By allowing live sex act into curriculum, did Northwestern University screw its brand?

March 4, 2011

Northwestern Wildcat…or Horndog?

And so we come to the live sex demonstration that took place at Northwestern University following Prof. J. Michael Bailey’s popular “Human Sexuality” class. By now you must know the lurid details. To dramatize the world of kink and fetish, a man penetrated his fiancé with a jerry-rigged reciprocating saw (or Sawzall) in front of some 100 students. If you haven’t heard the story then after cleaning the coffee you just spit on your computer’s keyboard, here is the coverage from the Chicago Sun Times. And from the Chicago Tribune. I’m not going to editorialize one way or the other. I simply don’t know all the, um, ins and outs of this story to put it into context. I understand no laws were broken. The participants were adults. I’m guessing the students were too. It was on the syllabus.

Like most of you, I was flabbergasted by the story and a little titillated. Certainly, because of the subject matter but also because it took place at Northwestern University. Forever, Northwestern has been considered the brainiest school in the Big Ten, sort of the conference’s answer for the Ivy League. With its beautiful and swanky North Shore location (Lake Michigan to the East, stately mansions to the West), it certainly looks the part. In addition, the institution regularly tops out in all metrics related to superb education. Including admission criteria and costs. Even so, it only admits 20% of applying freshmen. To go there is a privilege. Here is where my wife and I –gulp- hoped to send our three daughters one day.

Prestige at a price. That’s not the University’s tagline but, in frankness, that’s the brand. Maintaining a brand like Northwestern’s takes a fine mixture of conservative stewardship and progressive leadership. Negotiating this dichotomy is critical. Mom and Dad want the former. The kids want the latter. There are other targets worth mentioning: alma mater, perspective employers, partner schools and institutions. In the end, it’s not easy getting it right. For over 150 years, Northwestern has done so masterfully.

And then out came the “fucksaw.”

Putting aside all the different hats I wear as a man (father, husband, lover, guardian), what is my position as an advertising man? For better or for worse, the brand got done to it what was done to the woman on stage. Some may view the episode as an example of fearless education in a modern world. Others will likely see it as an awful, awful mistake. Frankly, I’m leaning on the latter. Despite my fervent belief in a liberal arts education, I can’t help but think this was a bad move. When the inevitable video comes out millions of people will experience the brand as if it were nothing less than an episode on You Porn.

The school’s color is purple and a deeper shade now.

Special note: The male in the sex act is a Group Creative Director at Tribal DDB, an advertising agency in Chicago. He is about to become a lot more famous. Let’s hope his clients aren’t too conservative. Wishful thinking I’m afraid.


3 Responses to “By allowing live sex act into curriculum, did Northwestern University screw its brand?”

  1. Gene P. said

    Great point.

    This blog needs to find its way to their marketing folks. You know…the brainiacs who kill the smart, clever work because they worry that it’s somehow “off brand.”

    As for the dude from DDB, he’s actually “on brand.” His brand being, “edgy dope.”

  2. Steffan,

    This story and your post being a couple of things to light.

    First, the difficulty of policing a brand that has the potential to be impacted, either positively or negatively, by so many people.

    How does one control the thoughts and actions of so many brand influencers, particularly when the brand is a very large college?

    I think corporations, even mega-global ones, have the advantage of centralized branding and messaging control.

    Secondly, and related to the first, is brand perception.

    While your perception of the brand is clearly defined in the manner you described, others familiar with NU may not have the same perception.
    Particularly since so many people experience different aspects of the “product” in different ways at different touch points (no pun intended) with different influencers.

    And while I, like you, was a bit shocked to hear this story, I must say I now have a case of tool envy.

    • SRP said


      Good points. And yes, my perception of the brand -however common- is still unique to me. Likely those closer to it experience NU much, much differently. Clearly the 100 or so kids in the sex-ed class did!

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