"Yale Shmale" Beats around the Bush

August 3, 2008

"Yale Shmale" wild postings in Toronto

On Friday, August 25 2006, Lakehead University launched an inexpensive but provocative ad campaign that caught the attention of millions worldwide, generated hundreds of thousands of website hits and news coverage on CNN, BBC, and many other news outlets worldwide. Downtown Toronto was plastered with simple, black-and-white posters featuring an unflattering photo of US President George W. Bush under the headline "Yale Shmale," and a link to a new microsite, yaleshmale.com. The site elaborated that "Graduating from an Ivy League university doesn't necessarily mean you're smart," and on the second page, said "Let's not beat around the bush. Lakehead is different."

As an awareness-getting tactic, the campaign "exceeded expectations." But many critics felt it was a tasteless and repugnant way to promote an institute of higher learning. Lakehead's student council and faculty union both denounced it as "devaluing" a Lakehead education. Within a week, Lakehead was regrouping and shifted to Phase 2 of the campaign that seemed unrelated -- "Be Smart not smug." (Read about the controversy on Lakehead's Agora Online website.)

Second version of Yale Shmale website

Years later, the question remains: is any publicity bad publicity? By September 12, 2006, Lakehead had logged 1,171 entrants to its Smart car contest and more than 82,759 hits to its recruitment website. Lakehead's application volumes did in fact increase. Global media coverage easily totalled $1 million, "more than Lakehead could buy in ten years". In the US, all that outraged Republicans could remember was that it was "some Canadian university" -- likely reflecting more on new prime minister Stephen Harper than on Lakehead specifically.

What do you think? Was the risk to Lakehead's reputation justified? Did it pay off?