There has always been the risk of the unfortunate juxtaposition when it comes to advertising and if anything it is greater in the digital age - the danger that a website hosting a news story about an axe murderer will pull in an advert for cut-price axes.
And it is not just online or in newspapers that such problems can occur: take journalist Katherine Boo’s recent book about life in a Mumbai slum, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
The title was taken from billboards on a wall abutting the shanty town where Boo lived for three years, all advertising the same brand of Italianate floor tiles to wealthy Indian motorists using the expressway on the other side. The slogan repeated along the length of the wall, “Beautiful forever”, was a piece of branding so at odds with the poverty of the slum that it made a perfect title for a book about modern India’s contradictions, struggles and aspirations.
One leading private institution in India, Amity University, is already advertising on the helmets of cricket stars
Our cover feature this week - on India’s plans to raise the quality of its higher education at a time of dramatic expansion - cites another advertising slogan as a small indicator of the country’s extraordinary rate of growth, and the increasing spending power of a portion of its population.
This one is a roadside hoarding advertising luxury apartments in Bangalore with the blunderbuss of a line: “Where you live says who you are”.
Such lack of subtlety may be par for the course for estate agents, but what if one of the many private universities that dominate Indian higher education, or a Western university competing for international students, used a variant of the slogan: “Where you study says who you are”?
This might seem a bit of a stretch, but as our feature records, one leading private institution in India, Amity University, is already advertising on the helmets of cricket stars, associating its brand with those who have made it to the top of the most aspirational field of all in this cricket-mad country.
Explaining the thinking behind the campaign, Amity’s chancellor says: “In education, it is all about feeling pride…and people around you feeling proud of where you are.”
There’s no getting away from the growing importance of “brand” in higher education, whether in India, the US or the UK.
So does the growing status of branding in universities matter? Are its values and those of higher education so at odds that the former will poison the latter?
Writing in this week’s Times Higher Education, Fred Inglis, honorary professor of cultural history at the University of Warwick, argues unequivocally that they are. Branding is an “abominable monster…threatening the intellectual health and the integrity of pure enquiry”, he says, “the clinching force marketising the idea of the university”.
Offering an alternative view, Robert Jones, who works at branding agency Wolff Olins and as a visiting professor at the University of East Anglia, argues that, done properly, branding can challenge and inspire rather than simply browbeat or provoke despair. “Like it or not, universities will have to explain their role, their value, to the world,” he adds.
Inglis does not like branding, but comes to pretty much the same conclusion: it isn’t his idea of beautiful - far from it - but he fears it may now be for ever.