Spotlight on Faculty: Michael Mackert

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Michael MackertCommunications School Professor Michael Mackert talks about community service, learning new fields in order to teach them, and coming to The University of Texas straight out of graduate school.

Next time you go to the Austin Farmer’s Market on the corner of 4th and Guadalupe, you could see signs that say, “I went to the Farmers’ Market looking for organic honey. I left with honey and a new running partner for next Wednesday,” or “I went to the Farmers’ Market to buy fresh ingredients for my Saturday morning omelet. I left with eggs, peppers and a date for Friday night.” These slogans, intended to highlight the social elements of the Farmer’s Market in order to draw in more customers, are a product of Dr. Michael Mackert’s graduate advertising classes.

In his advertising classes, graduate students work with local organizations to help them create advertising campaigns and slogans, an endeavor which succeeds both in giving the students real-world experience and providing a service for these community organizations. Mackert says, “These graduate students are doing work that helps foster university-community ties.”

Mackert, like many of his students, is relatively new to advertising. His PhD from Michigan State University is in Mass Media and Information Studies, where he first developed his interest in health literacy. He got through his PhD at MSU extremely quickly, which he attributes to advisors who offered him advice when he asked but trusted him enough to step back and let him work. And work he did: he completed his doctoral program in three years and secured a teaching job at The University at Texas Communications School by the time he was 27.

Once at The University of Texas, he taught classes in account planning, health communication theories and practice, and advertising management. As research in health literacy involves explaining health information to an often nation-wide audience, the transition to advertising was natural: it was simply another way of communicating product information to a diverse audience. Both, says Mackert, are about knowing your audience. “What works for one won’t work for all.”

In the classroom, Mackert subscribes to this same philosophy. He tries to be receptive and find out what works for each new audience of students. Being a young, newly-minted professor, Mackert has more than once been mistaken for a student. He says, however, despite these few awkward moments, that his age has not worked against him.

“Being so close to my graduate students’ age helps me avoid doing the things I really hated for professors to do, such as forgetting that students have a life outside the classroom. But then still you make mistakes. Once I assigned a project due the day of the UT-OU game.”

“Also,” he adds, “when you’re closer in age to the products and the topic, it’s easier to make the conversations relevant to the students’ own experience. Once I walked into my advertising class and all of the students were talking about Facebook as it implemented its newsfeed feature. I had a list of things I needed to cover that day, but every student had an opinion about what Facebook had done wrong. They were talking about advertising and public relations on their own terms and in their own lives, and I thought: This is a moment that I don’t want to stop. So we spent the class asking, ‘How could we have done it better?’”

In the future, Mackert hopes to teach an informal course to graduate students about grant-writing. “That was probably the biggest thing that I learned in graduate school,” he says. When he came to UT, he applied for and immediately won a Research Grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research grant. This summer he has been granted a Summer Research Assignment (SRA) through the Graduate School, which he will use for more health literacy research. He plans to visit several New York agencies, especially Ogilvy Healthworld, to see what sorts of advertising material they are producing. In the meantime, he will spend the spring teaching his graduate class in advertising, and guiding students to help more community organizations find their audience.

Q&A by Elisabeth McKetta, February 2008
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