Drake University's New Ad Campaign: It's A Big D+

by Katjusa Cisar


The marketing team that dreamed up Drake University’s latest campaign, “The D+ Advantage,” got so carried away by an apparent allusion to positively charged molecules that it thought it could either ignore or, alternately, capitalize on one obvious fact: the logo is the grade for pathetically under-average schoolwork, a D-plus.

Or, as Drake envisions it, “your Potential + our Opportunities.”

It’s a chemistry equation, see… except with people and a horribly misguided institution of higher learning. (Never mind that a positively charged ion attracts negativity-but hey, I barely passed Rocks For Jocks in college, so I’ll leave the scientific interpretation to others.)

Let Drake, who graduated such stuff as esteemed poet Mark Doty and gay journalist Rex Wockner and that creepy guy from Lost, break it down for us: “When we talk about D+, that’s what we mean. Every moment at Drake is one that has the power to educate, to transform, to open minds and to unleash potential-to introduce who you are, to who you hope to become.”

George Carpenter, founder of Drake University, laid out this idea during a commencement speech in 1884, when he declared:

Institutions of learning must come under this rule: By their fruits ye shall know them. A practical education is that which gives the mind the most power and adaptability. The credentials that your young and hopeful alma mater will soon confer upon each of you can only give you an introduction to the world of letters and of actual life. They can serve you no further. In whatever of the varied vocations of life you may engage, as well as in general society, you must work out your own destiny.

Poetic, no? But a real bummer to try to brand. In this age, we need a quick visual, one that really encapsulates a core idea in the 1.9 seconds a potential student takes before clicking on to another page in the fruitless quest to find information of value on a university website (the webcomic xkcd did a neat Venn diagram on this phenomenon).

To be completely inclusive by Wikipedia’s standards, “D+” doesn’t just have an entry as a terrible grade. It’s also listed as an indie rock band from Anacortes, WA, with “droll vocals and witty wordplay, and a minimalist, charmingly ramshackle sound.” Pitchfork last reviewed the band in 2003 with a 4.8 rating.

That’s the company you’re keeping, Drake marketers. Except, unlike D+ the band and D+ the grade, you’re not even passing. Maybe try for a “charmingly ramshackle sound” next time, eh?

In an internal email sent to faculty and staff on Tuesday morning (and published here by a renegade recipient), Drake University defended the The Drake Advantage campaign as “intentionally edgy.” In a confusing leap of logic, it praised the logo as a standalone eye-catcher but then backpedals and says “The D+ was not designed to stand alone or represent a grade. it was designed to be paired with prose.”

The “D+” graphic scored well in a survey of 921 high school students, according to the authors, Tom Delahunt, vice president of Admission and Financial Aid, and Debra Lukehart, executive director of Marketing and Communications.

Taking a strangely condescending tone, the letter goes on to explain, “Our experience in the survey and in the field suggests that the kind of students whom we want to attract to Drake easily understand and appreciate the irony of the D+, and that it is having the intended effect of encouraging students to find out more about what makes Drake so special.”

Hear that? If you don’t easily appreciate the irony, Drake doesn’t even want you, you dense plebe!

Katjusa Cisar is a freelance writer living in Atlanta.