For two years, Oberlin College’s marketing team has partnered with a videography course to portray real life at the college – for students, by students. But a video posted two weeks ago on the college’s YouTube channel, called “Stress @ Oberlin,” left some students questioning the reality of that particular video’s content. Some students said the stress levels depicted in the video as realistic, while others criticized the video for only featuring a small subset of student life at Oberlin.
The video, one of several produced for instructor Daniel Schloss’ course, The Promotional Short, has garnered nearly 29,000 views and depicts Oberlin students bemoaning their hectic schedules during an exam period and how they deal with the accompanying stress. Students discuss excessive eating – "Carbs are, like, a blanket of comfort," said one female student. Others talk about pulling all-nighters and taking Adderall – on-screen text clarifies that the student has a prescription – as coping mechanisms.
Most of the 225 videos posted on Oberlin’s channel  – ranging from myriad faculty profiles to a video  chronicling students’ tattoos – have been produced by either students or Schloss since the class’ inception, said Scott Wargo, director of media relations at Oberlin. According to Oberlin’s course catalog, students in the class produce two short films to be featured on the college’s website.
Wargo said the class wasn’t originally intended to be a marketing tool: “It wasn’t thought of directly as a, ‘Oh hey, this is going to impact our marketing efforts.’”
The videos are posted online so students can receive public feedback on their work – and allow the short films to be shared with prospective students.
“It’s just to give a clear, true picture of what life is like at Oberlin College,” Wargo said. “It does a better job than any viewbook ever would.”
The student-produced videos fit in with Oberlin’s marketing strategy.
“The college is really trying to make sure that through our marketing efforts and social media that we have transparency and authenticity,” Wargo said. “There’s no better way to have things be authentic and real than to have current students talk about the school.”
Oberlin is no stranger to unorthodox marketing techniques. Last fall, two recent Oberlin grads created a website, 'Why the fuck should I choose Oberlin?', for students and alumni to post reasons why they love Oberlin, using the featured expletive for added emphasis. Although this website was not endorsed by college, it still garnered a lot of support from the Oberlin community and praise  for its authenticity.
“Stress @ Oberlin” is the most popular video on the college’s channel, followed by an athletic promotional video that has been viewed nearly 24,000 times, but was not produced as a result of the class. Most of the videos on the channel hover around less than 1,000 views.
Wargo said he believes this video has attracted so much attention because stress is a topic normally taboo in campus promotional videos.
“It’s a topic that you don’t really see or hear school administrators talk about,” he said. “I think everybody recognizes it’s there – it’s just that it’s never been quite so open.”
“You’re used to seeing kind of the sterilized, ‘Come to our school,’ type of videos,” Wargo said. But Oberlin doesn’t sanitize its students’ videos, he said. “They get some guidance, but it’s their work.”
Institutional oversight is a good thing
Elizabeth Scarborough, CEO of SimpsonScarborough, a higher education market research firm, thinks more oversight is necessary when using student-produced videos for marketing.
“I think using video is great,” she said. “I’m not sure about a video like that.”
She said a lot of colleges are eliciting their students to produce marketing videos, but they are exercising much heavier influence on the content, tone and overarching theme of the videos than she thinks was evident in Schloss’ students’ productions.
“They’re trying to be transparent and authentic, but pure transparency is not always appropriate in marketing,” Scarborough said. “You have to be very intentional about how you shape your institution’s identity.
“I think possibly the intention was to communicate that Oberlin offers a rigorous and challenging academic experience,” she said. “If that was the intention, that was not effectively communicated.”
She said the video sets a negative tone. “It portrays Oberlin students as complainers, lazy, drug-takers.”
Scarborough said she noticed, when reading comments on the video, a lot of students protesting that the video did not accurately depict them or their impression of life at Oberlin.
One commenter, mwillner110, wrote, “As a student, I will wholeheartedly say that showing a group of students just complaining about their stress in school is not representative of the work lives of students. What is interesting about Oberlin students is how we deal with our heavy course loads in creative ways.
“My point is that this video would make me not want to go to Oberlin, and that is not good.”
But Wargo said he doesn’t think the video will have a negative impact on prospective students’ perceptions of Oberlin.
“It’s just one small window of what goes on at the college and on campus throughout the year.”
Instead, he predicted a positive side-effect of the video: “Truthfully, what it will probably do is drive more people to the site.”
But Richard Hesel, a principal at Art & Science Group, a higher education market research firm, said videos like this don’t have much of an influence over prospective students’ decisions.
“They’re more likely to use these things after they’ve made a commitment and a deposit to get some sense of what they’re walking into.”