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A Father's Journal / College marketing spin -- with a grin

Published 7:11 am, Thursday, April 17, 2014
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I was talking to my neighbors about the college-selection process last year. Their eldest daughter already was in college, and mine was just starting the process.

Her father said they'd just received a postcard that his daughter's college sent to parents, and they were on it -- selected as The Smiling Asian Family.

"Wow," I said. "That's great. How did you get that gig?"

"Well, uh, first of all, we're Asian," he said

"Yeah, that probably helped," I agreed.

He went on to elaborate. "We were at a campus event where they took our picture, and a few months later, we're on a postcard. They didn't even tell us."

He then explained that every college has to have hundreds of pictures of people smiling for its promotional literature to help lure prospective students. They need diverse, intelligent-looking people smiling -- even while doing something that wouldn't make a normal person smaile.

There are pictures of kids studying with ridiculous grins. There are pictures of 20 smiling geeks wearing perfectly starched lab coats and safety goggles looking at one test tube. And, of course, smiling families. My neighbor was very proud to join that group.

"Did you get a few rubles for the picture?," I asked. Maybe something off of your daughter's tuition?"

"Nothing," he said.

Soon after this conversation, my family started to get college brochures in the mail. We kept looking for our neighbors' faces but never found them. I guess we could have rung their doorbell, but it was more fun looking for them in the mail.

Now that Caroline has chosen the college she'll attend in the fall, we are hoping all the college brochures will stop the same way Christmas catalogs trickled off in January. This past holiday, we received twice as many college catalogs as Pottery Barn catalogs.

All the pictures in all the college brochures were pretty much the same. There was always one picture of the stately administration building, maybe a sports shot of the fans really enjoying themselves. Then some students/models playing Frisbee, coed touch football, or kicking around a soccer ball. Everyone is smiling. There's wide diversity. Everyone is really clean.

Then they have the academic shots. No one is bored. No one is hung over. Either three people are pointing to a computer screen while grinning or everyone is staring with fascination at the same test tube filled with a blue liquid.

I can imagine the conversation before the photo:

Professor: This is Windex.

Safety goggled students: "Wow, Alright! Awesome!"

Professor: "It is used to clean windows"

Students: "Yeah! That's great ... can we drink it?"

Professor: "No, you attractive, smiling imbeciles, you may not drink it. I am just holding it up so they can take a freaking picture. I don't even work here.

About 10 years ago, the University of Wisconsin at Madison had a brochure with a picture of sports fans. Everybody looked good, smiling enthusiastic. But it lacked diversity. Someone got the idea of adding an African American male's head in the shot. Then the picture would be perfect.

But it was a crappy Photoshop job, and it looked more like a floating head. They were called on it and had to reprint the brochure. North Korea does a better job of photo shopping people than the University of Wisconsin. It does not say much about their graphic art majors. The brochure seemed to be saying, "No matter what race you are, or even if you are a disembodied head who has to be taken to football games on a pillow by your friends, you will love Wisconsin, please considering enrolling."

About five years ago, my younger daughter went to summer day camp with her friend Brendan. She hated it. Brendon hated it. They cried, faked illness and injuries to get out of the camp. My daughter, in her then dramatic fashion, described it as the "worst week" of her life. The next year we walked into the lobby of the nonprofit that runs the camp, and there is a giant poster of Julia with her arm around Brendan. The caption said "Happy campers."

The picture in the lobby -- and the subsequent brochures and postcards -- were designed to entice people enroll their children in camp and be as happy as these kids. The picture showed probably the only time they were smiling the whole week. To get them to smile, I imagine the photographer was telling them, "Your parents are picking you up early today."

With that in mind, we were disappointed that after visiting more than 20 college campuses along the East coast, we were never photographed strolling across a green quad or along a leafy path, even though we always dressed in our best campus wear. And I was smiling the whole time.

Thomas Lawlor lives in Southport with his wife and two daughters. His "A Father's Journal" appears every other Friday.