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Published on Wednesday, July 25, 2001
A New Low: Corporate Sponsored Undergrads
by Gregory Parker
 
Leave it up to two kids from suburban New Jersey to be the first corporate sponsored college students.

In September, the dynamic duo of Chris and Luke started chrisandluke.com, a website dedicated to finding a corporate sponsor for their bachelors degree.

"Sponsor us - we will eat your cereal even if we're not hungry!" says one computer-manipulated picture showing Chris - or is it Luke? - ready to shovel a spoonful of it into his mouth.

"We will drink your soda and eat your chips," says another photo, the boys posed next to a sports car. In an interview, Luke said he'd get a tattoo of his sponsor's logo.

They want to be "spokesguys."

Spokesguys?

Excellent.

It worked. In June, they announced their sponsor. Turns out these dudes pimped out themselves to the tune of $40,000 a year (including tuition, room and board, and books), which will defer the costs of attending Pepperdine (Chris) and the University of Southern California (Luke). A credit card company - which shall remain nameless - picked up the tab.

"We hope to help college students across America learn about the importance of financial responsibility and money management," their website claims. So they signed with a credit card company? Giving the average college student a credit card and telling him to be fiscally responsible is like giving a hatchet to an axe murderer and telling him to chop some kindling for the campfire.

These teens haven't started college, and they haven't lived in the most demanding, fiscally conscious environments - one toured the East Coast with his rock band and the other bought a car with profits from an earlier business. Hailing from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, their biggest fiscal decisions in high school were probably whether they should go to Cancun or Orlando for Spring Break. Incidentally, they chose Orlando. That's on their website, too.

But aside from the hypocrisy of credit card companies preaching fiscal responsibility and two high school graduates with $40,000 annual stipends telling undergrads how to form a budget and save money, the real problem with Chris and Luke is their blatant selling out, their willingness to hand over much of their lives to a corporation.

They are the "first corporate sponsored college students," their website claims.

And they're proud of this?

Corporations for years have devised new strategies to infiltrate consumers' lives. First, passive advertisements on magazines, posters and billboards were the norm. Of course, you could always look the other way, ignoring these messages. Later, radio and television ads held audiences captive - unless they turned the dial, and even then, companies started to integrate products into the content of the show.

Marketing moved its captive audience strategy beyond traditional media when corporate sponsorship became the norm in the 1990s. You can't enjoy a ballgame without mentioning a corporation when you announce the name of the stadium. You can't go to the Smithsonian without knowing that the biggest corporation in the world sponsored an exhibit.

Chris and Luke - and people like them - represent the highest evolution of marketing to date, the ultimate manifestation of corporate control in everyday life. Unlike previous decades' consumers, who were unwillingly - or, at least grudgingly - subjected to corporate messages through magazine, radio, television and other media, Chris and Luke and others have become the message. By choice. They encouraged it.

Marketing is no longer passive or even active - the medium and the consumer are interchangeable.

Now, you can't walk down the street without seeing people festooned in logos of third-world exploiting athletic apparel companies. Working-class auto racing fans proclaim their diehard allegiance to car companies that have taken their money with overpriced, low-quality vehicles made by laborers working in horrible conditions in greasy, steamy factories. That's like someone on death row wearing a t-shirt from the local power company as he waits for the electric chair. That's like a smoker parading around in sportswear riddled with the logo of their favorite tobacco company, a company whose products will most likely lead to the smoker's death, a company that manipulates the content of its products to make it harder to quit. Wait - that actually happens.

If only Chris and Luke knew the real implications of their ploy. Maybe they'll learn the hard lesson of "playing by the rules of private enterprise" when they lose their sponsorship because Chris is caught half-naked in an all-girls dorm, or when Luke is caught consuming alcohol before he's 21. See, there's a "moral clause" in their contract that allows the company to cut off funds if some moral transgression occurs.

Then, when the corporate welcome mat is pulled out from beneath their brand-named sneakers, maybe Chris and Luke will be able to tell us something about fiscal management.

But even then, they'd probably be able to pick up sponsorship from Trojan and Annheiser-Busch.

Gregory Parker is a freelance writer living in Chelsea, Michigan, where he writes a weekly column about sustainable small-town living for The Chelsea Standard called "Community Roots." He can be reached at glparker@umich.edu

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