September 12th, 2011
On Campus, It’s One Big Commercial
The New York Times
It’s move-in day here at the University of North Carolina, and Leila Ismail, stuffed animals in tow, is feeling some freshman angst.
A few friendly upperclassmen spring into action.
But wait: there is something odd, or at least oddly corporate, about this welcome wagon. These U.N.C. students are all wearing identical T-shirts from American Eagle Outfitters.
Turns out three of them are working for that youth clothing chain on this late August morning, as what are known in the trade as “brand ambassadors” or “campus evangelists” — and they have recruited several dozen friends as a volunteer move-in crew. Even before Ms. Ismail can find her dorm or meet her roommate, they cheerily unload her family’s car. Then they lug her belongings to her dorm. Along the way, they dole out American Eagle coupons, American Eagle water canisters and American Eagle pens.
Ms. Ismail, 18, of Charlotte, welcomes the help. “I’ll probably always remember it,” she says.
American Eagle Outfitters certainly hopes so, as do a growing number of companies that are hiring college students to represent brands on campuses across the nation.
This fall, an estimated 10,000 American college students will be working on hundreds of campuses — for cash, swag, job experience or all three — marketing everything from Red Bull to Hewlett-Packard PCs. For the companies hiring them, the motivation is clear: college students spent about $36 billion on things like clothing, computers and cellphones during the 2010-11 school year alone, according to projections from Re:Fuel, a media and promotions firm specializing in the youth market. And who knows the students at, say, U.N.C., better than the students at U.N.C.?
Corporations have been pitching college students for decades on products from cars to credit cards. But what is happening on campuses today is without rival, in terms of commercializing everyday college life.
Companies from Microsoft on down are increasingly seeking out the big men and women on campus to influence their peers. The students most in demand are those who are popular — ones involved in athletics, music, fraternities or sororities. Thousands of Facebook friends help, too. What companies want are students with inside knowledge of school traditions and campus hotspots. In short, they want students with the cred to make brands seem cool, in ways that a TV or magazine ad never could.
“We are the people who understand what kinds of things the students will be open to,” says Alex Stegall, a Carolina junior who recruited about 20 members of her sorority for the American Eagle promotion. “It’s marketing for the students, by the students.”
It’s a good deal for the student marketers, who can earn several hundred to several thousand dollars a semester in salary, perks, products and services, depending on the company. But the trend poses challenges for university officials, especially at a time when many schools are themselves embracing corporate sponsorships to help stage events for students.
Just how far one big company — Target — has permeated this university was evident at freshmen welcome week in late August, at what students and administrators alike characterized as a touchstone party for the class of 2015.
As part of the official university program, Target sponsored a welcome dinner on a Friday. Then, on Saturday, for the first real social event for freshmen, it hired buses to ferry students to a Target superstore in Durham for late-night shopping, says Winston B. Crisp, the university’s vice chancellor for student affairs.
From the school’s point of view, Mr. Crisp says, the excursion is both social and practical. It’s a convenient way for freshmen to pick up last-minute items. Equally important, he says, is that shopping at midnight keeps freshmen away from alcohol-fueled parties on their first weekend. University administrators supervise the event, he says, and control the marketing messages.
But Mr. Crisp says he was unaware of the American Eagle effort on his campus. He worried aloud that students and parents might mistake such promotions as having the university’s imprimatur.
“They are not supposed to be using the opportunity to help people move in as a way of forwarding commercial ventures,” he said, standing near the cash registers at Target that evening, as upperclassmen handed out free VitaminWater, Combos and packages of macaroni and cheese. He added: “So it’s a bit of a dilemma.”