Perspective: College Daze

When it comes to selling parents on saving for college, there's just one thing you need to do: Freak them out

Headshot of Robert Klara

According to government statistics, the cost of housing, clothing and feeding one child until the age of 18 is just shy of $227,000—not including higher education. And that cost, as parents well know, is astronomical. In 2011, the price of one year at a private college neared $40,000.Since 1985, tuition costs have risen by 498 percent and continue to rise at double the rate of inflation. Saving up for an education is tougher than ever—and often requires a financial-services firm. Ah yes, you can almost smell the marketing opportunity now.

Since the end of World War II, firms have been making appeals to mom and dad to start saving for junior. But whether it’s Prudential in 1947 or Northwestern Mutual today, they face a marketing hurdle. “This kind of advertising is different from automobiles or soda because financial services are intangible,” said Jay Nagdeman, president of Suasion Resources, a marketing-consulting firm that serves the financial industry. “That’s extraordinarily difficult to communicate effectively.”

How difficult? Nagdeman said to make the deal you have to “motivate your reader with an emotional appeal.” And while he doesn’t believe either of these ads do a very good job at that (“They’re both very weak,” he said), both attempt it with a similar tactic: playing on a parent’s sense of responsibility, anxiety and guilt.

In 1947, college was costly, but not yet obscenely so. While the average household income stood at $3,500, an undergraduate year at, say, Penn State, cost $550—about a third of the price of a new car. Still, college enrollment had doubled since 1940, and Americans shelled out a record $1 billion on tuition in 1947 alone. So a mother encountering the ad at right was probably starting to worry a bit. Enter Prudential—and some not-so-subtle emotional manipulation. There’s the bright boy (translation: your boy) sitting amid his dim-bulb classmates. Now for the guilt sell: “You want your child to have his chance to make his life successful.” After all, what decent parent would not?

Nagdeman said the consumer confusion that inherently surrounds financial products is actually “the biggest hook those companies have. It’s saying, ‘We’re the guys who know the inside, and we can help you.’” That’s apparently the play Prudential is trying to make with the next line: “It is much easier to be sure there will be money for his education if you plan it the Prudential way.”

Some six decades later, though Northwestern Mutual might be using color photography and more elaborate graphics, it’s still triggering parental insecurity much like Prudential did. A father regards his precious progeny and worries: “Will we be able to afford college? … What if there’s law school?” Well, what if, dad? You don’t want your children in burger-flipper jobs because of you, do you?

But while both ads try to play a similar emotional card, both also illustrate just how difficult that feat can be. “You have to build a strong case—gain interest, tell a story, create impact,” Nagdeman said. “And I don’t think that’s happening in these ads.”

Perhaps not, but one thing is certain: In the time it took you to read this, college tuition rose another few dollars.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.
Publish date: February 9, 2012 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT