During a recent sunny Thursday lunch hour, balloons bobbed amid the leafy canopy of the South Park Blocks, hot dogs sweated on a grill, and Honda commercials flickered on a video monitor.
"It's beyond our wildest dreams," Honda America senior marketing manager Tom Peyton says of the company's partnership with a Portland State University marketing class, which culminated in the Park Blocks party, complete with a rock-climbing wall and a snow-cone machine. Honda officials had also parked three shiny SUVs on the park pavement, their hoods and doors flung open emphatically so that the young passersby could, literally, be in their Elements.
Honda calls its first joint venture with PSU win-win, but for the city-owned Park Blocks, the event looks more like a no-no.
"We don't consider car shows to be appropriate leisure activities for which parks are designed," says Cary Coker, public-events coordinator for Portland Parks and Recreation, who was unaware of the event until contacted by WW. He says he's turned down previous requests from other auto makers to promote their cars on park property.
Through an agreement with the city, PSU maintains the blocks from Market Street to Jackson Street and schedules student events. Those open to the general public, such as the Element party, require city-issued permits, Coker says. "That's probably something PSU should've called us on."
So was the Park Blocks party an auto show or a PSU class project?
Honda insists it was both: PSU is one of 28 universities competing for a $5,000 scholarship award by promoting the company's new SUV. Using $2,500 from Honda and donations from local businesses, students in Prof. Don Dickenson's Marketing 443 class designed the campaign that ended with last month's Park Blocks party. Honda officials were thrilled.
"Most campuses are tough to get on," Peyton admits. "Most campuses, understandably, do not want to turn into a hodgepodge of corporate marketing. That was the beauty of this one. We became integrated with the campus culture. Because it was a class, campus administration was more lenient in getting [Honda] on campus."
Cathy Dyck, associate vice president for finance, administration and auxiliary services at PSU, says the event was primarily educational. "They don't sell cars," Dyck says, while conceding that the students' assignment was to promote Honda's newest vehicle to their classmates. "It has nothing to do with selling cars. It's marketing."
Not everyone on campus is pleased with the promotion; Dickenson says some of the campaign fliers and posters were ripped up or stolen. "We have some people who are very anti-business so they tend to not want to have anything corporate," he explains.
Students have good reason for such outrage, says Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit anti-commercialism watchdog group based in Portland. Under the guise of education, and with only a token compensation, Honda is insinuating itself into PSU's curriculum, Ruskin says, and getting cheap access to public property.
"This is just part of how the commercial culture is intruding on academia. Corporate America is turning colleges and universities into appendages of corporate America," says Ruskin. "This is just one small example."
The deal between Honda and PSU was brokered by EdVenture Partners, a California-based consulting and market-research firm that connects college students with the likes of Citicorp, Lockheed-Martin, and the Federal Department of Homeland Security.