The line to enter a pastel pink Google “Donut Shop” on UW-Madison’s Engineering Mall one cloudy morning earlier this month snaked around the grassy quad, filled with students and others who wanted to experience the pop-up promotion for the tech giant’s smart speaker.

“The new #GoogleHome Mini is the size of a donut, with the powers of a superhero,” @WisconsinUnion, the official Twitter account of UW-Madison’s student unions, wrote to its nearly 30,000 followers. “Get a taste today from 10-6. #ad #sponsored @madebygoogle.”

The Google event was the latest in a string of highly visible corporate partnerships at UW-Madison — others have included an Amazon location in a dorm and a campaign promoting Mentos Gum at the start of the fall semester — in which the university’s physical and digital spaces have been used as platforms for businesses.

The partnerships are sources of revenue for the university and the unions, although exactly how much money they are worth isn’t clear, and provide experiences students appreciate, campus officials say.

“If you go to any college campus you’ll see this,” said Wisconsin Union deputy director Susan Dibbell. “We’re just taking advantage of what’s coming our way.”

But the agreements also raise ethical questions about the relationships between public universities and corporate sponsors, and whether it’s appropriate to turn over parts of campus to private businesses.

“I don’t believe universities should sell themselves to corporate interests in this sort of carnivalesque way,” said Tom O’Guinn, a marketing professor in the Wisconsin School of Business. “It’s just debasing something that some of us considered special.”

Marketing evolves

to reach students

Marketing to college students and partnerships between universities and corporations are nothing new, of course — Wisconsin Athletics has everything from an official apparel provider (Under Armour) to an “official portable protein” (Jack Link’s).

ESPN’s “College Gameday,” which is making another visit to UW-Madison this week, fills its on-campus sets with advertisements for Home Depot and Coca-Cola.

But experts say several factors are making today’s partnerships more noticeable.

UW-Madison professor Kathleen Culver, who studies marketing strategies and media ethics, said advertising is evolving, with a greater emphasis on “content marketing” that tells interesting stories to engage consumers.

The Mentos campaign, for instance, was based on a challenge: Could a UW-Madison freshman, Sam Jeschke, hand out 43,000 packs of the company’s gum during his first week on campus? Jeschke did, winning a year of free tuition for himself and a concert from hip-hop producer DJ Khaled for his fellow students.

“People of this college generation are not known for accepting traditional advertising,” Culver said. “These marketers have to find new ways to get at them.”

Another reason: In recent decades, O’Guinn said, advertising has become more pervasive in public spaces that were once free of it.

“It’s the collapse of what used to be somewhat sacred space into commercial space,” he said.

And both O’Guinn and Culver said they believe UW-Madison is looking for ways to generate revenue for itself after cuts to state higher education funding in recent years.

UW promotes campaigns

Amazon, which leases space in Sellery Hall for an office where shoppers can pick up items they ordered online, has a five-year contract with UW-Madison worth $190,000 per year.

The Google and Mentos marketing campaigns were the result of a partnership between the Wisconsin Union and Badger Sports Properties, a division of Learfield Sports, which contracts with the university and sells media rights for UW athletics events.

Dibbell said the Union has had various sponsorship deals since 2012 with local apartments and food delivery services, though the Mentos and Google partnerships were “the biggest ones we’ve had in our history.”

To promote the Mentos campaign, known by the hashtag #SamHasMentosGum, the Wisconsin Union tweeted more than a dozen times and posted photos to its Instagram account, which more typically features shots of the Memorial Union’s sunburst chairs and sunsets on Lake Mendota.

UW-Madison’s institutional Twitter account, with over 170,000 followers, also promoted the Mentos campaign.

And there were advertisements for it inside the student unions, as well as at events like the Wisconsin football season opener.

Asked how much money the Wisconsin Union has taken in from the Google and Mentos campaigns, spokeswoman Shauna Breneman wrote in an email, “At no point is the Wisconsin Union provided with specific contract dollar amounts.

“The Union will be provided with a total sponsorship revenue figure at the end of the fiscal year,” Breneman said.

Culver noted that UW-Madison, like other universities, has invested considerable effort in creating and maintaining its online brand, which advertisers like Mentos are hoping to use to make their campaigns more effective.

Ethical concerns cited over advertising

One risk of corporate partnerships, she said, is that the university could wind up associated with a potentially controversial business.

Google is among several tech companies facing increased scrutiny for the role they may have played in Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, while critics have asserted that Amazon’s online retail empire harms local brick-and-mortar businesses.

Dibbell said the Union’s agreements are clear that partnerships do not represent an official UW-Madison endorsement of a company.

The Union has guidelines for sponsorship agreements, she said, such as not partnering with alcohol and tobacco companies. It also generally looks to steer clear of controversy — Dibbell said the Union passed on a potential sponsorship deal with Uber several years ago because the company was butting heads with the city of Madison over efforts to regulate the ride-hailing app industry.

“It’s a case-by-case basis,” she said. “We do our homework.”

Culver said she did not necessarily consider sponsorship agreements a problem, so long as they don’t affect academics or keep students or the public from using university spaces.

But while she believes it’s unlikely, Culver warned that taking on too many partnerships risks cheapening the brand UW-Madison has sought to build.

“You don’t want the University of Wisconsin becoming the NASCAR car of higher education,” Culver said. “You want to ensure that this place is still about its fundamental missions of teaching, research and service.”


Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.