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Ad does not represent Notre Dame

Observer Editorial | Friday, September 9, 2005

Notre Dame sells itself. Its distinctive reputation, built on 163 years of tradition, does its own recruiting – from the thousands of applicants who annually seek admission to the numerous donors who daily pledge their dollars to the school’s enhancement.

So advertising for the University should be a no-brainer. Right?

Apparently not, judging by Notre Dame’s latest “institutional spot” – the 30-second television commercial that debuted during last Saturday’s nationally televised football game against Pittsburgh. Titled “Candle,” the ad features a prospective student repeatedly lighting candles in church to pray for admission to Notre Dame. At the end of the spot, her prayers are answered with the arrival of her coveted “big envelope,” and she looks to the heavens in thanks as the school’s name and the words “A Higher Education” appear onscreen.

The University says the ad emphasizes a faith-based education to show Notre Dame’s difference from other NCAA Division I schools. And the ad accomplishes that goal – but not in the way Notre Dame intended.

No other school could appear so one-dimensional if it tried.

Yes, Notre Dame is the nation’s premiere Catholic university, reflected on the crucifix-dotted walls of its classrooms, the collared necks of its administrators, the towering face of its library. But it is also a Top 20 academic institution, a perennial Directors Cup contender and an unmatched campus for tradition-filled student residence life. By excluding these aspects of Notre Dame’s multidimensional identity from a widely exposed advertisement, the University is hurting itself.

It’s not the ad’s overwhelming Catholicism that’s the problem. It would be equally foolish to run a 30-second spot that focused only on the football team.

With so many powerful campus images to choose from – the Dome, the Basilica, Notre Dame Stadium, dorm events, pep rallies, tailgates, classrooms and yes, lighting candles in a chapel or at the Grotto – it’s disappointing Notre Dame chose not to show any of them in favor of filming a single prospective student in New Jersey.

The University also says the ad aims to attract a particular type of student – one who believes strongly in prayer and in uniting faith with academics. But that student doesn’t need to see a commercial to recognize Notre Dame’s Catholic identity – that student has likely been wearing blue and gold since diapers. The point of an advertisement is to lure those who weren’t previously interested in what is being sold to take a second look. By narrowing its focus so intensely on one already well-known aspect of the University’s offerings, the “Candle” ad fails to target students – for example, anyone non-white or non-Catholic – who may have assumed Notre Dame isn’t the place for them but whom a more multidimensional ad could have convinced.

Finally, the ad’s treatment of Catholicism undermines the very uniqueness it is trying to emphasize. True faith requires a lot more than lighting matches and waiting for prayers to be answered. The ad’s unsophisticated portrayal of religion detracts from the potentially clever phrase “A Higher Education” – words that ring especially hollow considering the constant and complex debates, here and elsewhere, about the role and nature of a truly Catholic university.

With a season’s worth of network television football broadcasts still to go, Notre Dame has time to reconsider its choice. Those charged with producing the ad should reflect on all of the things the University is proud to offer, and take a walk around campus for inspiration. Then they should create a replacement spot that reflects the multidimensional reality that defines Notre Dame – and air it for the rest of the season.

Notre Dame is more than just Catholic. And a school that sells itself shouldn’t sell itself short.