College billboards capture captive interstate highway views

Interstate travelers in search of food, fun or gas routinely turn to highway billboards to determine their next rest stop.

In Missouri, a bevy of institutions of higher learning hope those highway ramblers also pay attention to their oversized suggestions on where to send the kids to college.

Schools from the massive University of Missouri to highly-selective Westminster College to trade schools galore are blanketing Missouri interstates with billboard ads. In central Missouri near Kingdom City, a lone billboard touting Webster University’s national championship chess team is a strategic bid to capture some of the buzz the state’s flagship university enjoys with an eastbound Interstate 70 display of six black-and-gold billboards spaced slightly apart to spell “M-I-Z-Z-O-U,” with one billboard per letter. Westbound drivers on I-70 – including those traveling from St. Louis to Columbia – see a similar message, albeit with just two billboards: “MIZ” and “ZOU.”

“People see those great Mizzou billboards, and now all of the sudden, they see our chess team,” said John Costello, creative services director at the Webster Groves private school. “Hopefully, they remember Webster.”

College marketers and billboard owners call the old-school advertising efforts vital as institutions in Missouri and across the country face increased enrollment pressures amid a drop in the college-age population.

“This was very, very tactical,” Costello said.

Vince Miller, senior vice president and general manager at DDI Media, said his company provides billboard space to no fewer than 24 colleges and universities in Missouri and Illinois, including Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla; Fontbonne and Lindenwood in the St. Louis region; Ranken Technical College, Vatterott and Kaplan University, which are for-profit schools; and Southern Illinois University’s campuses in Carbondale and Edwardsville.

Miller said the higher education sector ranks among the company’s Top 20 clients, with a noticeable surge of interest in recent years.

“They are fighting for a shrinking pool of prospects,” he said. “They’re very cognizant that their target audience is going to shrink in the next few years.”

At Missouri, the athletic department’s billboard-driven foray into Florida, Georgia and other once-unfamiliar territory to announce its 2012 entry into the Southeastern Athletic Conference remains the envy of other schools’ marketing shops, said Andrew Grinch, associate athletic director for external operations and content.

The six-figure campaign included $61,000 for highway signs in Atlanta; Dallas; Jacksonville and Tampa, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala. and Valdosta, Ga.

“It’s kind of an antiquated way of advertising, with everything digital,” acknowledged Grinch, who helped create Missouri’s digital TV channel. “But they’re still a viable way to get people talking.”

More importantly, highway drivers and passengers have little choice – short of turning their heads or closing their eyes – but to look at the oversized ads.

“People can’t help but see them,” Grinch said. “You can’t change the channel if you’re driving.”


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