June 7th, 2005
Publisher Pushes Textbook Ads; McGraw-Hill Targets Students; Critics Warn Plan Could Backfire
By Rick Westhead
The first thing Tamy Zubyk sees when she wakes up and peels the curtains back in her Ryerson University dormitory room is the sea of flashing, dazzling billboards that pepper Toronto’s downtown skyline.
From then on, the 21-year-old says she spends the rest of her day being targeted by ads in subways, on storefronts — even in the women’s washrooms at Ryerson, which feature ads alongside hand dryers and on the inside of the toilet stall doors. The classroom is one of the few advertising-free zones for Zubyk and Canada’s other 785,000 university and college students.
Perhaps not for long.
For the past several months, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., one of the country’s largest publishers of university textbooks, has been quietly trying to coax companies into buying advertising space in their texts.
"Reach a hard to get target group where they spend all their parents’ money," says a McGraw-Hill brochure touting its planned ads. "Do you really think 18-24 year olds see those on-campus magazine ads? Do you really think they could miss an ad that is placed in a very well-respected textbook?"
The Whitby-based publisher, which has made presentations about its prospective textbook ads to more than a dozen advertising agencies, says in its brochure that ads can be purchased nationally or regionally, and "can be so targeted, you can even buy a specific major.
"We’ve never offered this before and we’ll only offer it to the right organizations," McGraw-Hill’s brochure says. The company plans initially to charge as much as $1.40 per book, and the ads would be inserts, instead of being placed permanently alongside text.
Several media planners whose companies weren’t involved in the ad push said McGraw-Hill’s efforts are likely to backfire.
"Textbooks are one of the last bastions," said Randy Stein, a partner at Grip Media Ltd., a Toronto ad agency. "There are some things that should remain pure and sacred. What’s next, university professors with logos on their blazers like NASCAR?"
McGraw-Hill business development specialist Diana MacDonald said in brief interview that university students are already targets of ads.
So-called "frosh packs" aimed at first-year students include dozens of company brochures, she said, adding that banks often try to pitch prospective account holders by paying for exclusive rights to place automated teller machines on a school’s campus.
In a subsequent statement to the Toronto Star, MacDonald wrote that the publisher’s textbook ads have two purposes: to bring "beneficial corporate and social awareness campaigns to the attention of students" and to "generate revenue to support programs which help professors and teachers cope with the rapid changes in their environment."
MacDonald said marketing wouldn’t affect the price of the textbooks and that "all of the funds we receive from the direct to student marketing program will be directed to support the (Institute for the Advancement of Teaching in Higher Education) and conferences that are organized" by the publisher. "Advertisers are carefully chosen to ensure their products and offerings provide value to students and maintain an ethical presence," she wrote.
"Social issues are also promoted through the same means to provide awareness in areas such as drinking and driving, federal government initiatives to encourage students to vote, and health departments’ promotion of immunization programs such as meningitis."
The publisher is pitching to advertisers at the same time as it is trying to weather a recent sales decline.
With corporate roots dating back to 1829 when the Methodist Church established Canada’s first publishing company, McGraw-Hill Ryerson last year sold about 1 million textbooks and reported revenue of $88 million, a 7 per cent slip from the $95 million the company generated in 2002.
McGraw-Hill is a subsidiary of McGraw-Hill Cos., a U.S. publisher that also owns credit-rating company Standard & Poor’s Corp. and Business Week magazine.
The publisher’s higher education division reported a 2 per cent sales increase in 2004, printing textbooks on topics such as English, psychology, business and engineering.
Several ad agency executives said the ads would probably face a backlash similar to when soft-drink companies placed vending machines inside schools.
"This is just a minefield," said David Gibb, general manager of ad agency J.Walter Thompson. "The reaction would be horrible. It’d be a disaster."
Rebecca Rose, president of the Ryerson Students’ Union, said McGraw-Hill’s portrayal of students "as mooching off their parents" in the brochure was inappropriate and insulting.
Heather Campbell, a 24-year-old sociology student at the University of Toronto, agreed, adding "this is supposed to be a place of learning ... textbooks should be free of corporate influence."
McGraw-Hill isn’t the first company that has coveted school-aged consumers and their parents.
Procter & Gamble is trying to lure Grade 5 American students by presenting a number of schools with a package of reading materials, a video and product samples that include an Old Spice deodorant stick for boys and a Secret stick, plus Always maxi-pads, for girls.
Students like Ryerson’s Zubyk, who’s admittedly influenced by ads — "I see a McDonald’s ad, I crave McDonald’s" — said McGraw-Hill’s plans are a disturbing sign of the times.
"We’re faced with it all day. I think it’s just getting to be too much."