Publications & Products
Advance Work: A College of Pill Pushers

Mysterious marketing campaign gets people talking

By Tracy Palmer

If there were a pill that could control your teen-ager’s mind, would you buy it? Last winter in Ontario, a lot of people were talking about the possibility.

“When Amy started thinking for herself, we had to nip it in the bud with Obay,” read one billboard in the Canadian province. Another said, “My son used to have his own hopes and aspirations. Now he has mine. Thanks, Obay!”

For two weeks, such copy was part of a series of teaser ads featuring smiling families and a bottle of Obay pills. The ads ran on bus stops and in the subway and garnered extensive coverage from the news media and bloggers.

It wasn’t a pharmaceutical company behind the clever viral marketing campaign, however. It was Colleges Ontario, an advocacy group that represents the 24 publicly funded colleges in the province.

The goal of the campaign was to alter parents’ perceptions of college, says Linda Franklin, the group’s president and CEO. In Canada, a college is a postsecondary institution that provides applied training in technology, technical skills, and trades. Many parents feel that universities are the only route to success for their children.

“Our goal was to get people’s attention in a funny, intriguing way that would get them to step back and think,” says Franklin, who hired Smith Roberts Creative Communications, an advertising firm in Toronto, for the project.

“We hoped to generate Web discussion,” she adds, noting that 300 blogs were speculating about Obay.

Many people thought Obay was a real drug. Franklin says they even received calls from pharmacists looking for the product.

The teaser phase of the marketing campaign was followed by a month-long “reveal” phase, in which the original ads were “covered” with wrinkled, yellow notes explaining the hoax.

“Luckily, Obay isn’t real. Sure, you want what’s best for your kids, but when it comes to postsecondary education, pushing them to do what you want isn’t right. Explore all the options at,” read one of the reveal ads.

Did the ads change attitudes? It’s probably too soon to tell. Applications to Ontario colleges have not increased dramatically, says Franklin, though they did tick up 6 percent. However, Franklin points out that this was just the beginning of a multiyear campaign.

“Now we have to work at finding another humorous, catchy way to get attention and get across our messages.”

About the Author Tracy Palmer




Add a Comment

You must be logged in to comment . Your name and institution will show with your comment.