Stanford Spots Break the College Mold

LOS ANGELES When the unranked Stanford Cardinal met the 2nd-ranked University of Southern California Trojans Saturday, it seemed likely there would be more contrast between the teams on the gridiron than at halftime, when both schools get time from the NCAA to air promotional clips.

As it turned out, the shock of Stanford’s 24-23 upset only added to the irony.

“All of the other schools put their promos through what I call the ‘blander,'” said Bruce Miller, CEO of Interpublic Group’s Dailey & Associates, West Hollywood, Calif. “There’s the obligatory shot of the quad, the earnest professor lecturing an attentive class and plenty of ivy.”

Using time given pro bono to the universities by the NCAA as part of the television-rights package, promotional videos exemplify a standard collegiate-promotional template.

Typical USC promos flash a shot of Tommy Trojan, the school’s mascot on horseback, but otherwise avoid any football-factory connotations.

Stanford’s ads tell another story entirely.

Heeding the advice of Miller (Stanford Graduate School of Business, class of ’75), Stanford has stood the category on its head with parodies of now-standard hallowed-halls-of-ivy self-promotion.

Three 30-second spots (available at or on YouTube, where they’re garnering thousands of hits) split the creative between facts about Stanford scientific achievement, delivered by a stentorian voiceover narrative, and frat-boy visuals in which the high-tech achievements descend to dorm humor.

One spot describing the Klystron tube includes the narration, “When the arts and sciences demand innovation, the people at Stanford University answer the call. That’s no more apparent than in their study of energy waves…” The contrasting visual is a marshmallow bunny being put in a microwave oven by a student in order to watch it melt to death.

Another spot shows a student musician playing a horrid rendition of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony on a keyboard as the narrator lauds Stanford’s advances in FM synthesis.

A third promo lauds faculty research on laser energy while an unseen provocateur teases a house cat with a laser pointer. “Even now, over 40 years later, the laser’s full potential has yet to be realized.” The tag for each is an ironic, “Hail, Stanford, hail.”

“What caught my eye [in the original RFP] was the line, ‘We might even consider humor,'” Miller recalls. “The fact that they committed that to writing made us think we did want to work with them, but only under those conditions.” Ultimately, “It was a historic moment in advertising,” recalls Miller. “We showed our ideas to a conference room full of people and they asked for not one change. We were in pleasant shock.”

“We traditionally had produced one a year, but this year we wanted to rise above the clutter,” said Kate Chesley, Stanford’s associate director of communications in Menlo Park, Calif. Stanford’s last campaign honored scholar athletes and famous alumni. “We haven’t had the time to pause and think about what we’re going to do next.”