An Anatomy of a White House Marketing Flop

Obama's holding a contest for high schools; he's the prize but no one's applying

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President Obama is holding a nationwide contest for high schools to show how they're preparing kids for college. He's the prize. And no one is applying. But it's not for a lack of trying.

So few schools entered to win a commencement speech from Obama, CBS News' Peter Maer reported, that the entry deadline for the White House's Commencement Challenge was extended from February 25 to March 11. A panicked memo from White House staffer on February 22 warned there was "a major issue" with the challenge--only 14 schools had applied. More than a thousand schools applied to win the a commencement address from the president last year. By February 28, the number of entries was only up to 68. Another memo went out saying, "Something isn't working."

Already critics are using the dearth of entries to argue for Obama's waning popularity. But the Commencement Challenge is becoming the presidential initiatve equivalent of box office bomb Ishtar. Much is often made of the savvy ways that people and government use the Internet. But as the people on this project scramble to goose the number entries before March 11 -- the official site says the online "application has also been streamlined" to just three 250 word essay questions! -- let's look back at the promotional efforts that flopped.

Launch video: Things got off to a good start back on February 1 when Simon Boehme, University of Michigan freshman and salutorian of the graduating class at last year's winner Kalamazoo Central high School, starred in a White House video with the President himself. Who wouldn't want to be like this guy? The Problem: Valerie Strauss writes at The Washington Post, "I suspect this is ultimately more about the adults in the school building rather than the kids." She pooints to Kalamazoo's winning essay and wonders if it was actually written by a student: "Kalamazoo Central is a diverse, dynamic and dedicated community of students and staff committed to our district’s mission: Every Child, Every Opportunity, Every Time."

Celebrity endorsements: Nick Jonas and John Legend made videos promoting the contest, but they failed to go viral. The Problem: The White House would have been better off getting Justin Bieber involved.

Blogs: When Melody Barnes, deputy White House domestic policy council, urged students to apply in an article on the Huffington Post, she got just seven comments. The Problem: Huffington recently noted no one would notice when some unpaid writers stopped writing for the site as a boycott. The reverse can often be just as true.

Public Relations: The White House asked friendly members of Congress to put out some press releases. The Problem: Politicians put out boring press releases.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.