A planned marketing campaign for the University of Wyoming is taking heat from some inside the university who have called it sexist, racist and counterproductive to the goal of recruiting more out-of-state students.
“The world needs more cowboys,” the campaign claims, evoking images of stereotypical western icons in the minds of some faculty and misrepresenting UW’s research and educational goals, associate professor Christine Porter said.
“I care most about our university having a slogan that makes all people feel welcome here,” she said. “That’s what I care most about. I also care about us not embarrassing ourselves as an institution across the nation. However proud this state is of our cowboy tradition, it just does not translate outside the Rocky Mountain West.”
UW Director of Communications Chad Baldwin defended the slogan, saying one of the campaign’s central goals was redefining the word “cowboy” to represent all faculty, staff, students and others associated with the university.
“We’re casting it so that it’s not gender-specific,” Baldwin said. “It’s not at all exclusionary. It’s the spirit of the cowboy that we all kind of share in. So, we’re basically throwing away the old stereotypes and updating what it means to be a cowboy and what it looks like. A cowboy is not what you are, but who you are.”
Boulder, Colorado-based marketing firm Victors & Spoils was paid around $500,000 to develop the campaign. It is part of a more than $1.4 million investment to advertise the university both within and outside Wyoming.
In addition to individuals raising objections, the UW Committee on Women and People of Color wrote a letter to Baldwin and UW President Laurie Nichols, asking them to “shelve that slogan and find another one that represents the diversity of people and cultures that we have, and want to have, as UW.”
Attached to the letter was an explanation of the history of the word “cowboy” and its racial and gendered connotations, written by professor of communications Tracey Patton, who published a book in 2012 titled “Gender, Whiteness and Power in Rodeo.”
Cowboys and connotations
The objections are two-fold. She said the slogan both fails to be inclusive and fails to accurately represent UW to those outside Wyoming.
“For me, the clearest reason it’s unacceptable is the word ‘boy,’ excluding anyone who identifies as female,” she said. “In 2018 — and really for the past 20 years — it’s not been acceptable to use the generic male to pretend that includes female.”
Porter added UW already recognizes this in its athletic programs, where men’s teams are referred to as Cowboys and women’s as Cowgirls.
Porter shared a survey on the UW faculty listserv, asking respondents to picture a cowboy in their mind and share what the word evoked for them.
While promotional materials for the marketing campaign list historical figures as varied as Galileo Galilei, Mary Wollstonecraft, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malala Yousafzai as “all cowboys,” nearly 75 percent of survey respondents named instead the Marlboro Man.
“I am not the only person for whom the word ‘cowboy’ invokes a white, macho, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, U.S.-born person,” Porter said. “The history of cowboys, of course, is much more diverse than that racially, and presumably also for sexual orientation. But the image — what the word ‘cowboy’ means off the top of almost everybody’s head in the U.S. — is the white, heterosexual male.”
Faculty Senate Chair Donal O’Toole said the list of non-cowboy Cowboys was “frankly absurd.”
“I could kind of hear Martin Luther King chuckling if he read something like that,” O’Toole said. “They listed a whole bunch of people who they said represented cowboys, but I wonder if that’s going to be a hard sell.”
Baldwin said the revolutionary figures listed as cowboys might not be seen as such today, but a central goal of the “world needs more cowboys” campaign was to reimagine this term already so tied to the university.
“The term ‘cowboy’ in this campaign refers to people of any gender, any background, any ethnicity and what we have in common, which is the spirit of adventure and being a trailblazer, being resilient,” Baldwin said.
Porter said she liked the idea of expanding the term “cowboy” to include people of other races or orientations, but added the “boy” would put it forever out of reach for women and girls.
“I truly appreciate … the idea that who a cowboy is needs to be rebranded to be more accurate to the diversity of people who are cowboys, or who have been,” Porter said. “However, you don’t do that with a marketing slogan. You don’t try to simultaneously change how everybody thinks of that word, and use it to say those are the only people who belong here at the University of Wyoming.”
The other issue of concern for Porter was the current perception of the word “cowboy” outside of Wyoming, where UW intends to recruit students.
Respondents to Porter’s survey suggested alternatives to the “cowboys” slogan. While some were sarcastic — “The world needs more ballerinas” — others were sincere. Porter said she was particularly fond of a suggestion to make UW’s slogan: “The world needs more trailblazers.”
“Aside from my inclusivity concerns, I just think that’s a better slogan, period,” she said. “I think it’s more appropriate for a university. It’s more specific to what we do and more directional and it doesn’t require reinventing what a word means.”
O’Toole said he shared Porter’s concern about the baggage that so often comes with the term “cowboy” thanks to media depictions.
“It means someone who just kind of takes risks and can sometimes be a knucklehead,” he said. “Now, that’s not how cowboys are seen here, but the university really needs to balance the positive image that cowboys have here with the possibly negative image that cowboys may have elsewhere in the country, especially if they’re interested in bringing in a higher proportion of out-of-state students.”
O’Toole added the “cowboy” image was a confusing mascot for the academic arm of the university, which is actively working to become a premier STEM institution.
“One of the concerns I have is we get some blowback from people in the state saying University of Wyoming faculty doesn’t understand the cowboy heritage and so on,” O’Toole said. “And that’s not really the point. The point is how will people outside our immediate area see that slogan.”
UW Institutional Communications, however, is not operating blindly, Baldwin said.
“Perhaps if you see that slogan in a vacuum and don’t see that context, maybe some people object to it,” he said. “But the campaign itself hinges on this redefinition of a cowboy — and in fact, we’ve now done some market research that shows that, in fact, is effective and is appealing to broad groups of people.”
A professional marketing research firm conducted an evaluation among a national sample of young people likely to apply to universities. The research firm showed these young people UW’s “the world needs more cowboys” campaign video, asking both before and after if they would consider UW and if they were likely to apply.
While 25 percent of respondents said they would definitely or probably consider UW before the video, 48 percent said they would do so after. While 25 percent said before the video they would definitely or probably apply to UW, 41 percent said they would apply after the video.
Among African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, the 48 percent before the video who said they would definitely or probably consider UW grew to 53 percent after. The 41 percent who said they would definitely or probably apply to UW grew to 48 percent after the video.
Before the video, 36 percent of respondents — and 41 percent of ethnic minority respondents — agreed UW is a “university rich in diversity. That number rose to 58 percent for both groupings after being shown the video.
Additionally, 68 percent of respondents — and 56 percent of ethnic minority respondents — said the video changed their perception of cowboys, according to a memo detailing the market research.
“I think it’s unfortunate there are some people on campus for whom the term ‘cowboys’ will never probably suffice, but that’s where we’re coming from,” Baldwin said. “The idea here is to make this absolutely inclusive. The critics say that it’s exclusive, but the campaign rests on the idea of making it something that represents everyone associated with UW.”
The new slogan is set to launch Sept. 14 at Laramie’s annual Downtown Mash-Up event.