Something resembling the truth

‘Vax core technology’: what does that mean in the world of education marketing?

30th Jun 2021

I was maintaining my perspective on public opinion with an episode of Goggle Box recently. Whilst it was as educative as ever the commercial breaks where irritating. Especially one particular ad for a vacuum cleaner. It extolled the virtues of various hi-tech features including ‘Twin helix brush bar’ and ‘Vax Core Technology’. Each of these, undeniably impressive features, were explained by a man and woman double act asking, “what does that mean?” There followed a detailed explanation of this amazing hi-tech wizardry and its benefits to anyone who habitually throws their breakfast cereal on the kitchen floor.

Contemplating the ad later I had to, grudgingly, give it some credit. I had remembered it. But I was also left in no doubt about what all the tech meant. The agency had understood that all the techy names meant little without explaining how that tech worked and, most importantly, what the benefits were. They had not just settled for saying ‘state-of-the-art technology’.

Actually, if there’s one phrase I read that’s sure to dishearten me it’s ‘state-of-the-art’. I see it used a lot in HE and FE communications. The Oxford English Dictionery (OED) defines state-of-the-art as: adjective, using the most modern or advanced techniques or methods; as good as it can be at the present time. But consider this: Executive Magazine stated, way back in 1985, “it has no punch left and actually sounds like a lie” Vol. 27, p. 56.

The earliest use of the term “state of the art” documented by the OED dates back to 1910, from an engineering manual by, engineering graduate, Henry Harrison Suplee. It appeared in the snappily titled ‘Gas Turbine: progress in the design and construction of turbines operated by gases of combustion’. The relevant passage reads: “In the present state of the art this is all that can be done”. The term, “art”, itself refers to the useful arts, skills and methods relating to practical subjects such as manufacture and craftsmanship, rather than in the sense of the performing arts and the fine arts.[wikipedia]

Putting myself in the prospect’s shoes when reading the aforementioned communications, I find it tells me absolutely nothing. And yet everyone is using it. Just Google state-of-the-art followed by the name of any UK university and see how many hits you get. Now change the name to another University, how many hits? Pretty much any university you name will yield multiple hits. Well, that’s amazing that they all have state-of-the-art facilities but as a prospective student what use is it to me? What does it mean? How am I supposed to differentiate between these awesome institutions all telling me the same thing? I’m none the wiser – does state-of-the-art mean that they have a super-duper new 3D printer used in the prototyping of cars. Will I be playing with the same kit as Audi or Aston Martin use? Or are the authors just trying to hide something?

All of this reminds me of a brief we got from London South Bank University a few years ago. They did want to be specific about what engineering kit they had and to show it off. Research showed that prospective engineering students were very excited about the toys they would get to play with. So, we were asked to make a short video. The brief was the most concise brief we have ever had, it simply said: ‘make engineering porn!’. Which is exactly what we did. The results can be seen here.  What you won’t find is the phase ‘state-of-the-art’, anywhere. We explained the features and benefits of the kit. And whilst I understand that, often, there isn’t room in a print publication to detail all the facilities, I’d rather read about one impressive thing and then be directed to a university’s or college’s website where I could indulge in ‘engineering porn’ to my hearts content.

I’m sure that state-of-the-art probably does have its place. Just not on our marketing communications. And whilst I’m making the case for its abolition here’s few more that I believe should share the same fate:

  • World-leading
  • Cutting-edge
  • Global
  • Forefront

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