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.
But no rep is better connected than Baackes, president of NYU’s Inter-Residence Hall Council, a powerful student organization that advocates on behalf of NYU students to the administration and organizes major inter-dorm events. It’s a position that links her to resident advisers across campus, something she can tap to promote Nike activities at the school, including a series of fitness classes the brand has created for NYU women at the tony David Barton gym. “I told all my residents about it,” says junior Delaney Simmons, an RA in the first-year residence Third North Hall. “And they all went.”
But even fashion models and Baackes cannot guarantee a large turnout to an event—much less a three-mile fun run on a Friday night in November. That’s why the reps convene weekly in the Chelsea Market offices for status meetings of MKTG, a marketing firm that works in conjunction with Nike. There they regularly check in about the tally of “Likes” for the Rebel Run Facebook page, which features photos of campus reps clad in Nike, occasional Nike promotional videos, and details about upcoming events. At a September meeting, MKTG representatives observed that 230—or virtually all—of the “Likes” belonged to NYU students, after which the Columbia and Fordham campus reps redoubled their efforts to reach out to their friends, helping push the count to more than 500 by the third week in October.
“I felt bad at times, like I was overextending myself to my friends—add this page and whatnot,” says NYU junior Gabrielle Sena, a former roommate of Baackes who worked as a Nike rep last fall.
Bednarz says he feels no qualms about inviting his friends to like the Rebel Run page, which he often does by sending Facebook chat messages and asking them to “take four seconds to just ‘like’ this for me.”
“They feel obligated to,” he says.
Many, like Rezso, say they don’t mind being asked to like the page, which doubles as an invitation to the Rebel Run. An avid runner and friend of Terrien’s as well as Bednarz’s, Rezso says he’s aware that both are being paid by Nike, and he doesn’t care that the Rebel Run is a sponsored event. “Any opportunities I get to run, especially with other people, are great,” he says. “In general, NYU is an incredibly unathletic school.”
But other students say they resent the presence of campus reps, something they view as a commercial intrusion on campus life. A Tisch junior, who asked that his name not be used in this story, recalls working as a production manager for a student show when the play’s producer asked him if NYU’s Red Bull rep, a friend of the producer’s, could distribute the drink at the show. “I said, ‘No, of course not. We’re not allowed to,'” he says, explaining that commercial activity wasn’t allowed by the theater. “I actually ended up showing up on one of the nights of the show, and she was out there handing out Red Bulls. I approached her, and I said, ‘You can’t do this.'”
NYU first-year student Stephanie Bow was surprised to learn that NYU’s Victoria’s Secret PINK representatives had hosted a free Zumba class in the basement dance studio of Third North, her dorm. “They didn’t have any posters up about it,” she says.
That might be because of an NYU housing guideline that states that “salespersons, advertising distributors, or other persons not members of the University community are prohibited from soliciting or distributing literature in University facilities at any time.”
And what about salespersons and advertising distributors who are also students? Campus reps weren’t around in 1977, the year the guideline was last revised.
“It sounds cool, but then when you start to think about it, if companies start doing that frequently, using our space—I don’t like the idea,” Bow says.
Adds Bow’s friend and fellow Third North resident first-year student Stephanie Habib: “It’s one thing if it’s on the street, but this is where we live, and to have a company coming in to where live and try to inundate us with advertising, even in the basement—I think it’s inappropriate.”
“There is a rule that might have been broken,” says Delaney Simmons, the same RA who helped promote the Nike classes. “It’s a little bit of a gray area.”
It’s a gray area that, in other areas, NYU is allowing companies to exploit. Victoria’s Secret uses the iconic NYU torch in the NYU VS PINK logo on its Facebook page, and Nike freely uses the school’s initials in its name of its new NYU Nike Run Club.
That’s fine by Audrey White, who took part last spring in a Nike-sponsored event for NYU students at a venue on Union Square West that featured a workout led by Rihanna’s personal trainer.
“I don’t really know how to explain it,” says White, a former NYU cheerleader, of the appeal of the Rihanna event and other sponsored events she has attended—including the Nike-run David Barton classes—which she says have “most definitely” enriched her experience of campus life. She contrasts brand-sponsored events with NYU’s Tear It Up! events, which aim to bring together students to cheer on NYU athletes. “When you get there, most of the people, they aren’t there for the game,” she says. “They’re just there to be there. You don’t meet people. You don’t really make friends. You don’t really feel any type of connection to any of the other people there.”
At the Rihanna event, White received a Nike shirt, a towel, a water bottle, and a pair of Nike shoes, and she admits that product giveaways like that sweeten the deal.
NYU senior John Cintolo, who ran three miles with the Nike reps at the first meeting of the NYU Nike Run Club, says the brand’s sponsorship of the group and the Rebel Run “kind of adds legitimacy to it. I don’t think Nike would sponsor something that wasn’t legitimate.”
Asked whether his contact with the reps will have any effect on his consumer behavior, Cintolo says, “It won’t affect my purchasing decisions,” before quickly adding: “It definitely won’t hurt, though, that’s for sure. I actually need a new pair of shoes. If I run this event, I’m going to have to buy Nikes before then.”
White agrees. “Now, whenever I buy athletic gear, it’s strictly Nike,” she says. “I never buy anything else. They kind of bought my loyalty.”