USF Marketing Campaign Draws Criticism for Tokenization

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Nureen Khadr
Staff Writer

USF students are accustomed to snide comments from city residents about our school advertisements scattered around the city. The content of USF’s marketing campaigns is usually the object of humor and wit, with taglines like “University of the Best City Ever” or “An Education More Coveted Than A Seat on This Bus.” USF’s Office of Marketing Communications decided to revamp USF’s marketing campaign with banners on 150 street poles city-wide, featuring current students at USF with new and improved witty taglines, like “Make Apps, Not War.”

According to David Macmillan, Marketing Vice President of the Office of Marketing Communications (OMC), all students and faculty featured in the campaign were notified of the use of their photo and the aims of the campaign.

Tarek Eweida, a senior at USF, said, “I liked the new campaign, mainly because it’s cool to see your friends representing the university on city street poles and snapping pics to send them.” While many like Eweida enjoyed the novelty of the new taglines and familiar images of peers covering the city, a couple of the student subjects found the text paired with their likeness to be problematic.

Bisma Shahbaz, a senior international studies major, was initially excited to see her picture scattered across downtown San Francisco until she saw the one on top of Lone Mountain reading ‘Inequality is So Out’. “The second I saw the tagline, I joked that I now carry the burden of proving ‘Inequality is So Out’. Right off the bat, I knew it was problematic, but also strange since the other banners around the city of me had a different, consistent tagline except for this one,” she said.

She was not the only one who took issue with her representation as a hijabi student at USF. Aysha Hidayatullah, a USF associate professor of Islamic Studies, had been exchanging emails with faculty in her department regarding their perception of the image and its implications. At first, she had believed that it was a stock photo of a hijabi student until it was brought to her attention that it was actually a USF student she knew. After approaching Shahbaz regarding the banner, Hidayatullah found that she did not like “that specific tagline being used with her image.”

As a result, Julia Dowd of University Ministry helped Hidayatullah initiate a meeting with OMC about a month later where another Theology and Religious Studies professor, Aaron Hahn-Tapper, joined to discuss the sensitivities of the ad campaign’s content and motives. Dowd had first seen the banner when she was driving up Lone Mountain and she said that her first reaction was that “the interpretation could be complicated.”

Hidayatullah said, “For my contribution, I encouraged greater dialogue between USF faculty experts on various topics and Marketing. I mentioned that I, for instance, actually teach a course about the circulation of images of Muslim women and how politically charged those images can be.”

The marketing team informed them of a commitment they had made a few weeks earlier to not use the “inequality” slogan in any future ads and to remove any banners containing it. Hidayatullah said, “I found Marketing to be very welcoming of my perspective and very receptive to my feedback.”

Dowd walked away from the meeting saying that an agreement had been reached: “We still have a lot of work to do to truly ensure that everyone in our community is included and honored.  Marketing and advertising have to strike a delicate balance between the reality and the aspiration,” she said.

Since then, Shahbaz’s problematic representation has been removed from Lone Mountain and replaced with another student and tagline due to the limited number of banners printed to size for the poles on the hill.

Meanwhile, Sarah Toutant, a Black student featured in USF’s online marketing initiative, was also excited to see her face on the university website’s front page. At least, until she saw the tagline. It read: “Bolder, not Louder,” followed by a story about her leadership on campus and her growth as a young woman since starting at USF. She said, “I didn’t understand why that tagline was used in the first place and who would have thought that was appropriate.” She was not alone, as someone reached out to OMC before she even had the chance to, and the tagline was changed to “Find Your Voice From Here.”

OMC’s Macmillan points to the Napa Valley Wine Train incident of a group of Black women being aggressively kicked off for being too loud that happened after Toutant’s feature was published as the indicator for why the headline accompanying her story could have been viewed as an inappropriate reference to the altercation.

Toutant, on the other hand, said, “I think people should also know that Black women are stereotyped as being too loud and angry. When they put the title, ‘Bolder, not Louder,” it insinuated that as a Black woman, I should tone police myself and not be loud since that’s not accepted in society.”

This was not the only issue with the use of her likeness in the USF marketing campaign. The Black Student Union president was also primarily featured on a banner that read “Look Mom! I Just Got Funded!”

She said, “Many people thought they were referring to financial aid, which is problematic because it implies that Black women or students of color are searching hopelessly for financial aid, and USF just happened to save them. Of course, I reached out to their team and told them my concerns. They switched the title to ‘Truth, Justice, and the San Francisco way.’”

Both Shahbaz and Toutant understood that OMC did not intend to offend, but they were concerned that these were issues that students of color still had to face on a campus like USF’s. Toutant suggested, “Overall, cultural competency training is all USF needs not to make simple mistakes such as these. If someone knew the stereotypes of Black women, “Bolder Not Louder,” could’ve been avoided very easily.”

When asked about her thoughts on Shahbaz’s representation, she was very vocal about why it also concerned her. “I know Bisma is a very great student and it’s been a pleasure to take a class with her, which is why I think highlighting her as a student is great. However, it’s the way they go about highlighting students of color that is problematic. It’s like our skin color is only attractive on a website or brochure, but not retained on this campus.”

In regards to how she felt about representing USF across the city, Shahbaz said, “I absolutely love the other banners throughout the city of me that have the tagline ‘Change the World from Here’ on it. It is a very neutral tagline; whereas, the tagline ‘Inequality is So Out’ seemed insensitive to the fact that while we wish inequality is so out, it simply isn’t.”

Macmillan stated, “The campaign has been fully rolled out as planned, so no new content is being developed.”

Photo courtesy of Racquel Gonazales/Foghorn

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