market”. But starts much further up the line with determining need or perceived need. There are many examples of NGOs that fill a need in the developing world without a view to a profit.

  2. Sandra Hoenle says:

    Sarah, I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which you approach this tricky subject – and totally support your enthusiasm for second languages. That being said, there’s one part of marketing that definitely makes many educators twitchy: the ultimate reason for marketing is profit. As soon as that motive enters the picture, all bets are off as to how much any other kind of motivation will be weighted. And that, in my opinion, is what makes marketing about persuasion rather than thoughtful decision-making. I refer you to Terry O’Reilly’s ‘Age of Persuasion’ blog, book and CBC program.

    • Sandra, thanks for your comment. I appreciate your equally thoughtful approach to the subject. I always enjoy your comments because even though we don’t always agree, you always make me think. (Insert big smile here). I’m not familiar with O’Reilly’s work so before writing this reply, I went to Amazon and ordered The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture. (Seems there’s a new paperback version out in May 2011, too. Yaay for new editions!) I’ll counter with a recommendation to read Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” and the companion monograph “Good to Great and the Social Sectors”. Collins challenges us to take the idea of profit out of the equation in the social sectors and focus on impact and the difference we can make to others’ lives.

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