Consumer culture is a phrase that many people are familiar with, and associate with mass production of, and subsequent mass purchase of manufactured goods. In this culture, goods are not simply purchased and utilized, but consumed. However, consumerism does not apply only to the physical goods that can be purchased in stores; instead nearly every aspect of society has become commodified and is reformulated as something to be sold to the masses. This is the case for nearly every sector, including higher education. The University of Oregon (UO), for instance, has created a distinct school identity that plays into this culture of consumerism. The UO’s 2016 “Throw Your O” advertising campaign fits this model, and serves to create and reinforce a common identity surrounding the University. This identity is used to create a school culture consisting of students, alumni, faculty, and more and turn them all into consumers, and increase revenues for the school.
The UO culture, and the ways in which it operates, are not immediately apparent, especially for individuals who themselves are members of the culture. Cultural theorist Raymond Williams described this phenomenon in his statement that “Culture is Ordinary,” from his essay of the same name. (2009) Williams describes that members of any given culture will typically view their own culture very differently than someone outside of it, and that many aspects about the very culture in which one is a member will be invisible and unnoticeable to that person. This is equally the case for the UO and the unique culture that it has developed. No matter their specific affiliation with the school—student, alumni, faculty, or even just the surrounding Eugene community—members of the UO culture do not see every aspect of it, and might possibly not even recognize their own membership within it. For members of the UO culture, the action of “throwing your O” is an ordinary and everyday occurrence, so little attention is paid to it. However, for someone outside of the UO culture, the action of placing one’s hands in a loosely formed O to symbolize an institution of higher education might seem unusual. This is why the “Throw Your O” campaign is effective—it uses an action that members of the culture are already familiar with, and offers those outside of the culture an easy way to join it, by simply performing the action of “throwing their O.”
The two versions of the advertisement feature UO student tour guides Kiara Galicinao and Gustavo Feria leading a tour group of prospective students. Their voiceovers follow the roughly same script, stating that “Here, at Oregon, it’s about you. It’s how you change the world,” and “It’s how you make your mark on the world,” before each saying the catchphrase of the campaign, “It’s how you throw your ‘O.’” Feria and Galicinao then form the “O” symbol with their hands, to which the camera quickly moves in toward, and quickly switches to a match cut of the “O” logo painted on the side of Lillis hall, a building at the UO campus. The video then proceeds to a rapid montage of UO students doing various things, including sitting in classrooms, studying in libraries, and attending sporting events. This montage is accompanied by an fast-paced and upbeat soundtrack that evokes a sense of excitement. The video concludes with Feria and Galicinao presenting the audience with a call to action. When they directly address the viewer and ask, “So you decide. How will you throw your O?” they are directly inviting the viewer to “throw the O” themselves and become a member of the UO’s culture as well. (University of Oregon, 2016a) Because, as Williams eloquently explained, “Culture is ordinary,” many of the cultural effects of the “Throw your O” videos are not immediately apparent, especially for those who identify as members of the UO culture. However, by carefully picking apart the campaign and its elements, it becomes possible to discern its results, as well as begin probing the University’s motivations for creating this culture.
Luckily, the UO provides a starting point for deconstructing the videos and analyzing them. The Around the O section of the University website featured another video explaining the “Throw your O” advertisements, including not only their production, but the motivation behind them as well. In this video Kyle Henley, the University’s Vice President of University Communications, explains the advertising campaigns and what the action of “throwing your O” is supposed to represent. In Henley’s words, “It’s really a physical symbol—kind of a metaphor for how you make your mark in the world as a duck.” (University of Oregon, 2016b) To put it another way, the unique culture created by the university has been consolidated into a single hand gesture. The simple act of forming one’s hands into an “O” shape is now made to evoke every aspect of the UO culture. Not only are the wide reaching aspects of culture now consolidated, but they are now highly exportable and reproducible. The UO culture is no longer limited to the physical location itself; it can be performed before, during, and after everyone’s time at the school, and can be performed by anyone—students, faculty, and more. Thus Henley’s casual description of the “Throw your O” campaign is more than just a simple demonstration of the physical symbol, but also subtly portrays the wide reach that the UO culture has grown to achieve.
The wide reach of the UO culture is achieved through advertising campaigns such as the “Throw your O” videos, and it has several important implications about the homogenization of culture. All of the minute differences that comprise culture of the University are consolidated and reduced into a single action, the idea of “throw your O.” Even with a multitude of differences between individuals, they are all able to be a part of the UO culture, which in turn allows it to continue its spread and growth. The “Throw your O” campaign suggests that it is not just possible, but incredibly easy, for anyone to become part of the UO culture and be a duck. Additionally, Henley states that the “O” hand gesture symbolizes “being the person that you want to be in the future.” (University of Oregon, 2016b) By stating this, he is suggesting that the UO culture is something that can be exported worldwide, and that the hand gesture tis the method by which it can be spread. The members and participants of the UO culture are the ones who are responsible for spreading it. This is similar to the work of Marxists theorists Adorno and Horkheimer, in which they describe the culture industry. According to them, the mass media functions not to produce media content, but rather to produce and export culture. (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2012) Whenever and wherever media is consumed, culture is consumed as well. They that consumers of culture from this industry are also responsible for spreading it as well.
Even though Adorno and Horkheimer were writing about media industries, their writings can apply to the University’s “Throw your O” campaign as well. The videos are not just a way to promote the school and its culture, but to package that culture into a simple gesture and employ its members to spread it. At the 2016 Convocation ceremony, UO President Michael Schill gave a speech in which he alluded to the “Throw your O” campaign. He explained that “throwing your O, is the way you make your impact on the world as Duck,” and challenged students to “’throw [their] O’ far and wide, in ways [they] cannot yet imagine.” (Michael Schill, 2016) Though the message of making a mark on the world can be seen as purely inspirational, the addition of the qualification phrase “as a Duck,” reveals a different motivation behind Schill’s worlds, and behind the “Throw your O” campaign as a whole. It is a way for members of the UO culture to be responsible for spreading it as well. People who identify with the UO culture have become employed by the University to “work” within this factory that endlessly produces and exports the University’s culture. This process is cyclical in nature. Members of the culture contribute to its growth, which encourages more people to come to the University. These people are then exposed to products of the UO culture, such as the “Throw your O” campaign, and become members of it as well. Thanks to the simplicity of the O hand gesture, paired with campaigns such as “Throw your O,” the UO culture spreads easily and this cycle repeats endlessly.
The “Throw your O” campaign is a method used by the University to spread its culture, but it is not solely responsible for creating it. Though there are many small factors that contribute to the UO culture, it is all encapsulated in a single symbol, the “O.” This single symbol represents the entirety of the UO culture and is responsible for the hegemonic power of the culture. The “O” appears on various forms of University communications, advertisements, and is even embedded within the very architecture of the campus. Because it represents the UO culture itself, it has high value for the University. For this reason, the use of the “O” is highly regulated. The University’s brand guidelines dictate the specific proportions of the O, and very minute detail of how it is allowed to be used. The guide outlines specific rules such as its sizing, color, and where the “O” symbol is allowed to be used. (University of Oregon Marketing and Creative Services, n.d.) Control over this trademarked symbol is so strict that the University does not allow it to appear on any clothing that is not Nike branded. This specific aspect of the UO brand could be discussed in depth, but the key takeaway is the same—by limiting its ability to be reproduced, the value of the “O” symbol, and by extension its culture, is preserved.
The value of the Oregon “O” and its relation to reproducibility can be explained through the work of theorists like Walter Benjamin. His theory of the aura can explain why a symbol like the Oregon “O” can have so much power, and why the University uses it to promote its specific culture. Benjamin wrote about the nature of artistic work, especially in the context technology such as photography and cinema that makes its replication very simple. He argued that among original works of art, there is an “aura,” or indescribable property that makes them seem more valuable. (Benjamin, 2012) This is why even those familiar with images of a famous work of art, such as the Mona Lisa, will also find value in the original piece as well. The iconic Oregon “O” has an aura of its own, which is why it is a powerful way to contain the UO culture.
However, the “O” will only have an aura if its ability to be reproduced must be limited. Unfortunately, though limiting the ability to use and spread the symbol preserves its aura, it severely limits its utility for spreading culture. In order to use a symbol to spread culture, it is necessary to replicate it repeatedly. The University found a way to confront this paradox by using two separate forms of the “O” to grow and spread the UO culture. There are two forms of the “O,” each with the same meaning, but intended to be used in two different ways. The first is the official trademarked “O.” It is tightly controlled and only allowed to be used in specific situations. Because of this high degree of control, it has an aura, and therefore high value as well. The second form is the one featured in the “Throw your O” campaign, the simple hand gesture that anyone can perform. It evokes the same ideas of culture as the other form of the “O,” but without threatening its aura. The first form, the trademarked “O” brand, has monetary value and the second form, the hand gesture, has cultural value. This duality of symbols allows the University to maintain the high value of the symbol, but while also utilizing it to advance its goal of spreading the UO culture.
Though the University has many methods by which it develops and spreads culture, its reasons for doing so are quite simple. The University uses campaigns such as “Throw your O” in order to create a unique culture and portray it in a manner than can be easily spread. However, its motives for doing so are not necessarily just a message of positivity and inclusion. Instead, it can be attributed to a method for the University maintain its power and increase revenues. Spreading the UO culture enables more people to become members of the culture as well. Each new member identifying with the culture represents increased profit for the school. Students that attend the university will pay high tuition and fees. Alumni of the university can be solicited for donations. Community members outside of these groups can still contribute to the University’s profits by purchasing branded merchandise. The University’s culture is wide-reaching, and represents an important source of revenue for the administration.
However, the fact that people still choose to willingly be a part of this culture, in which they provide profits for the school and receiving few benefits, suggests that the UO culture is more than just a small set of ideals, but a hegemony in and of itself. As outlined by theorist Antonio Gramsci, cultural hegemonies are an idea central to many Marxist theories, and describe a manner in which a ruling class can maintain its power without resorting to force or violence by maintaining power over ideas instead. (Marx & Engels, 2012) By presenting the ideas of the ruling class in a manner that they appear as being the ideas of the people as a whole, they are accepted and left unchallenged. (Gramsci, 2012) This is exactly what the University has achieved with its symbolic use of the “O” and the “Throw your O” campaign as a whole. Ultimately, it serves the monetary ends of the University, but is presented in such a way that the audience receiving it will accept it without question. Just as Gramsci wrote, the ideas the ruling class become the ideas of everyone. The UO Style Guide website’s description of the “Throw your O” campaign explicitly states that the brand “is not something that marketers or communicators made. It’s something the university itself made—the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community—over the course of its entire history.” (University of Oregon Marketing and Creative Services, n.d.) Of course, this is blatantly untrue, as the entire campaign was developed and produced in-house by the University’s marketing department. However, by presenting in this manner, the ideas of the ruling class—the University—are accepted as the ideas of everyone. In this way, the University is able to maintain its tight control over the unique culture that it created, and utilize it for its own monetary gain.
The University of Oregon’s creation of a distinct school culture is an invisible process, something that is meant to happen without anyone noticing. However, even if the process is invisible, its effects and outcomes are not. The creation of a distinct culture serves the University’s monetary interests. The UO culture spreads easily to all groups—students, alumni, faculty, community members, and more—and interpellates them into a culture of consuming the University’s products. It is unimportant whether this is in the form of tuition from attending the school, donations from alumni, or simply buying UO branded products—these are all means to the same end, increasing revenue for the school.
This method of creating cultures is certainly not unique to the University of Oregon, and is ubiquitous throughout nearly all institutions in the age of consumerism. Though the invisible creation of culture seems like an inherently malicious process, it is important to note that this is not necessarily always the case. Though the process itself is not evil, being able to identify it and question it is the first step to determining its moral standing, and to begin to push back against it and change it.
Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. (2012). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In D. Kellner & M. G. Durham (Eds.), Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Second Edition, pp. 53 – 74).
Benjamin, W. (2012). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In M. G. Durham & D. Kellner (Eds.), Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Second Edition, pp. 37 – 53). Wiley-Blackwell.
Gramsci, A. (2012). Three Selections – (i) History of the Subaltern Classes; (ii) The Concept of “Ideology”; (iii) Cultural Themes: Ideological Material. In M. G. Durham & D. Kellner (Eds.), Media And Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Second Edition, pp. 34–37). Wiley-Blackwell.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2012). The Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas. In M. G. Durham & D. Kellner (Eds.), Media And Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Second Edition, pp. 31–33). Wiley-Blackwell.
Michael Schill. (2016, September 2). Convocation: Throw Your O. Retrieved November 6, 2016, from https://president.uoregon.edu/convocation-throw-your-o
University of Oregon. (2016a). #ThrowYourO. Retrieved November 6, 2016, from https://around.uoregon.edu/ThrowYourO
University of Oregon. (2016b). #ThrowYourO | What It Means. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4WzU0SjQVo
University of Oregon Marketing and Creative Services. (n.d.). Style Guide | University of Oregon. Retrieved November 6, 2016, from http://brand.uoregon.edu/
Williams, R. (2009). Culture is Ordinary. In J. Turow & M. McAllister (Eds.), Advertising and Consumer Culture Reader (pp. 91–100). New York: Routledge.