The Dizzying Whiplash of Values-Based Communications

Last week, I’d settled into binge-watching cycling videos on YouTube when an ad for the University of Phoenix popped up. My gut reaction was disdain that my vicarious journey through the Tour de France had been interrupted by an institution I have major misgivings about. For-profit colleges are damaging to our higher education system because they compromise student needs for their bottom line. They oftentimes sell the students with the least opportunity a degree that will leave them strapped with debt at best and completely hung out to dry at worst.

However, the ad struck a chord with me as it showed the life trajectory of a young, queer, black woman who came up as an Olympic athlete, Wall Street exec, MBA and an advocate for human rights. Have you seen it?

And instead of skipping the ad, I listened to the story they were sharing about this incredible woman, Gail Marquis. They got to the end where it revealed that she was a University of Phoenix alumna, and I had whiplash. The ad had moved me because it reflected my values back at me (the potential in every human to rise up, particularly those who overcome hate and discrimination to get where they are), but the cognitive dissonance I had with what the ad truly represented (a for-profit college) was halting. Particularly when I read the fine print at the end of the video which said, “For info including educational debt and completion rates of students, vsit (a TYPO on a university promotional piece, how confidence inspiring!): www.blah blah…”

Granted, Koch Industries could run an ad with Maya Angelou performing a poem over scenes of German Shepard puppies romping through sunflowers and I would still think they are evil incarnate, but advertising can’t solve everything. And my inner skeptic is always scanning for "queer baiting", when a sitcom or network show adds homoerotic subtext between two characters in order to attract LGBTQ audiences without ever intending to follow through on an actual relationship between the characters. But this is a real human being's life portrayed and I'm here for it.

My point is, the ad had me reconsidering the University of Phoenix for a moment, and that was their intent. I began to think more about how communicating from values rather than politics is critical today. And I reflected upon where I could come back to values with my clients within their communication strategy.

The model I use for building a messaging platform begins – always – with beliefs. What do I (or we) believe to be true in the world? By the time you get down to describing what stands in the way of that belief, it’s all too easy to get mired in policies, systemic oppression, or more complex barriers. But if you don’t start with beliefs, you’ve lost your audience.

Does Secretary DeVos believe, like I do, that every person should have the right to an education that will unlock their potential? Let's hope so. Might she also believe that rolling back rules that protect students from predatory for-profit colleges “improves accountability”? Also true.