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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Column: Place that product

“It’s like people only do things because they get paid, and that’s just really sad.”

Fans of Wayne’s World, and just comedy in general, might fondly recall this ironic line by Dana Carvey while portraying a ‘90s nerd/hippie/hard rock fanatic dressed head to toe in exclusively Reebok gear.

In the scene, network cable stars Garth Algar and buddy Wayne Campbell (one of Mike Myers’s best characters) cleverly use product placement to mock advertising and “selling out.” While eating Doritos and Pizza Hut and drinking Pepsi (in a sincerely blatant manner), they argue with their boss about making time on the show for the sponsor to promote his own products.

While Wayne and Garth make fun of the practice of infiltrating creative work with commercial messages in a lighthearted way, 20 years later product placement has evolved into forms that seem excessive, if not a bit disturbing.

The common view of product placement is that it occurs strictly in the entertainment industry — films, TV shows, etc. But there’s another type of it growing rapidly at schools all over the United States: college brand ambassadors.

They walk amongst us in plain view, blending seamlessly into the busy ecosystem that is a college campus. Some wear t-shirts promoting a brand or product, some set up tables by the Quad. They all have one thing in common, however. They are all students.

Companies like American Eagle, Microsoft and Red Bull, like many others with products that cater towards a younger crowd, have always had advertising campaigns geared towards college students. Very recently, though, there has been a change in how these companies reach out to one of their target demographics. Instead of marketing to students, they have begun to market through students.

A college brand ambassador is hired by a company, sometimes for pay and sometimes purely as an internship, to market the company’s brand and products directly towards his or her friends and peers. Now, what at first glance seems like an evil scheme involving the brainwashing of students for the use of further brainwashing is actually a pretty smart business move.

The kinds of students companies target to fill these roles are very active socially. You know, your run-of-the-mill 1,300 Facebook friends, greek life die-hard, sports fanatic student. College-aged kids who fit this bill are essentially spiders threading an enormous networking web around themselves. In other words, they’re mainstream.

Don’t get offended if you meet the requirements above and disagree with the “mainstream” label. This isn’t Jock v. Hipster or Mainstream v. Alt (cases that could soon hit the Supreme Court). This is purely how large companies identify the best candidates for spreading their brand on a college campus.

College-aged brand ambassadors have a much stronger effect on their peers than any older representative that works for a company could ever achieve. Students are more trusting of their friends, and friends of friends, that inhabit the same campus, and are thus more likely to accept offers from them to buy a product.

Part of human nature, no matter how far off the mainstream one may be, is to take notice in what those close to you are interested in. We’re far more likely to buy and drink Red Bull if our friends regularly champion and drink it themselves.

Big brand names have started to capitalize on this tendency to generate more revenue. They believe if they can find the “cool” kids on campus to market their products, others will want to emulate them and achieve coolness by shelling out cash for a product. And as awful as that may sound, it works.

Many of us would like to think we’re impervious to the ever-growing influence of commercialism, but the truth is, unless you’re ditching common society to hitchhike up to Alaska and live in a deserted bus à la Into the Wild, you can’t completely escape anymore. Businesses are always on the prowl for innovative methods of spreading brand awareness, and even if you do opt for the wilderness route, it’s possible they’ll reach you there one day too.

In conclusion, Red Bull gives you wings.

VICTOR BEIGELMAN isn’t trying to be a buzzkill; he’s just bringing the facts. Harass him about it anyway at vbeigelman@ucdavis.edu.

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