University of Phoenix Tries to Hush Haters With a Wry Rendition of ‘If I Only Had a Brain’

Beleaguered school attempts to change the conversation

After a brutal few years, the University of Phoenix is ready to rise from the ashes.

The largely online, for-profit school is trying to turn its struggling business around—while fighting negative perceptions of its programs—with a glossy ad blitz, one of its historic strengths. The centerpiece TV ad in the campaign, from 180LA, repurposes the classic Wizard of Oz tune "If I Only Had a Brain" (originally performed by an incredibly goofy scarecrow). The school's version, "More Than Brains," is a paean to the perseverance and intelligence of its students.

This is an effort to shift discussion away from negative perceptions about the University of Phoenix, which is under widespread scrutiny for shady business practices. The government has repeatedly cracked down on the institution, which soaked taxpayers, preyed on veterans and left students saddled with debt, struggling to find jobs to pay back loans. 

What followed was a financially dismal year; parent company Apollo Education lost 75 percent of its shareholder value in 2015, and the student body shrank to 200,000 over the same period, less than half of its peak size in 2010. 

Last week, Apollo Education announced its $1.1 billion sale to a private group of investors with ties to the Obama administration. The company's new chairman, former Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller, vowed to turn the University of Phoenix into "the leading provider of quality higher education for working adults." 180LA's debut work for the brand follows last year's creative review, kicking off the new administration's efforts to complete the substantial task of revamping its offerings and image. 

At its heart, the campaign builds intelligently around Miller's ambition. An online education is a legitimate option for people who require flexibility to meet life's other obligations, like multiple jobs, raising children and caring for infirm elders—none of which should be scoffed at. Drawing on Oz might seem arbitrary, but the familiar melody makes otherwise cliché-packed pablum—like "Life is short, talk is cheap"—less tedious, even moving. 

Powerful visuals and anecdotes add melodramatic gravitas to the film: A mother breastfeeds her baby while studying, and a gunshot survivor boxes defiantly, all to the sweet tones of someone who sounds vaguely like Regina Spektor. 

But hard as it tries to shed the school's baggage, the ad falls into the trap of seeming a little too anxious to gloss past reality. If its defensive stance is understandable, the concluding lyric, "A degree is a degree/You're going to want someone like me/But only if you have a brain," simply rings appalling—especially considering the school's admission that some of its recruiters misled students about the similarities and differences between particular degrees, and which jobs they could expect to get as a result (such practices helped trigger an FTC investigation into deceptive marketing tactics).

Setting aside the University of Phoenix's legal woes—and the moral turpitude of manipulating a population striving to better itself while making ends meet—that statement undercuts the ad's attempt to flatter the intellects of prospective students. Online degrees are certainly not all worthless, but claiming that all degrees from all schools are created equal really is brainless thinking. As a result, the ad's tagline, "We rise," falls flat, instead of enthusiastic and resilient as intended.

Then again, maybe the campaign will pick itself up and do better next time … much like the school it's advocating for.