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UCLA advertising schemes take advantage of unsuspecting students

(Cody Wilson/Daily Bruin)

By Navdeep Bal

January 16, 2020 9:50 pm

Paying for a full UCLA subscription doesn’t mean you won’t have ads.

UCLA is a research university, but it’s also a business. For the 2018 fiscal year, UCLA made about $7.6 billion in revenue – a number which includes operating revenue from organizations such as the UCLA Health System, as well as profits from trademarks and branding fees.

Unbeknownst to students, UCLA’s campus functions as a marketplace. Multiple businesses engage in sponsorships with the university, often paying large amounts of money to the school in order to advertise to its students.

But when financially vulnerable students are caught in the middle of these deals, it can be detrimental at worst and annoying at best.

The line between advertising and college campuses becomes indistinguishable as students can become unknowingly immersed with a brand – some with more permanent financial consequences. Whether it be self-proclaimed brand ambassadors working for next to nothing or unsuspecting students signing up for financial services or products, this preoccupation with sponsorships can create issues for those not informed of the risks. UCLA can’t afford to stop marketing entirely, but it can’t afford to not inform its students either.

For many brands, it is difficult to reach younger generations who are savvy when it comes to isolated phone screens. Younger students are much more susceptible to personality and trustworthiness, making personal recommendation the most effective strategy.

Felician Crisostomo, a fourth-year cognitive science student and an account director of the Bruin Advertising & Marketing Team, said that many companies hire students for brand ambassador programs in order to reach students directly and spread the product through word-of-mouth.

“They’ll hire the student, probably give them a stipend and they’ll teach them about the product or service, have them talk to other students about it, give them some swag to give out,” Crisostomo said.

College students have a collective love of free stuff – but brand ambassadors are just the tip of a much darker iceberg when it comes to marketing on campus.

As the old saying goes: Nothing in life is free.

Between all the free merchandise – from water bottles to Lyft helmets – there are businesses advertising to students with the ability to affect their financial outcomes. So while some students might end up unscathed, acting as personal billboards for these brands, others might not be so lucky when it comes to the brands they encounter.

In all the kiosks and flyers, it’s easy to think that these companies are equally harmless. Next to the HBO booth giving away free ice cream to those who sign up for an account is another booth advertising a telecommunications provider or banking service.

These sponsors are often most prominent at events like the Enormous Activities Fair or Westwood Village Block Party, which seem to exist for the sole purpose of gathering thousands of students into a single location to “officially” advertise to.

For example, Wells Fargo was one of 10 vendors at the 2016 EAF and Wescom Credit Union signed a 10-year sponsorship with UCLA in 2018 for $38 million. The stakes are much higher when it’s no longer as easy as canceling a streaming service.

Kimia Yousefpour, a third-year political science student, said that it doesn’t cross her mind often how financial institutions permeate UCLA.

“I didn’t even know what Wescom is, I just thought that it’s a UCLA thing, I didn’t know it was its own company,” Yousefpour said.

For so-called broke college students, Bruins frequently contribute to the U.S. economy. According to Forbes, Generation Z represents spending power of between $29 and $143 billion – so it’s only natural that vendors flock to the most susceptible students.

Celia Feramisco, a lecturer in the UCLA Department of Communication, said that advertising itself is not always negative.

“If a company is ethical and they actually offer a product that people like and want and need, then it’s not a bad thing,” Feramisco said. “But once they start pushing their wares on us and we don’t even want it and need it, it’s time to walk away.”

But for students who are often inexperienced when it comes to financial literacy, being enticed by free stuff isn’t just problematic – it’s detrimental. About 25% of students leave college with more than $5,000 in credit card debt. Students can be caught up in seemingly good deals and promotions, or even lured into starting a line of credit – but the fine print might eventually catch up to them.

And it’s no surprise students aren’t wary when the lines between campus culture and advertisement are blurred.

Lara Eng, a third-year cognitive science student, said that she doesn’t think about marketing on campus very often.

“This school is so commercialized and UCLA is basically a brand name at this point – that it kind of is just normal, just part of everyday life,” Eng said. “I don’t think it’s inherently a bad thing.”

As long as there are students, advertising will continue to exist on campus, and there isn’t anything innately wrong with that. Sponsorships bring in a lot of money for UCLA and worthwhile experiences for student ambassadors. But a systemic lack of information underlying these promotions can rope students into a deal they can’t get out of.

So next time Bruins are at Pauley Pavilion presented by Wescom, or at the Wescom UCLA campus branch or at the Wescom Student Terrace, they might want to think about the not-so-subtle advertising on campus.

Sure, free merchandise is always alluring.

But students will quickly learn that everything comes with a price.

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