When the University of Wyoming decided on a new marketing slogan — one element of a $500,000 campaign to boost enrollment — it hoped to reach potential students across the country and inspire them to ask questions about UW.
On that front, the campaign succeeded beyond its wildest expectations.
During the Board of Trustees’ meeting Thursday, the board voted to roll out the campaign ahead of schedule to capitalize on the national attention it was already gaining.
“The last time I talked with you I said we were going to do a marketing campaign — that we wanted a movement,” UW Communication Director Chad Baldwin told the board. “Well, the movement has begun, even without the campaign.”
The marketing campaign, developed by the Boulder, Colorado, firm Victors & Spoils, involves a variety of promotional materials and videos that claim, “The world needs more cowboys.”
The slogan, featured prominently throughout the campaign, was panned by faculty members for calling forth stereotypical images of white male archetypes and allegedly working against the goal of non-resident student recruitment.
Faculty Senate Chair Donal O’Toole said non-resident students — a population essential to enrollment growth — might harbor a different opinion on the word ‘cowboy,’ one informed largely by John Wayne movies and other romanticized images of the west.
“It means someone who just kind of takes risks and can sometimes be a knucklehead,” he said. “Now, that’s not how cowboys are seen here, but the university really needs to balance the positive image that cowboys have here with the possibly negative image that cowboys may have elsewhere in the country, especially if they’re interested in bringing in a higher proportion of out-of-state students.”
The slogan was also seen by many as exclusionary, referring to a western image many ethnic and female students might not see themselves in.
A letter from the UW Committee on Women and People of Color to Baldwin and UW President Laurie Nichols asked them to “shelve that slogan and find another one that represents the diversity of people and cultures that we have, and want to have, as UW.”
Both of these concerns — out-of-state perception and inclusivity — were explored in focus studies, Baldwin said, adding a central goal of the campaign was to redefine the word ‘cowboy’ to take on a more widespread and inclusive meaning.
“The world needs more cowboys and not just the kind that sweep you off your feet and ride into the sunset,” one promotional video states. “Ours are diverse cowboys, who come in every sex, shape, color and creed. They come from Wyoming, Montana, Delaware and Nigeria.”
In a study conducted by a marketing research firm, prospective students were more likely to say they would apply for or attend UW after viewing the campaign ‘anthem’ video. The pattern held for non-white students as well as white.
“The message works,” Baldwin said.
Since the slogan — and the internal campus disagreement surrounding it — were made public Sunday, UW has been inundated with requests for comment and proposals for merchandising.
“Those who are active on social media have seen: there are logos created, there’s blogs, videos being done,” Baldwin said. “Our trademark and licensing office is hearing from all kinds of people — current licensees and others who are ready to sell the merchandise that says, ‘the world needs more cowboys.’ People are wanting T-shirts.”
Issues with the campaign’s proposed slogan were addressed as the video made its way through the various campus constituencies for feedback, Baldwin said, adding meetings with the Council on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Emily Monago resulted in edits to the campaign’s wording.
The internal campus discussion turned national overnight, first on social media throughout Wyoming and eventually onto radio programs and editorial pages across the country. Reuters, U.S. News & World Report, the Washington Examiner and others carried stories about the issue. The Forth Worth Star-Telegram ran an editorial in support of the slogan and, at press time, the Washington Post was preparing its own editorial on the debate.
“The reason this is so provocative is it plays into the culture wars and it’s seen from that perspective,” O’Toole told the trustees. “I — and several other faculty members, including some local members of faculty — have received hateful mail.”
What was once a disagreement between those on campus grew into an off-campus controversy, transforming into a partisan debate about campus culture as it exists in 2018, political correctness and the history of black, Hispanic and Native American cowboys who populated the west alongside their white contemporaries.
Baldwin said it had gotten ugly.
“I’ve lost a lot of sleep over this, because there are people on campus I really respect who don’t like the campaign,” he said. “There are people who have opposed this publicly who now are being subjected to harassing, hateful messaging from people outside the university. I just want to say, whoever is doing that ought to stop it.”
He added those who opposed the slogan had done so for understandable reasons.
“The University of Wyoming and the state of Wyoming do need to become more diverse and more diversified and it’s in all of our interests for that to happen,” Baldwin said. “The fact that there are people from underrepresented groups on the UW campus who don’t like this and feel it’s harmful — that bothers me. But we do have data that shows this works.”