This week, 150 Columbia University students are preparing to run in their undies. The plan is simple: Rain, shine, or freezing cold, the students will meet this Thursday evening on the Lehman Lawn of Barnard College. Then they'll strip down to their underwear—if they haven't already done so—and jog a two-mile course that will take them through the streets of Morningside Heights.
The students have learned about the event through a Facebook page created by Barnard sophomore Ada Rubin and Columbia junior Laura Selfridge. It calls on participants to bring cowbells, which will call attention to the procession—if the mass display of semi-nudity does not already.
The plan has already caught the attention of Columbia's administration, which banished the runners from their original meeting place, the steps of Low Library. The problem, though, was not the prospect of all that exposed flesh. The Rebel Underwear Run, as it's called, is going to be more than an ordinary bare-assed athletic event on an Ivy League campus—part of a lineage that includes Harvard's Primal Scream streakers and Princeton's Nude Olympics. It's going to be a bare-assed athletic event with a corporate sponsor: Nike, which hired Rubin and Selfridge this fall to dream up ways to create buzz for their brand on the Columbia campus. Students who arrive at the Rebel Underwear Run wearing Nike sports bras, underwear, or sneakers are promised a special prize.
In an e-mail, Columbia spokesman Robert Hornsby explained the decision: "This proposed event is not sponsored by a registered student group, nor is there a contract signed with Nike for campus access for a non-affiliate event, and thus, this event will not be taking place as publicized."
Rubin and Selfridge have the official title of Nike MKTG interns, but they belong to a larger guild of "campus reps": college students hired by big companies to market to their friends. The arrival of reps on campuses can be traced back to early last decade, when Red Bull began hiring socially active students at schools across the country and giving them personal refrigerators filled with cans of the energy drink.
Since then, more established companies have moved to adapt the model for their own youth-marketing plans. "Facebook really allowed students, for the first time in a way that was quite visible, to create the scale and reach many more students than ones that they were able to physically touch," says Matt Britton, the CEO of New York–based marketing firm Mr. Youth, which has developed campus rep-centered campaigns for companies including Microsoft, T-Mobile, and JetBlue.
NYU Stern School of Business marketing professor Tulin Erdem views the use of campus reps as just one example of a larger trend of companies "finding more organic ways to do marketing" and thinks the practice will endure. "So many companies are jumping on the bandwagon," she says, though she adds: "It has to be in an area where the product is meaningful to that group of consumers. Life-insurance companies won't be doing this."
But Apple, Google, and Red Bull—all companies that employ campus reps at both Columbia and NYU—will. NYU, whose student body also includes reps hired by Victoria's Secret's youth-targeted PINK line, has become a hub of Nike activity as well.
Last November, three campus reps led about 200 NYU students, all wearing red shirts emblazoned with a Nike swoosh, on a flash-mob-style fun run, jogging from Washington Square Park to Nike Stadium, a gallery-style space at 276 Bowery where they crowded in for a sweaty post-run party that featured a band, a film screening, raffles for an iPhone and two pairs of Nike sneakers, and free sunglasses for everyone.
Nike is bidding to make this year's Rebel Run, set to kick off next Friday night, even bigger.
The campaign's success will largely depend on the brand's campus reps, whose ranks have swelled this year to 11: three at Fordham, two at Columbia, and six at NYU.
"They don't pick any kid," says Erdem. It's a statement that Mr. Youth's Britton echoes: "We're looking for influencers, students who have large networks."
Nike, which refused the Voice's request for comment on how it selects its campus reps, clearly is, too. At least three of NYU's Nike reps—sophomore Michelle Roos and juniors Michael Bednarz and Olivia Baackes—have more than a thousand friends each on Facebook, which places them in the top 10 percent of all college students. Two are active in NYU's relatively small but vibrant Greek life scene—Bednarz, a member of the Pike fraternity, and Lauren Terrien, the public relations chair at Delta Phi Epsilon—giving them access to "already established networks," as senior Zachary Rezso, a member of Bednarz's fraternity, puts it. Asked what made him attractive for the position, Bednarz answered, "I'm in a fraternity with a over a hundred brothers."
Columbia's Selfridge and NYU's Roos bring an air of glamour to their Nike work. Both have worked as fashion models: Selfridge is represented by Fusion Model Management, and Roos worked with NY Models the year before she arrived at NYU. It makes them well-suited for showcasing the latest Nike gear the brand requires them to wear at events. It also probably didn't hurt the count of RSVPs on the Rebel Underwear Run Facebook page, to which Selfridge and Roos have RSVP'd.