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February 2, 2001

Ads on university websites are an unwelcome intrusion in what has been a traditionally advertising-free zone, argues Charles Crook.

When you think about it, the library catalogue serving a university of some 10,000 people is one community resource that should get quite a bit of use.

Our library has shifted its entire catalogue to the web - a pretty good idea. For readers, one interesting consequence is the common starting point for access: a search page. In a typical day, a lot of people are going to visit that particular page. So if there was some message you really wanted members of that community to see, this would be a good place to put it. Such a good place, in fact, that people with something urgent to say might even pay to get their message in your library catalogue.

And if they were really keen to get it seen, the message could be made nice and colourful and positioned quite prominently. It could even be automatically put on every search result page as well - someone might pay still more for this degree of exposure.

Welcome to the world of advertising banners on university web pages.

If this happens in your own backyard and you have doubts about it, be careful how you articulate them. Resisting promotional activity could be construed as a form of anti-stakeholder thinking. This diagnosis is quickly taken to suggest all sorts of other insular and exclusionary attitudes.

Certainly, universities must cultivate relationships with outside interests. The question is whether those relationships should include selling general-purpose advertising space within their institutional fabric.

Although it is likely to be difficult to police a tight boundary around acceptable and unacceptable promotional activity, I believe there are now too many cases that are clearly on the wrong side of that boundary. The case mentioned above is one.

Why should we object to this? First, on environmental grounds. The university is one of the few public spaces that is agreeably spared the visual clutter of advertising. I know this line of reasoning will not go far - given its not-in-the-real-world flavour.

However, tolerance of low academic pay is often associated with "quality of life" arguments. I suggest that the promotion-free space (including cyberspace) of universities contributes to a better "quality" of life. Moreover, in the context of web pages, this is not just some precious aesthetic point; there is a functional argument as well. Just think about how often your ability to navigate a website has been confused by the anarchy of its advertising banners.

Second, it does not make a lot of commercial sense. For example, if your institution's web pages carry advertising for a certain online bookseller (yes, you guessed the one), what does the local campus bookshop make of this? The very institutional impartiality that often attracts links with business and industry is immediately threatened.

Third, this is surely a slippery slope. The will to innovate is out there. I have seen advertising for an off-licence on the back cover of examination answer books. You might argue that promoting online bookstores is different - it is harmonious with a library's mission.

Yet look further. The catalogue terminal itself has a screensaver that is a rotating advertising board (it also seems to kick in a bit quicker these days). Then, when you go to find your book, you notice that framed prints of contemporary art decorating the stairwell have been pushed aside by framed posters trying to sell you stuff.

In this expanding promotional space, the products being sold are slightly less well fitted to academic purposes. Interestingly, they are mainly sport and music websites - the very destinations that research shows get more than enough visits from students in networked study bedrooms. Perhaps this could be called well-targeted marketing. But how long before my own web-delivered learning resources will themselves need to be resourced by whatever sponsorship that I can solicit?

The rest of you better get moving: I have already opened conversations with Bacardi Breezer.

Charles Crook is a reader in psychology at Loughborough University.

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