Car dealing 101
General Motors pays out for Butte College marketing team
Take eager college students, a corporation looking to promote itself via the younger set and a school glad for the extra bucks, and you get what’s known as the “GM Marketing Internship Class.”
Subsidizing college classes is an innovative, perfectly legal and increasingly popular way for corporations to get their names into schools—and get cheap PR while they’re at it.
A Berkeley-based company called EdVentures gets paid by General Motors to find schools wanting to offer students an entire class based on marketing the corporation’s product. The GM dealerships—in this case Miller Buick-Oldsmobile of Chico, which contributed $2,500 to the Butte College project—get exposure, and the students get a hands-on marketing experience.
The Butte College students don’t feel used. The participants in Professor Christelle Hall’s GM marketing class can’t say enough about how much they learned, and the ultimate benefactor ended up being the Boys and Girls Club of the North Valley, to the tune of almost $1,500.
The students’ grueling sem-ester, marked by sleepless nights and a few computer crises, culminated in a final presentation at Butte College on May 24.
Casey Hatcher, the project’s coordinator, explained that the team they dubbed “Marketing FX” divided the agency into several departments, mirroring the structure of a professional marketing firm. Jessica Ray represented the research department, Stuart Kuhlman took on public relations, Bill Scheuer handled the budget and Kyle Roth was in charge of testimonials. Also on board were students Ginger Sharrow, Roxanne Wauchope and Chuck Campbell.
Their mission was to increase awareness of the Chico dealership by 5 percent while also boosting knowledge of the Buick line. (Oldsmobiles live on in name only.)
The group came up with a marketing plan, deciding to link the promotional event to Gold Nugget Days in Paradise and choosing as its benefactor the Boys and Girls Club. Besides being philanthropic, which is always a good move for businesses that care about their communities, Kuhlman explained that the fund-raising angle created a “media hook to attract people” and brought in donations of food, prizes and supplies.
The April 28 event at the Bank of America on The Skyway was recounted at the final presentation via video footage. They had people climbing into a Regal, Park Avenue, Le Sabre and Century to collect trivia answers about the Buick line and peering into the spacious trunk (another creative tie-in) to guess how many golf balls it contained. There was face-painting (Hatcher “got a little GM on my face to support the cause"), a hole-in-one golf game and drawing for donated prizes, food and a live broadcast by Oldies 102.1.
“We tried to make our event as grandiose as we could,” Hatcher said.
The students tracked “media hits” and other exposure and found out how much the space or airtime would have cost had they had to pay for it ($2,131.91, they figured, to reach 94,095 people).
They conducted surveys before and after the event to gauge their success. “We actually increased the awareness by 22 percent,” Ray said. “I was very shocked.” And by the end of the day, 27 percent more people knew where the Chico dealership was located. (It’s 2303 The Esplanade—oops! There goes another media hit. By the way, the value of the brief mention in the News & Review’s Moving and Shaking column was set at $150.)
When all was said and done, Scheuer set out to “compare the cost vs. the value of the entire promotional campaign.” He calculated the value at $9,238.34, which meant that they had quadrupled the $2,500 Miller Buick-Oldsmobile of Chico had given the class to put on the event.
The Boys and Girls Club got all the money that was raised, plus $600 the group had left over in its budget, for a total of $1,424.19.
For their part, the Miller people thought their investment was well worth it. After the presentation, Miller Buick-Oldsmobile of Chico owner Dana Miller pronounced: “I thought you did a wonderful job.”
Chico State University also has a GM-subsidized class (the corporation typically donates $500 to a college department to offset faculty costs), which did a promotional event at the dealership that same day, with which Miller was also pleased.
Gary Masters, sales manager at Miller Buick-Oldsmobile, added: “They were all first-class; really professional. I’ve have had no problem hiring them.” As for how many people will buy a Buick because of the April 28 event, he said that’s not that easy to narrow down. “They did a real positive job with the people that they met. You can’t put a dollar amount on that type of thing. … Miller Buick’s name was brought out in a positive light.”
Throughout the presentation, Professor Hall, who taught the class, beamed proudly, refusing to take much credit for its success.
It wasn’t always smooth going, to be sure. Hall revealed that in the days leading up to the presentation, the class was plagued by technical difficulties. Indeed, the PowerPoint presentation the group worked so hard to prepare vaporized shortly after appearing on the projection screen.
The marketing group just went with it, jettisoning the PowerPoint and gamely giving the details from memory.
Programs like this have met with some controversy, because, learning opportunity aside, they essentially serve as a way for companies to get around laws forbidding advertising at schools. The corporations make a donation to a school, critics say, and essentially buy a junior marketing team to spread the word to their friends and strangers.
This can be problematic, especially when—unlike the Butte College venture—students are expected to sell their own peers on a credit card, car or other product in order to get a good grade.
Gary Ruskin, president of the nonprofit Commercial Alert, which opposes corporate advertising in schools, said in a telephone interview from Portland, Ore., that the GM marketing class isn’t a terrible offender, but the trend raises some concerns.
“It’s against the backdrop of the increasing corporatization of the universities,” he said. “Corporations want to turn universities into marketing tools. It’s an effort to further subvert the purpose of education for commercial gain.
“Advertising is the antithesis of education. Advertising is a form of propaganda, and that’s why it has no place in the university, where they’re trying to teach people how to think for themselves,” Ruskin continued. “Corporations give things because they want something in return.”
Greg Nichols, a program facilitator from EdVentures’ Sacramento office, acknowledged that, of course, the project wouldn’t have broken even if the team had been paid, like a “real” marketing firm.
But he said the comparison is not quite fair, since the structure and goals are so different. “When you have students doing things, the community is more likely to be supportive,” he explained. A professional firm likely wouldn’t be hired to do a promotion like this.
“It’s just a great partnership because it gives students the opportunity to have the real-world experience,” Nichols said. “It benefits both ways quite well.”
He told the students: “I guarantee this is going to be one of the highlights of your college career. It will be the topic of conversation at any job interview you go to.”
Roth agreed, calling the marketing internship “a great experience.”
“We had to make do with what we had and help each other out a lot,” he said. “There were a lot of job opportunities that were offered to us because of this event. … It’s a résumé builder. You’re working with real money and a real client. It’s the closest you’re going to get in college.”
Kuhlman, a few days after resting up from the event and presentation, reflected: “I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into when I started this class.” There was a “fun factor,” but “it was a lot of work.”
The core group was self-motivated and committed to the cause, he said. “Our personal reputations were dependent on the final outcome of this.”
“As things grew in momentum, we all realized how much good we were doing for the community,” Kuhlman said. “I don’t think there would have been as much support if it had been a paid marketing agency”