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Our New Heroes

With a cape draped over his rugby uniform, Jeremy Brickey clutches the complete works of Shakespeare and smiles for a camera. No, this isn’t an embarrassing initiation to the team.  Brickey ’12, English, is posing for the latest round of admissions advertisements based on “UMBC Superheroes” – students who come to UMBC, find their passions, and soar.

What Brickey loves about UMBC is that he is able to simultaneously pursue his interests in rugby, theater and community service, and he wants to spread the word to high school students that they, too, can follow their myriad passions at UMBC. “The ads show the diversity of UMBC in a way that’s not just related to race or culture,” he said. “They break down those stereotypes that students in high school believe, like that you can’t both play sports and be involved in theater.”

That’s exactly the idea. The campaign, which debuted last year, is also designed to show students that “making a difference in the world” isn’t a cliché; there are actual students doing just that. To get that point across, the ads move beyond the typical cameos of students interacting on campus. They feature the students with a prop, such as Brickey’s cape or boxing gloves, against a comic-book background and have a brief explanation of what makes each student “super.” Within the field of university advertising, the ads stand out.

That was part of the point, explains Erin Ouslander ’03, visual arts, the print design specialist who designed the advertisements. “From a distance, you would probably never guess that these ads related to higher education in any way. I really like that element of surprise when you read the copy and realize the ad’s true purpose,” she said.

Nearly all of the work for the campaign—from the research to design to copy writing—was done within UMBC’s Marketing and Creative Services department. Erika Ferrin, director of marketing, said that the department’s research led to the inspiration to portray the students as heroes. “We looked around at what was going on with teenagers, and we found that this superhero thing was really catching on,” she said. “Our campus is so hard to represent in one picture, so we decided to focus on student stories because those stories really tell what kind of students come to UMBC.”

The ads resonated not just with high school students, but with the advertising community as well: the campaign recently earned national and regional gold Circle of Excellence awards for advertising from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

“When you look at advertising, it’s the stuff that pushes the envelope that wins awards,” said Miriam Tillman, assistant vice president for marketing and creative services. “What I am most proud of is that we took a risk—an informed risk, but still a risk—and the institution was willing to back us up.”

After the first round of ads, an essay contest helped to choose this year’s heroes.  The essay asked students to describe their hero, and the marketing staff solicited input from faculty in judging the entries. Out of over a hundred entries, they eventually chose Leslie Weber ’15, psychology and media and communication studies, as the winner.  A victim of bullying who hopes to become a counselor, she wrote “It’s up to me to use the tools given to me from UMBC to be my own hero.”

Weber, Brickey and the rest of the superheroes will be flying, dashing and boxing their way into high schools this spring.

(2/1/12)