Last week, in the culmination of a days-old face-off, UT lost to the University of Central Florida in a National Collegiate Showdown. What exactly was said showdown over? It’s hard to say — the desire for free merchandise, partly, but also social media prowess, school spirit and the willingness of students to spread a message.
The event involved neither athletic nor academic competitions, but rather a series of battles waged on Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter, all based around who could share the most social media that referenced the competition and its sponsor, Pink, a brand imprint of Victoria’s Secret that produces underwear and clothing marketed to young women. Colleges were progressively eliminated from the showdown based on the number of participants sharing or not sharing brand-referencing material, with the promise of “the ultimate campus party,” to be put on by Victoria’s Secret for the winning school.
In the end, the University of Central Florida killed us in the “tweet race,” despite the many Twitter users who tweeted using the hashtag “#UTexasPINKParty.” Maybe it’s for the best: Off-campus entities are not allowed to put on events with registered student organizations, a rule which extends to faculty and staff organizations as well — and it’s hard to imagine faculty council voting in favor of a 40 Acres-wide party aimed at selling students underwear. So even though this “ultimate campus party” didn’t even have a chance of occurring on campus, the campaign to win it garnered over 500,000 “#UTexas” hashtagged tweets.
All those tweets raise a question: Why were so many UT students willing to tie up not just their Twitter feeds but also their social media profiles and their school’s reputation with a clothing company that sells candy-colored underwear and sparkly lip gloss?
The answer, partly, is that Victoria’s Secret is one of many corporations meeting college students where they are: on campus and on social media. Victoria’s Secret Pink has at least two on-campus brand representatives who promote the company’s products and plan off-campus events. Other brands with similar programs include Red Bull, whose “Red Bull University” program aims to get college students hooked on the drink by recruiting student brand managers. Red Bull’s student brand managers get paid, which is often the case with these types of positions. They also receive free merchandise, such as a Red Bull-themed refrigerator and all the Red Bull necessary to fill it, and they get entry-level experience in sales and marketing.
But corporations are trying to recruit brand managers by promising them more than just money and swag. Red Bull lists one of the perks of being a brand manager as “possibly becoming the most popular person on campus,” the idea being that students who are excited not just about selling the product but also about the idea of the product and the lifestyle it suggests will be better promoters. Disturbingly, marketing professionals often describe campus brand managers as “brand evangelists,” suggesting that students aren’t being hired just to push products but also to push beliefs.
Admittedly, I don’t like Victoria’s Secret’s products or brand messaging, but my frustration with our almost-win in the Victoria’s Secret Pink Collegiate Showdown is less about the brand and more about the principle.
Universities all over the nation have Victoria’s Secret marketing representatives, and whether or not we throw a giant party on our campus, that company and others will continue to market to UT students. What we do have at UT are our own social traditions and our set of campus values, defined — without the help of a corporation — by the history of our campus and of our state. When marketers lump us into an age group, putting UT in the same group as Rutgers, University of Central Florida and Purdue (the other “final four” schools involved in the competition), they reduce us to consumers to be marketed to. It’s reasonable for them to do so, but when we willingly participate in their schemes, we round the corners of our regional idiosyncrasies and rob ourselves of the little things that make use worth cheering for over the other team.
Not to mention, we get roped into buying uncomfortable underwear.
Wright is a Plan II junior from San Antonio.