If I were feeling generous, I might be inclined to argue that the conflicted nature of Admission (Weitz, 2013) is a purposeful gesture designed to comment on the turmoil present in the process of admission (in both senses of the word). Unfortunately, however, I suspect that the movie simply lacked a clear understanding about its core story, relying instead on the well-worn structure of the American romantic comedy for support. Based on a 2009 book by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the movie adaptation focuses on the trajectory of Princeton admission officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) after the Head of School for the alternative school Quest, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), informs her that one of his students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), might be her son. Confused as the movie might have been, it was startlingly clear in its reflection of current cultural themes; evidencing a focus on the individual in a neoliberal environment and various manifestations of the sensibility of the post-, Admission remains a movie worth discussing.
Individualism and Neoliberal Thought
Although the decision to anchor the story in the character of Portia makes a certain amount of narrative sense, the focus on the individual at the expense of the process represents the first indication that Admission is driven by a worldview that has placed the self at the center of the universe. But, to be fair, I would readily argue that the college admission process itself is one that is driven by individualistic impulses as high school students learn to turn themselves into brands or products that are then “sold” to colleges and universities around the country. In large and small ways, college admission in its present form demands that American youth mold themselves into a somewhat elusive model of excellence. (Let’s be honest, we all know parents who teach their toddlers French or insist on lessons of various kinds in the hopes that these skills will place children on track for a “good” school.) In short, college admission sets the rather impossible task for students to, as Oprah would say, “Be your best self” while remaining authentic and not presenting as packaged (although that is secretly what is desired). The danger here, I think, is failing to realize that what is deemed “authentic” is, by its very nature, a self that has been groomed to meet invisible expectations and therefore is understood as natural.
Tracing one factor in the development of the current primacy of individualism Janice Peck performs a close analysis of Oprah’s Book Club in her book The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, illustrating how Winfrey’s continual insistence on the self-enriching power of literature is reflective of the situation of the self as the most relevant construct for individuals immersed in a culture of neoliberalism (186). Through her examination of Oprah’s Book Club Peck suggests a manner in which culture has reinforced the adoption of particular values that are consistent with those of neoliberalism. Admission is not exempted from this reflection of a larger sensibility that judges worth in relationship to self-relevance as we see the character of Portia only really advocate for a student once she believes that he is the son that she gave up for adoption. Although I am willing to give Portia the benefit of the doubt and believe that she has been an advocate for other applicants in the past, the choice of the movie to conflate Portia’s professional and personal outreach grossly undercuts the character’s ability to effectively challenge a system that systematically promotes a particular range of students to its upper echelon.
Moreover, having previously established the influence of the 1980s recovery movement (7), Peck then suggests that for those who ascribe to the ideals of neoliberalism the therapeutic self—the self that is able to be transformed, redeemed, rehabilitated, or recovered—is of utmost importance. As example of this sentiment’s pervasiveness, although it would appear to be a clear conflict of interest, in discussing the merits of her applicant son Portia stresses the way in which Jeremiah has blossomed in the right environment and thus exemplifies the American ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Here Portia urges her colleagues to overlook the first three years of high school that are riddled with Ds and Fs and to focus on Jeremiah’s transformative capacity.
The Manifestation of the Post-
And yet perhaps Portia’s insistence on the power of change makes a certain amount of sense given that she is the female lead of a romantic comedy and embodies transformation herself. Initially portrayed as a bookish middle-aged woman whose life is characterized by resigned acceptance, Portia inevitably has her world shaken by the introduction of a new male presence and proceeds to undergo the transformation that is typical of female leads in this scenario. Indicative of a postfeminist sensibility, Portia’s inner growth manifests as a bodily makeover in fashion that mirrors Rosalind Gill’s reading of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2007).
The most telling way manifestation of the logic of the post- in Admission is, however, the film’s express desire to “have it both ways” with regard toward attitudes on female identity/sexuality and race. In her article “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility” Gill argues that the deployment of irony to comment on social issues is a central feature of the post- mentality and a practice that is ultimately damaging as it reinforces inequalities through its insistence that difference has been rendered innocuous enough to be rendered the subject of a joke (2007). In this vein, Admission introduces Portia’s mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), as a second-wave feminist only to undercut the power of the message that she represents. Although not expressly stated, the presentation of Susannah is suggestive of a radical feminist but also features a scene in which Susannah exemplifies postfeminism’s connection between the body and femininity by electing for reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy and later ultimately admits that Portia’s conception was not an act of defiance but rather simply a mistake made by a young woman.
Admission also demonstrates ambivalence towards issues of race, not broaching the topic unless it is specifically the focus of the scene. To wit, John’s mother is a one-dimensional stereotype of a New England WASP whose articulations of racism (despite having a Ugandan grandchild) ostensibly indicates that she is not a “good white liberal.” This scene is indicative of the way in which irony has infiltrated popular media, going for the easy joke as it winks to the audience, “We all know that racism is awful, right?” Insultingly, Admission then fails to comment on the way in which John’s son Nelson (Travaris Spears) perpetuates a very specific presentation of young black males in popular culture as rascals and/or the way in which issues of race continue to be a very real point of contention for the admission process as a whole. Similar to issues of feminism, Admission exemplifies the sensibility of the post- in that it expresses a desire to gain approval for acknowledging social issues while not actually saying anything meaningful about them.
Problematizing Irony as Social Critique
How, then, do we go about unseating irony as a prevalent form of social critique when the response to challenges is often, “Can’t you take a joke?” I was surprised to see, for example, a response to Seth MacFarlane’s opening Oscar bit that argued that the feminist backlash was misplaced—according to Victoria Brownworth, MacFarlane was using satire to point out the inequalities in the Hollywood system. Although Brownworth fails to recognize that acknowledging a phenomenon without providing critique or an alternate vision only serves to reinforce the present, her reaction was not an isolated one.
One of the things that I have learned thus far in my life is that it is almost impossible to explain privilege to a person who is actively feeling the effects of that position and so a head-on confrontation is not always the best strategy. (This is, of course, not to say that one should allow things to pass without objection but merely that trying to breakdown the advantages that a party is experiencing in the moment is incredibly difficult.) If we recognize that the logic of neoliberalism constructs individuals who primarily understand importance in relationship to the relevance to the self—or, worse yet, do not think about interpersonal and structural forces at all—and that irony can be used as a distancing tactic, how to do we go about encouraging people to reengage and reconnect in a meaningful way?
This isn’t a new thing but I have to say that the Admission Problems tumblr (http://admissionsproblems.tumblr.com/) makes me so incredibly sad. As someone who used to work in the profession I have to admit that I get the jokes and I completely understand blowing off steam–a lot is asked of you as a professional and it is, at times, hard to remember why you do what you do. That is, if you even love it in the first place. I sympathize with the frustration of being continually misunderstood and seeing the same perceived shortcomings appear over and over again in students and parents but the thing is, I think, that we need to remember that the stakes look so different from the other side of the college fair table.
Our profession already struggles with an image issue and the danger of the tumblr is that outsiders are going to read it and judge all of us for what a few of us do. Outsiders are not going to understand the way that we might grumble but do so because we have so much hope for students and, perhaps unfairly, want them all to be as great as we know they can be. What does the blog do for students and families who are already nervous about navigating the college-going process? How many students will get the idea that they just aren’t good enough or that we don’t really care about them because of the tumblr’s vibe?
I get that a lot of the admission counselors who are on the ground are young but I also think that we should challenge ourselves to be better. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have faults and that we are immune from the occasional grumble session. We should be honest with our students and our families about how we are, just like them, human and we have human emotions that include frustration. But we should also be honest with them and let them know that this is not our dominant state of being–we are (with luck) not jaded and cynical and completely distanced from what it was like to apply to college. We should be honest and admit that sometimes we DO forget that this is, in many ways, the first time that these students can fail at something big and that an entire educational system has coached them to present themselves in ways that we occasionally find tiring. We need to be honest and tell people that our outbursts this don’t mean that we love students or support their goals any less.
We talk about how “students these days” can be narcissistic, individualistic, and needy. We talk about how our students aren’t smart about social media use. And maybe those arguments can be made. But we should consider how something like this Admission Problems tumblr implicates us in the very things that we think we are above. The tumblr talks about growth and how people can “learn” from the examples provided but makes evident that it knows nothing about what it actually means to be an educator. Is the information helpful? Maybe. But people should definitely be offended because the goal of Admission Problems is not to teach nor is it to truly understand. Admission Problems exists solely to critique and to judge and the fallacy of thinking that this is productive is a severely misguided notion. There are many things about the culture of college admission that I want to work to change but I also, at times, get angry enough to shout at these anonymous people, “Get out if you don’t love what you do. This work is too important to be done by people who don’t care.”
In so many ways I want to revise the tumblr’s subtitle and tell students that they ARE special in so many ways and sometimes we just can’t see that. But to also remind them that special doesn’t mean better than. I want to remind students that they are the protagonists of their stories but, at the same time, they are bit players in the stories of others and that being able to reconcile those two ideas is going to take them far in life.
One of the greatest mistakes, I have been told, is to do things simply because “that’s the way that they’ve always been done.” This is not to suggest that traditions and practices may not have endured for a reason, but I have been trained to continually question the assumptions and expectations that surround my object of inquiry. In so many ways, I have been continually told to fight against determinism, to reexamine evidence, and to think about what historiographical methods can reveal.
So when it comes to the college admission essay—something that I had been familiar with for a number of years—and a story from The Chronicle that reported on the Harvard Summer Institute on College Admission, I began to sit down and thing: why do we do what we do? I know the party line: that the essay is used to assess writing composition skills. This is not untrue, but as someone who has recently had to read undergraduate papers for the first time, I began to wonder if there was in fact any correlation between an ability to produce a (relatively short) essay as a one-off and the kind of structure/discipline necessary for the actual papers that students would be writing in college. Sure, we have composition courses to help students along but skills are often still lacking.
So all of this begs the question: “What exactly do we hope to get out of the college admission essay?”
As mentioned in the article, another common response is “authenticity.” We are looking for a glimpse of a spark, we are looking for something/someone fresh—we want a student who is unabashedly true to who he or she is. But we also want a student who fits into our often unstated range for who an acceptable student should be.
I’ve spent some of my free time last year thinking deeply about the implications for this (particularly as I began to work more with fan communities) and reflected back to all the times that I saw kids who were incredibly passionate about things like Harry Potter or dressage or Rubik’s cubes. It was no small secret that these sorts of activities were generally regarded with skepticism at best (and possible derision at worse, particularly if someone decided that an interview was the opportune time to demonstrate something). Authenticity, then, is only valued insofar as it speaks to values that I support.
So, if I were really being honest, what I’m really looking for is a student to tell me a really good story about himself or herself and I want that tale to hit markers of what I deem to be truth or authenticity. (And the insistence on a narrative is in itself a bias, right? There are “good” stories and “bad” stories, stories that have better formats than others, and this driving need to turn everything into a narrative although there are other forms of structure.) I think, as admission officers, we develop this internalized sense of what represents truth (i.e., we purport to be able to tell when students are being disingenuous or are overly polished) and perhaps blind ourselves to the way in which we can get played if a student manages to present as someone who ascribes to our ideal image of what a “real” candidate looks like. And to be fair, I don’t think that our filters our off—we all know those students who try too hard or who use sleight of hand to try to trick us—but I also don’t know that we are actively considering how we may be duped by false positives.
There has to be, I think, some real discussion about what we strive for as admission officers and whether our metrics continue to be up to the challenge. We must recognize that these tests and evaluations are born out of culture that is different from our own (not just in the structure of educational institutions but also fundamentally who our students are and how they function). Are we applying methods developed in the 20th century (and earlier!) to 21st century students? We shouldn’t throw out everything we’ve learned but, like with test scores, I think we need to be honest with ourselves about what we think we’re getting out of all of this.
As an admission officer, you have to be quick on your feet. More often than not, you’re on your own in front of an audience who is scrutinizing your every move. What you say, how you say it, what you don’t say—these are all things that are examined for hidden meanings. Grace, poise, enthusiasm (not unlike a beauty pageant contestant?) are attributes that the job demands, especially when you are trying to put out fires without breaking a sweat.
One of the most challenging experiences I ever had took place at USC’s satellite campus in Orange County. Current USC undergraduates were on hand to give local college counselors a taste of life at USC and were performing admirably until I heard those words float across the room:
“It was great to come to USC because you really got to see how the other half lives.”
I will fully admit that I hadn’t been entirely focused on the conversation, but, with that, my attention snapped back into focus. How do you fix something like that without drawing overt attention to it? Do you just hope that people didn’t notice? Is it worse that they didn’t? How do you come back from that?
Eventually everything worked out all right and, in the long run, that moment was much more instructive for me than it was damaging: it’s something that I’ve carried with me throughout my career and something that I think about when we come to the topic of ethnography.
It’s easy, I think, to claim that you are interested in understanding the mindset of others but it is another thing entirely to be open to such a practice. Even if we momentarily ignore issues of assimilation and the fear of losing oneself in or to a project (as if self identity was ever something that was static), it is still incredibly difficult to work against a process that automatically filters perceptions through layers of developed experiences. Despite our stated intent, it may take us longer than we expected to truly begin to understand those we wish to study.
I’m looking at you, Tyra Banks.
Needless to say, Tyra Banks going “undercover” as a homeless person for a day is not a form of ethnography (although I do not think that Tyra herself would ever employ such a word). Being made up to look homeless for a day undoubtedly fails to convey the sense of hopelessness that some homeless feel or, for that matter, even a very real sense of the pervasiveness of the issue. In fact, at its worst, Tyra’s undercover episodes are a form of stunt journalism that seeks to profit off of the very groups that she is purporting to help; entering with all of the trappings of privilege, it is her duty and her prerogative to expose injustice, wrongdoing, and prejudice. This is, of course, not to suggest that the objects of her inquiry (e.g., strippers, homelessness, sexism) do not deserve inquiry but the danger lies in individuals like Tyra believing that their investigative experiences are more meaningful than they actually are. Spanning across instances as varied as Tyra’s episodes, colonialist literature, and It Gets Better, we see a common theme: the story of the investigators is elevated above the tale(s) of the community.
Here we understand an opportunity for ethnography to redress the situation as it reasserts the relationship of the observer to those that he or she would study. Rather than striving to remove all traces of the observer (which is probably impossible anyway), I think that good ethnography acknowledges the impact of the observer and clearly outlines ways in which the observer’s presence might alter outcomes and how the observer’s perception of events is framed by personal history.
So as I sat in an after-school tutoring session, I found myself racing to take four sets of notes: observations, possible meanings of what I saw, implications of those actions, and a running account that attempted to explain why I perceived things in the way that I did. In essence, I made a series of passes, adding additional layers of information each time I revisited my notes. Although this process would have ideally been aided by audio/visual recording, I think my mini-ethnography was quite instructive as I began to think about what things were worth recording (and which I had to let go because I just couldn’t keep up) and also how to rapidly shift between different layers of analysis. After three hours I found myself exhausted but with an interesting record of how the students in this center interacted with one another and their tutors; in my hands I held a formal record of what educators learn to do instinctively as they evaluate and assess each of their students (and themselves). Some students were easily distracted but amazing when focused, some were great motivators but not great leaders, some were bored when working with tutors but animated when teaching their peers, and some just seemed to feel uncomfortable in larger groups. To their credit, tutors seemed to have picked up on many of these traits (and undoubtedly more that I couldn’t even begin to see) and adjusted their mannerisms as they moved back and forth between students: to some they were kind, others stern, still others saw a stern exterior interrupted with sly smiles. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to interview the tutors after I observed them, I wondered how much of this process was automatic for them. Did they consciously consider how to best handle a student or did they just seem to “know” what to do? Had they, as teachers, done an exercise like this before? Did this sort of self-reflexivity make them better teachers? How had these volunteers grown into their jobs as educators? Did the skills exhibited in the tutoring center translate to a classroom?
I suppose there’s always next time…
The obvious answer is that if early Science Fiction was about exploring outer space, the writings of the late 20th century were largely about exploring inner space. More than just adventure tales filled with sensation or exploration (or cyberpunk thrill) the offerings that I encountered also spoke to, in a way, the colonizing of emotion. Thinking about Science Fiction in the late 20th century and early 21st century, I wondered how some works spoke to our desire for a new form of exploration. We seek to reclaim a sense of that which is lost, for we are explorers, yes—a new form of adventurer who seeks out the raw feeling that has been largely absent from our lives. Jaded, we long to be moved; jaded, we have set the bar so high for emotion that the spectacular has become nothing more than a nighttime attraction at Disneyworld.
At our most cynical, it would be easy to blame Disney for forcing us to experience wonder in scripted terms with false emotion constructed through tricks of architectural scale and smells only achievable through chemical slight of hand. But “force” seems like the wrong word, for doesn’t a part of us—perhaps a part that we didn’t even know that we had—want all of this? We crave a Main Street that most of us have never (and will never) know because it, in some fashion, speaks to the deeply ingrained notion of what it means to be an American who has lived in the 20th and 21st centuries.
For me, there are glaring overlaps with this practice and emotional branding, but what keeps me up at night is looking at how this process may have infiltrated education through gamification.
Over the past few years, after reading thousands of applications for the USC Office of Undergraduate Admission, I began to wonder how the college application structures students’ activities and identities. On one hand, I heard admission colleagues complaining about how they just wanted applicants to exhibit a sense of passion and authenticity; on the other, I saw students stressing out over their applications and their resumes. The things that I was seeing were impressive and students seemed to devote large amounts of time to things, but I often wondered, “Are they having any fun?”
Were students just getting sucked into a culture that put a premium on achievement and not really stopping to think about what they were doing or why? We can talk about the positive aspects of gamification, levling and badges, but as the years wore on, I really began to see titles on activity summaries as things that were fetishized, obsessed over, and coveted. Students had learned the wrong lesson—not to suggest in the slightest that they are primarily or solely responsible for this movement—going from a race to accumulate experience to merely aggregating the appearance of having done so. How could I convince them that, as an admission officer, it was never really about the experience in the first place but instead how a particular activity provided an opportunity for growth. It was—and is—about the process and not the product.
But, that being said, I try not to fault students for the very actions that frustrated me as a reader are reinforced daily in all aspects of education (and life in general). Processes are messy, vague, and fluid while products are not. How would one even go about conceiving a badge for emotional maturity? Would one even want to try?
Perhaps I am clinging to notions of experience that will become outdated in the future. Science Fiction challenges us to consider worlds where experiences and memory can be saved, uploaded, and imprinted and, really, what are recreational drugs other than our clumsy attempt to achieve altered experiences through physiological change? I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that my former colleagues in admission are likely not thinking about the coming changes and will struggle to recalibrate their metrics as we move forward.
Love out of Nothing at All?: A re-examination of popular culture’s presence in the college application
College application essay, identity as narrative, popular culture, digital media literacy, self-branding
Structured talk (30 minutes), discussion (30 minutes)
Secondary school counselors, CBOs
Harry Potter. Twilight. Video games. Twitter.
The media environment that surrounds today’s applicants seems rife with topics that likely sit high atop lists that solemnly declare, “Bad Essay Ideas.” And, perhaps, not without reason, for the typical college application essay is one that often treats these subjects (along with more traditional ones like leadership, sports, or community service) lightly, evidencing a cursory understanding of the material at best. Students seem to struggle to infuse meaning into activities that appear on resumes, attempting to convince admission officers—and perhaps themselves—that these pursuits constituted time well spent.
But what if we could encourage students to rethink their engagement in these activities, while also challenging them to respond to the question, “Why does this matter?” Instead of asking students to conform to a process that privileges particular activities over others, how might we inspire young people to cultivate genuine interests while simultaneously thinking critically about the implications of their actions? Similarly, how might we encourage adults to recognize the potential nascent political themes of Harry Potter, see young people negotiating family structures and gender roles through Twilight, witness creativity and collaboration through video games, and understand how Twitter can develop the skill of curation? Instead of promoting the chasm between digital media/popular culture and education, how can we use the space to promote the skills that our students will need to be competitive in the 21st century?
College attendance and completion (at a four-year institution) has come to represent a significant demarcation in American society with studies showing a positive correlation between obtainment of a bachelor’s degree and total lifetime income. But more so than a mere economic advantage, higher education represents an opportunity for social mobility and the accumulation of social/cultural capital. If we accept that college attendance represents at least a partial transformative experience, we realize that understanding who is accepted is important.
Informal reports from educators (an opinion pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education) have hinted that the current generation of college students display a wide range of skills and intelligences but also appear to be distracted by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter while in class, suggesting that digital media is generally seen as inhabiting a space separate from education (although this might be changing, albeit slowly).
However, I suggest that some of the types of skills professors desire (e.g., critical thinking, academic inquiry, engagement, and risk-taking) can be, and are, cultivated through pop culture and digital media use/production but it is my belief that, as a whole, the undergraduate admission process systematically devalues participation in such spaces, privileging more traditional—and readily understood—activities. There seems to be a potential disconnect, then, between selection criteria and the skills that schools hope to attract; if an institution values traits like proactivity, are admission officers fully sensitive to the range of ways in which such a trait might present or manifest? Or have we become overly influenced on quantitative measures like GPA and test scores and the relative stability they purport to provide? If such a bias exists, a possible effect of the college application structure (and the American educational system) is to cause those involved in the admission process to internalize a mental barrier between digital media and education.
It seems evident that the admission selection process (as reflective of an institution’s values) plays a large part in shaping who is able to attend a given school. Highly-selective schools, however, seem to have a disproportionate amount of influence in American culture as their practices create a stance that other colleges and universities either aspire or react to. Therefore the position that highly-selective institutions take on the integration of digital media and education likely has a trickle-down effect that affects the admission profession as a whole and is likely internalized by college counselors and high school students who aim to be accepted by these schools.
Ultimately, I hope to foster discussion between high school students, high school college counselors, and admission officers that examines how we collectively conceptualize and articulate the value of the connection between pop culture, digital media and education. I argue that higher-order skills can be cultivated by youth practices such as remix but that incongruent language employed by youth and adults makes recognition of this process difficult. After giving a short talk that explores the ways in which the everyday practices of youth can be seen as valuable, I will ask participants to join in a discussion that seeks to uncover strategies to enable youth to articulate their process and how we can challenge our peers to become more sensitive to the manifestation of traits that mark a “successful student.”
A 6-year veteran of undergraduate admission at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA) Chris Tokuhama was responsible for coordinating the University’s merit-based scholarship process and 8-year combined Baccalaureate/M.D. program. Working closely with high school populations, Chris became interested in issues that ranged from self-harm to educational access and equity, which has helped to inform his current research interests in digital media literacy, learning, and youth cultures. In addition to his role as an advocate for youth in Education, which included a Journal of College Admission publication on the effects of branding in the admission process, Chris studies the relationship of personal identity to the body as a doctoral student in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties. When not pursuing his studies, Chris enjoys working with 826LA and drinking over-priced coffee.
Race is one of those things that immediately causes most people to take a position. We have all grown up in a world that is still struggling with racial equality and we have all been exposed to the racial profiling that took place after 9/11. Outwardly, we all recognize that it is no longer PC to call someone by a racial slur or to discriminate in an overt manner—and this is where we begin to enter dangerous territory.
Many of my students have grown up in an environment that shuns racism; we all profess to believe in equality. We think the lack of lynch mobs or ethnic cleansing in our surroundings means that we’ve somehow moved past all of this. But we still have Minute Men, we still have genocide, we still have the KKK, and we still have people dragged behind pickup trucks with their faces melting against asphalt. We exist in a country that is becoming more polarized than ever and it is frankly a little frightening. We are learning to turn our backs on each other and form communities that ascribe to the same beliefs that we do.
Racial issues affect all of you.
If you think that this statement is untrue, look at the world around you. Think about your place in your community and the niche that is carved out for you by others. Where does society tell you that you can exist? What is it safe for you to be? How much of this is determined by your physical features?
On a related note, the concept of Affirmative Action was explored by Thursday’s session—something that I happen to know a little about. Some students voiced concerns over the practice while others stated that they did not support it. Let me start off by saying that I get where these students were coming from as I was no different in college. Like it or not, however, all of you have been affected by Affirmative Action. USC as an institution values diversity and practices Affirmative Action; the term, however, does not mean what most people assume it to. In our eyes, Affirmative Action is about providing equity and access to education. You might think that such programs lend a helping hand to indigents at the expense of “more qualified” individuals; I would challenge you, however, to think about what makes one student more qualified. Is it test scores? Is it GPA? Is it the fact that you went to a fancy prep school and deserve to be at USC? Do you think that this somehow makes you better than someone else?
Now think about how many other people are just like you.
Affirmative Action aims to recognize the strengths that different individuals can bring to the table. Do Latinos and Blacks who have had to struggle to finish high school have a different perspective on the world than Asians (who might have benefited from positive aspects of the Model Minority myth)? Do these students see things in a way that you don’t? Is there a benefit to interacting with them and learning how other people think?
Affirmative Action doesn’t just apply to Blacks and Latinos, however. Are you Southeast Asian? Are you first generation? Are you from a low socioeconomic class? Did you have to work in high school to help your family? Are you from a state that does not typically send a lot of students to USC? Are you from a minority religion? Do you hold atypical political beliefs? Are you a female interested in Math or Science? Are you a male interested in Communication? If any of the above are true, then you have benefitted from the type of thinking that supports Affirmative Action.
Moreover, you all benefit from the diversity that Affirmative Action creates. The depth of experiences that you have at USC is in part due to the voices that we bring in. Every student has value.
And, to turn things a bit, if you think that Affirmative Action is wrong, let’s think about football. Many of the students on the team were individuals who may have scored lower than you on SATs or received lower GPAs. Why aren’t as many people upset that these “lesser qualified” people were admitted? Is it because you enjoy going to football games? Do you only extract value from people when it suits you? My point is that the entire USC community benefits from the presence of gifted athletes (who manage to graduate just fine, by the way) and that these individuals—analogous to ethnic minorities—can bring something invaluable to the table.
I think that the reaction against Affirmative Action stems from fear: we instinctively lash out in order to protect ourselves when we feel threatened by the encroachment of undesirables. We want to secure our hard-earned victories and may feel that our achievement are cheapened by the acceptance of people whom we do not respect.
Fight to see the similarities that you have with others; fight to see their worth. Think about how important it is for other people to see you and fight to feel the same way about others. Fight against the indoctrination that you’ve suffered for so long that has engrained these patterns of thinking into your minds. Fight the urge to think that you’re more important than you are. Fight the need to feel comfortable and fight the urge to judge. Fight for your life and fight for your life to be the way that it should be. Fight to understand the things that we’ve been talking about this semester; fight to find meaning in our discussions. Fight to make the world better for your children, for your friends, and for yourself. Fight for people who don’t have a voice. Fight in whatever way you can…but just fight.
It has been my pleasure to work with you this semester and there’s no real way to convey how hopeful I am that this will be a turning point in your lives. I don’t expect that you’ll all become crusaders for API rights (nor should you feel compelled to), but I do hope that we’ve been able to get you to see things for the first time or to feel empowered to make change happen. Take the critical thinking skills that you’ve learned from CIRCLE and go out and find your cause. We’ve got a long way to go, but you’ve already taken the first steps.
It hung there, slightly faded and more than a little wrinkled. Nestled among bright advertisements for football and spirit rallies lay a humble flyer, no larger than a quarter of a page, that caught my attention.
My ascent up the stairs to the college counseling office slowed as I reached out to touch the rough surface of the advertisement. So humble, so easy to miss, but yet the most powerful thing on the bulletin board—this was the thing that mattered the most (yes, even more than football).
During my presentations, I often make it a point to bring up things like “To Write Love on Her Arms” or “PostSecret” as I feel that these are important tools that allow me to connect with my audience. Through these websites and stories, I remember the stresses and the pressures of friends, of parents, and of school. Admittedly, I am a young professional and while I can generally relate to being a high school student (I was one at one point in my life), things like PostSecret vividly remind me of what it is like to be a junior or senior in high school. If nothing else, PostSecret has taught me that everyone has a secret that, if told to me, would break my heart.
This has changed the way that I look at the world.
One of the things that I have learned in my years of college admission is that an increasing number of students are suffering from something that I call “floating duck syndrome”—on the surface, students are serene and perfect but, underneath the water, their legs are churning. Needless to say, students have some issues. I don’t mean to imply that students will not be able to overcome these things, but I must admit that I was shocked to learn about what they were dealing with.
For this reason, I find myself absolutely thrilled when high schools have groups like “To Write Love on Her Arms” because I think that so many of our students can use an outlet. I am certain that individuals are dealing with various amounts of baggage (or maybe not at all) and I am so glad that St. Margaret’s has taken it upon itself to offer support for peers in need; whether the situation revolves around academic pressure or thoughts of self-harm, I see clubs like “To Write Love on Her Arms” as an invaluable part of the school community.
However, lest one become depressed, I should mention that I am incredibly hopeful for the generation of students that is following in my footsteps. I am hopeful that students will learn to brave the dark places of themselves, secure in the knowledge that friends and family will always be there to draw them back. I am hopeful that students will come to understand who they are and accept themselves for that. And, I am hopeful that students will learn to step outside of themselves in order to offer their help to those in need. I am lucky to be in a situation where I can empower future students to realize that, although occasionally overwhelmed by adversity, they are all survivors in some respect: any person who has ever been teased, ridiculed, outcast, or made to simply feel less than is a survivor and can embrace that. And, because you are a survivor, you have been imbued with the power to tell your story to others in similar situations in order to pull them through. Ultimately, I am also hopeful because I have learned that young people are incredibly resilient and innovative—they can accomplish some amazing things if given half a chance.
Applicants to the University sometimes want to get inside my head and to gain insight about the college admission process. Often, people want to know how to get in, how to make an impression, and how to stand out from their peers. I will be honest and say that a clever title on your essay or photos of you in USC garb is not the most effective means; tell me a compelling story, however, and I will be hooked. I understand that this process is difficult, particularly for young writers, but one of the things that sets you apart from all other applicants is the truth of your story. Believe it or not, I want to learn more about you as an individual and these sorts of stories are the ones that I love to hear. These tales do not always have to be tragic or morose—I love the stories of triumph as well—but I would encourage all of you to dig down deep and figure out your narrative. I am fully aware that this process of self-discovery is quite scary (who knows what you might find?) but rest assured that college admission officers are not in the position to judge you and we are not laughing at you behind your back; instead, I believe that students who are brave enough to open up should be rewarded.
I am hopeful that this piece has given you more of a sense of not only what matters to me and, perhaps more importantly, why these things matter. I want to convey that the admission process is human and that we care more deeply for you than you might realize. We, along with your college counselors, are fighting for you to realize your potential and it is my profound hope that we can make this inherently frightening process less scary; I hope that we have made it easier for you to venture out into this sometimes daunting landscape of college admission and shine as though you never had any doubt.
Chris is in his fifth year with the Office of Admission at USC and also studies the intersection of popular culture, media, and online communities as a Masters student in Annenberg. When not on campus, Chris spends his time blogging or volunteering for 826LA in an effort to use his meager writing talents for social good. Chris is excited to write for the St. Margaret’s community and always welcomes any invitation to drink overpriced coffee while discussing the cultural merits of Six Feet Under, True Blood, or Gossip Girl.
“This implies, does it not, that in order to raise a generation of children who can reach their full potential, we must find a way to make their lives interesting. And the question I have for you, Mr. Hackworth, is this: Do you think that schools accomplish that? Or are they like the schools Wordsworth complained of?”
–Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
Fifteen years after these words are written, we are still struggling to answer the question posed by Science Fiction author Neal Stephenson. Increasingly, we are finding that our American educational system does not raise a generation of children to reach their full potential; arguments about mental acuity aside, we seem to suffer from a generation of college applicants that is, well, rather uninteresting. This is not to say that there aren’t amazing students out there–there definitely are some–but they are more the exception than the rule.
To combat this, we have seen a rise in adult-driven initiatives that aim to cultivate interesting children. Although I don’t disagree with the sentiment, I do disagree with the practice. Fantastic trips and summer camps are not, in and of themselves, the problem. (Certainly, I think we have come adopt a rather distorted view of what’s important and, on some level, we’ve all heard these arguments before. Bigger is better, theater audiences want to see their money on stage, news headlines scream at us, spectacle is rampant, etc.) Rather, I take issue with the idea that many applicants try to substitute someone else’s story for their own: time and time again, I have come across students who traveled to poor villages, or did research, or spent the summer living in European hostels and they typically tell me the same story. These students tell me the central narrative of what they were supposed to have learned or experienced on these adventures and, sometimes, force themselves to have those experiences whether they are genuine or not. Without realizing it, many of subscribed to the notion that there is a typical experience one is supposed to have in the Costa Rican jungles and they recount this like it was the most magical awakening. And, to be fair, it might have been, but I would argue that the shift in perspective is only part of it–everyone goes through an awakening at some point in his or her life–what I want from students is to understand what this change wrought in them. How did you learn something that forever changed the way that you saw the world, such that you couldn’t ever go back?
Or we extol the virtues of Boredom as a provider of quiet spaces free from stimulation, forgetting that, with the incredible, restless youth have also managed to enact incredible amounts of destruction. The practices of contemplation, introspection, and awareness can result from boredom but we are mistaken if we consider boredom to be a prerequisite.
Ultimately, I think that teaching kids to cultivate a passion is not the same as demanding mastery–sure, passion may lead to mastery and I’m not trying to stifle that process–but all I really want is for a student to want to be smarter, to be braver, to be more inquisitive. Simply put, all I really want is for a student to want to be more. If this is our goal, the trips and the flashy photos and the houses built all melt away for we see that we can have–that we do have–meaningful experiences every day. We don’t need to “discover” hidden truths but we do need to reconsider what’s happening around, to, and in us. I think we need to train kids how to understand the import of their “normal” lives and, perhaps more importantly, how to translate these lessons learned into purposeful action.
There’s still time to make up for my sins. Or at least that’s what I tell myself before I go to sleep. I was young and I was doing the best that I could, because nobody ever asked anything more of me.
As I enter into a new phase of my growth, I think back on my participation in an admission process and find myself desperately hoping that, in the end, I did more good than harm.
I think about the messages that I was tasked with conveying and the ones that I unwittingly helped to perpetuate. Early in my career, I worked to break down specific stereotypes of USC, but, looking back, I sort of wonder if I was focused on the wrong objectives all along. Listening to faculty and other intelligent discussion about what skills are needed in college students today, I can’t help but think that we’re shooting ourselves in the collective foot by not really taking stock of the effects of our practices. This is not to suggest that there isn’t merit to the system that’s currently in place—it does its job in a number of different ways—but this also does not mean that it can’t be better.
I currently wonder about the more diffuse skills of creativity, remix, critical thinking, and how all of these intersect with media use by youth. I think about the charges of apathy and disengagement and how games, comics, and play can complicate the equation. I consider how the root of “academic inquiry” lies in a sense of joy that is systematically squeezed out of the grooming process—even though we know that this is what we need, does admission systematically work against the cultivation of the sentiment in youth? Instead of teaching students that their energies and passions are valued, do we irreparably damage youth by forcing them into a range of approved activities? Admittedly, the scope of what we recognize is broadening, but we will always be behind students. How powerful could it be to tell a student that he or she, exactly as he/she is, is valued? But also to challenge that student, saying that it’s not enough to stay there? To teach youth that they have a responsibility to use their passions to reshape the world? We talk about authenticity and genuineness with our applicants, and I can’t help but think that we’re going about it all wrong: if we valued who they already were, they wouldn’t feel the need to tell us what we want to hear. If we can reshape the discussion surrounding admission and get students to go after these things but also think critically about them, we can change the type of applicant who sits in our classrooms.
In some ways, you want to tell kids to just soar and so much of what we do as admission officers seems to work against that. We teach youth, whether we realize it or not, that the safe bet is valued (and sure, it’s safe for a reason) but not to think about why it’s valued in the first place and if there are in fact alternative routes to reach the same destination.
For me, the disconnect centers around the notion that kids aren’t given the tools to think about the things that they already do for fun in a critical manner. There’s certainly nothing wrong with traditional or established activities—and these should be encouraged as well—but I do think that we need to radically rethink the process by which our youth are developing skills that will prepare them for college and beyond. There’s something powerful inherent in really looking at what youth are already into—how they spend their time naturally—and using that; there’s something to the idea that showing students how their actions can serve as scaffolding for other things that we value.
While I doubt that any admission person would ever place a large amount of value in a student who competitively stacks cups, I would argue that there’s some skill in that and the trick is to flip that into something. In this process, we have to be partners with students: youth need to be able to articulate what such an activity means to them and we have to be receptive to that. Because, at the end of the day, admission officers are people and who can’t get on board with the simple joy that comes from something like that? Cup stacking might not be our favorite thing in the world, but we’ve all known that expression of joy (at least I hope so) and teaching a student how to parlay that sense of exuberance is what’s going to get him or her to the next level.
Ultimately, I want more kids to be unafraid to express some of that unadulterated passion on the application because knowing that, for possibly one second in your life, you simply shined is something so powerful. The trick is teaching kids humility and that their light isn’t better than or more special than anyone else’s…but if you don’t have a spark, you can’t shine.
There was, for conspicuous consumption, perhaps no time quite as memorable as the 1980s in the history of the United States. In particular, the ideology codified by Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho encapsulated past transgressions while simultaneously heralding the arrival of a new trend in domestic identities. Patrick Bateman, the book’s protagonist, continually relates to his environment through image and demonstrates an adept understanding of social structures, using the language of branding to translate goods into value. For Bateman, manufactured products play an integral role in defining the nature of interpersonal relationships and his emotional state is often linked to the relative worth of his possessions as compared to the property of others (Ellis 1991). The brand holds such incredible power for Bateman and his peers that Patrick is not surprised at a colleague mistaking him for Marcus Halberstam, another character in the book—Bateman reasons that the two men share a number of similar traits, noting that Marcus “also has a penchant for Valentino suits and clear prescription glasses,” thus cementing, for Bateman at least, the connection between definition of self-identity and consumer goods (Ellis, 89). In the view of individuals like Patrick Bateman, the clothes literally make the man.
While the example of American Psycho might appear dated to some, one only needs to update the novel’s objects in order to glimpse a striking similarity between the pervasive consumer-oriented culture of the 1980s and that of modern youth. Apple’s iPod has replaced the Walkman, caffeine has become the generally accepted drug of choice, and an obsession with social networking profiles has supplanted a preoccupation with business cards. To be sure, Ellis’ depiction does not map precisely on modern teenage culture as some elements of society have changed over the years (and Ellis describes a world of professional twenty-somethings who participate in a setting somewhat alien to most contemporary high school students), but one can argue that the core theme of identification with branding creates a common link between the world of Ellis’ 1980s Manhattan and the space inhabited by current college applicants.
In order to further understand the effects that consumer culture might have on modern youth, this paper will first explore a brief history of branding in the United States throughout the 20th Century in order to develop a context and precedent for the argument that the current generation of students applying to college has developed in a society that is saturated with branding, marketing, and advertising; this environment has, in turn, allowed youth to conceptualize themselves as brands and to think of their projected image in terms of brand management. During the course of this article, discussion will also mention the history of the term “teenager” to demonstrate that it was closely linked with marketing since the descriptor’s creation and that this sentiment has impacted the manner in which American society has conceptualized the demographic. By reviewing the modern history of branding, I hope to demonstrate that although the consequences of a consumer culture might manifest uniquely in today’s youth, the oft-lamented incident is not merely a product of our times.
This paper will also attempt to address the commoditization of the college applicant by examining the confluence between branding culture, youth culture, and the admission process in order to show that students are not the only ones whose perspectives are shaped by the influences of consumerism. After a proposal of how and why branding affects modern culture, I suggest that we, as admission officers, can unconsciously encourage students’ dependence on the paradigm of branding (and its associated vocabulary) as we come to rely on the ability of the framework created by branding culture to activate networks of associations that, in turn, further aid us in readily understanding and conceptualizing applicants. To this end, the cognitive organizational function of branding as a type of narrative structure will be explored. Further supporting this position, an argument will be made that latent biases in the college application process may also help to reinforce the high/low culture dichotomy by privileging particular kinds of actions and experiences over others. A trickle-down effect then encourages youth applying to college to adopt the language of branding in order to present themselves as an ideal candidate for a particular institution, thus consecrating the importance of branding in the bidirectional relationship between the individual and the institution.
Living in America at the End of the Millennium
The history of consumer culture in the United States provides an important context for understanding the actions and attitudes of contemporary applicants. In fact, to discuss the history of the American teenager is to recount, in part, past socio-cultural effects of marketing. Exploring the roots of consumerism in the 1960s,[i] the following account will attempt to, with broad strokes, relay key points regarding the integration of branding and marketing into youth culture.
The 1960s marked a particular period of unrest in America as Baby Boomers began to clash with the G.I. Generation. Perhaps most significantly, the focus of discourse at this time shifted toward issues of youth culture with deep-seeded frustrations beginning to turn into anger as young adults struggled to define and express their individuality; the anti-establishment movement desperately wanted to break free from the control exuded by the State and corporations, eventually maturing a countercultural sentiment started by the Beat Generation into a milieu that gave birth to hippies and war protests. Baby Boomers, as a demographic group, also occupied a rather unique place in American history, coming into young adulthood during a time of post-war prosperity and the solidification of the middle-class. Suddenly, upward social movement became increasingly possible for a generation that enjoyed increased amounts of leisure time and disposable income. This period simultaneously saw the birth of the Cultural Studies movement, which began to recognize that individuals were not merely passive consumers but people who possessed a sense of agency (Arvidsson 2006). Although formal study would not flourish until the 1970s, the creation of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies would prove to be a pivotal milestone in the understanding of branding and youth, for social scientists now had a systematic way to investigate the phenomenon brewing in the hearts and minds of the Baby Boomers.
Cultural observers also quickly noticed the shifting economic trend and began to express their findings in prominent publications of the time; Dwight MacDonald labeled the American teenager as a “merchandising frontier,” a comment that would not go unnoticed by marketing companies looking to capitalize on this new trend (1958). In fact, although the term “teenager” had only recently emerged in literature, companies such as Hires Root Beer had already begun peer-to-peer campaigns among youth in order to promote a product, thus demonstrating recognition of the teenager as a potential consumer (Quart 2003a). The understanding of the teenager as a marketing demographic would prove to be a label that would continue to influence youth through the rest of the century. The development of the teenage market, along with the corresponding rise of teen-oriented culture and identity, caries through to the present: seeds sown by Beatlemania have helped to develop an environment that permits fervor for teen idols like Justin Bieber. Perhaps more disconcerting is the relatively recent extension of this phenomenon, with marketers aiming at the “tween” audience (loosely conceptualized as 8-12 years of age) using children’s programming media such as animation and Radio Disney as their chosen vehicles (Donahue and Cobo 2009; McDonald 2007). However, irrespective of their status as tween or teen, American youth can arguably be understood to exist in an aspirational culture that highlights the benefits of consumption.
Before proceeding further, it should be noted that the connection between youth and products is a rather neutral manifestation despite its current negative connotation. We can, for example, consider how individuals in the 1970s appropriated products in forms of resistance and how the movement of Punk essentially imbued recycled products with new and innovative meanings in the creation of a powerful subculture. The current generation of students has also matured in a culture of new media, whose hallmark is that consumers are simultaneously producers. Many are most likely aware of the possibilities of these new platforms—from Twitter, to Facebook, to YouTube—on some level, but the extent of production may elude those who are not actively involved; even individuals wholly enmeshed in this environment might not consider how mainstays like the creation of Internet memes (e.g., LOLcats), the various “Cons” (e.g., ROFLCon, VidCon, Comic-Con, etc.), and a culture of remix serve to position individuals squarely in a setting defined by its consumptive and productive practices. The challenge is, however, that the current generation’s products have become less tangible and more abstract: products now consist of things like data, intellectual property, and Negroponte’s “bits” (1995). Ultimately, it is the focus on individuals’ relationship to consumerism, often embodied, but not necessarily caused, by a connection with products, that results in observed negative aspects.
The most readily salient effect of this consumerist culture mixed with the cult of celebrity—and, if recent documentaries like Race to Nowhere are to believed, an overemphasis on achievement—is that children start to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they don’t have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) rather than on their strengths. Brands, however, provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by acting as a substitute for value: the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon teens, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if teens aren’t good at anything, they can still be rich and be okay (Quart 2003b). For some, this reliance on branding might explain a relative lack of substance amongst the teenage population, but the ramifications of a culture dominated by consumerism extend much further.
Brands can also be understood in the context of their ability to create and foster communities, prominently demonstrated by users’ sworn allegiance to Macintosh computers and Apple.[ii] The concept of a brand (or even a logo) can provide many of the benefits that come with membership to a group and, as such, also serve to define adopters’ identities. Conceptualizing brand as a community is a particularly powerful thought when considering teenagers, an age group comprised of individuals who are arguably searching for a sense of belonging. Indeed, the very act of consumption can be thought of as a practice whereby individuals work to construct their self-identities and a common social world through products and the shared sets of meaning that those goods embody (Kates 2002; Belk 1988). In a manner that mirrors the underlying theme of American Psycho we thus begin to see that manufactured items start to possess a value beyond their utilitarian function through a process that seems natural and inherent; it is only when we begin to privilege particular commodities—and communities by extension—that we being to understand the negative role that branding can play for teenagers.
Further complicating the relationship, branding culture also exerts an influence on youth through lifestyle. Although the basis of this connection can be seen in the relationship between consumer culture and branding, brands can affect the process in more indirect ways. A number of factors, for example, from the media emphasis on teen culture to increased pressure surrounding college admission, might be forcing adolescents to classify themselves earlier than ever. Emphasis placed on entrance to selective universities provides an excellent demonstration of the drastic changes that young people have had to undergo in the early part of their lives; for many students aspiring to elite schools, college acceptance (and attendance) confers a particular type of status and failure to achieve this goal by the age of 18 represents an extremely large disappointment. In order to secure this dream, young people might begin to package themselves—a “successful applicant” is no longer a student who did his best, but rather one who meets a specific set of criteria—turning their lives into a product, which they hope to sell to colleges and universities.
Branding associated with college admission showcases how marketing has developed into the promotion of a particular lifestyle, as opposed to a means of distinguishing and differentiating products (or, perhaps more cynically, as an extension of this process). In many areas, the mystique of the brand has become the important factor for consideration; the actual quality of an item does not seem to be as important as its perceived value.
The Rise of the Ad (Captandum)
When considering the state of modern youth, however, one might not see the packaging process associated with college admission as much of an anomaly. Children growing up in recent decades have been exposed to large amounts of media and advertising, which has served to cultivate a latent affinity with embedded narrative forms. The term “Adcult,” coined by University of Florida professor James Twitchell, depicts contemporary American society as an arena saturated with the lingering influences of commercialism (1996). Although the phrase results from a combination of “advertising” and “culture,” one can easily imagine Twitchell describing a group whose ideology revolves around concepts of marketing through a play on the word “cult.”
Advertising and branding, largely products of consumer culture, have a rather obvious economic impact; while one can certainly debate the mechanism(s) behind this process, one need only compare similar products with and without marketing schemes to ascertain that advertising can have an impact on manufactured goods. Rooted in the economic sphere, the development and presence of advertising is closely linked to surpluses in products—excess space in media, radio parts, and merchandise have all forwarded the need for, or existence of, advertising—and thusly can be understood in terms of monetary systems. As a pertinent example, compare the presence and impact of advertising on culture before and after the Industrial Revolution, when machinery allowed for the development of excess amounts of merchandise.
Staying solely within the framework of Economics, consider that advertising can help individuals to organize knowledge and to make informed choices about the world. In some ways, advertising tells consumers how their money can be best spent or utilized, given that currency is a limited resource. Yet, while arguably functional, anyone who has experienced a good piece of advertising knows that the reach of marketing exceeds the limits of economics—exemplary ads have the power to make us feel something. Although informal research can support the idea that memorable advertisements often influence us on an emotional level, a study by Stayman and Batra suggests that affective states resulting from advertising exposure can be stored and retrieved for later recall (1991). While the authors freely admit that they did not ascertain the exact mechanism for this process, one might posit that emotional responses to ads could result from the way that advertisements interact with our established belief systems and identity structures.
Continuing in the same vein, Twitchell contends that, “like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996, 110). While some might object to the mixing of influences in areas such as Advertising, Religion, Education, or Art, (interestingly some overlap is acceptable but the issue remains murky) a certain amount of comingling is inevitable if we classify each entity as a belief system—a certain way of seeing the world complete with its own set of values—and understand that individuals might incorporate multiple elements into their particular worldview. Ideologies such as Religion or Advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996, 29). Each characteristic also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, the forces of Advertising, Religion, Education, and Art play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, with a common thread being that followers can classify themselves in terms of the external: God, works of art, name brands, etc. Cynics might note that this phenomenon is not unlike the practice of carnival sideshows mentioned in Twitchell’s Adcult—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (1996). Although the attraction may assume different forms, it survives because it continues to speak to a deep desire for structure—the myth of advertising works for the same reasons that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers. The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how advertising can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process also evidenced by marketing techniques’ ability to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu.[iii]
Despite the intricate and multi-faceted nature of its impact, we can use the narrative characteristics of advertising as framework for understanding its influence. On a basic level, the format of advertising typically takes the form of a loose narrative, complete with implied back-story—television spots, in particular, provide a salient example of this. Yet, the messages present in advertising can also cause us to question our sense of self as we evaluate our belief systems and values as previously mentioned. Consider how personal identities can result from narrative or actually be narrative; sentences containing “to be” verbs can be unpacked to reveal a larger narrative structure that can help us to “cope with new situations in terms of our past experience and gives us tools to plan for the future” (Sfard and Prusak 2005, 16). Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of Adcult is felt where we least expect it: in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, 124). Advertising, it seems, not only allows us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of youth in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner and Gross 1976).
The Medium Is the Message
Understanding the process by which the framework of branding affects contemporary society enables modern scholars to conceptualize how consumer culture can shift (or even create) paradigmatic structures that have far-reaching effects for college applicants. Recasting branding and advertising as manifestations of modern myths proves crucial to understanding how the messages, as narrative, help to convey complex ideas in a relatable format, making sense out of a potentially overwhelming wave of information. Consider how the first iterations of narrative, myths and legends, informed the populace about the rules of a world (e.g., why the sun rose or how humans had come to be) in a process that mirrors one of the previously discussed functions of advertising; although many have now come to accept scientific explanations in lieu of (or possibly in conjunction with) these tales, the fact remains that stories can serve to develop cognitive scaffolding as we evaluate foreign concepts. Narrative structure provides a guide for people to follow as they absorb additional information, easing the progression of learning (Perlich and Whitt 2010). This educational element, similar to the one existent in the concept of play, allows individuals to learn and internalize intricate lessons without any overt effort. However, when considering this process, it is important to realize that narrative, in choosing which facts to highlight, also chooses which facts to exclude from a story, which might be just as significant.
For some, the process of inclusion and exclusion might seem oddly similar to the creation (or recording) of history; certain facts become relevant and serve to shape our perception of an event while others fade into obscurity. If we were to take a second, however, and think about this notion, we would realize that narratives often served as the first oral histories for a given population. Individuals entrusted with this position in these societies were the “keepers of information,” whose ability to recount narrative shaped their community’s collective memory, and, thus, a key part of the community’s combined sense of identity (Eyerman 2004; Williams 2001). Performing a similar role as the oral historians of the past, modern society’s sense of shared knowledge can be understood to be influenced by the commercial storytelling that is branding (Twitchell 2004). The ramification of branding’s ability to affect American culture in this manner is profound: with its capacity to color perceptions, branding can influence the communal pool that forms the basis for social norms and cultural capital.
The notion of narrative’s impact on the sense of self is an interesting one to consider, particularly in youth-oriented marketing, as it affects individuals who are in the process of forming their identities (as opposed to adults whose self-concepts might be, one might argue, more static); in a process analogous to branding, adolescents try on different personalities like clothes, looking to see what fits. While not entirely insidious, teen marketing can exploit this natural process by providing shortcuts to identity through the power of branding. Altering perceptions, branding can activate particular sets of associations that have been engrained by marketing into adolescents and therefore act as a value heuristic for youth. For teenagers navigating the social circles of their peer groups, labels can make an enormous difference.
Tricks are for Kids?
Young people, however, are not the only ones prone to mental shortcuts; adults—including those who make evaluative judgments—have also been conditioned to rely on heuristics as guidelines, using experience to help them determine which rules to keep (Dhami 2003; McGraw, Hasecke and Conger 2003). While heuristics generally provide users with an accurate conclusion, they are notoriously fallible and consistently exploitable.[iv] The question then becomes: if adults are subject to heuristics in decision-making processes and these heuristics are sometimes faulty, what heuristic(s) might be active during the evaluation of candidates for admission and how might this affect our method?
Even if we grant that the particular nuances of the application review will differ by individual institution, we can still examine the admission process in terms of branding culture. File evaluation partially rests upon our ability to sort, organize, and simplify massive amounts of information in order to gain perspective on our applicant pool. While reading the application, we filter the information through our own unique lenses—the networked set of thoughts, associations, and biases that we bring to the table—as we attempt to develop a context for the student represented by the file in front of us. Buzzwords (e.g., “President,” “Scout,” “Legacy,” “2400,” “Minority”) in the application, acting like puzzle pieces, instantly activate particular collections of neural pathways as we begin to ascribe value; buzzwords, then, can be understood to function in a manner similar to brands and advertising.
Harkening back to the continuum of high culture and low culture, we can also think about how some key terms are privileged over others. How, for example, does the president of a school club differ from the president of an online guild? Knowing nothing else, I believe that many of my colleagues would favor the established activity over the unknown. For these individuals, I would argue that past experiences with students had most likely factored into the development of a heuristic regarding student desirability, resulting in a series of mental leaps that, over time, would grow into instinct. While good readers learn to continually challenge themselves and check their biases, there might be a systematic devaluation of particular identities in the admission process—an opinion piece by Ross Douthat in the New York Times suggests that lower-class whites might just be such a demographic (2010)—not out of active bigotry but simply because the brand does not resonate with any of our pre-set associations regarding a successful student. Worse, perhaps, we unwittingly privilege individuals with large amounts of social capital (and its inherent advantages), favoring those who know to participate in the “right” activities.
In a similar vein, my research at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism hopes to provoke discussion in this area by attempting to look at the trajectory between popular culture and civic engagement; in essence my colleagues and I hope to discover how seemingly innocuous activities in the realm of pop might actually allow students to develop skills that allow them to participate meaningfully in their communities. We believe that popular culture can act as a training ground for young people, allowing them to cultivate skills in the areas of rhetoric, agency, and self-efficacy before applying their talents in the “real” world. We recognize that the actions and experiences undergone in the world of pop culture can be ambiguous and difficult to understand; we also argue, though, that these traits are no less valuable to youth because they are not easily comprehendible. For us, some of the most amazing things happen in fandoms related to the iconic world of Harry Potter, YouTube communities of Living Room Rock Gods, and political statements in World of Warcraft (From Participatory Culture to Public Participation 2010). Ultimately, we hope to challenge public perceptions regarding participation in fan communities, demonstrating that popular culture fills a uniquely productive role in the lives of its participants.
The Next Big Thing
In our attempts to do good, we preach admission tips at college fairs and workshops telling students how they can develop their applications and stand out from their peers without coming across as packaged. We tell applicants to cultivate a point of view, or an image, or a passion—yet, how is this, ultimately, different from asking a student to define and market a brand? Are we subtly encouraging our youth to turn themselves into products with the additional askance that they not seem like man-made fabrications? What is our ethical responsibility in responding to a college culture infused with lovemarks and their concept of loyalty beyond reason (Roberts 2005)? Does the structure of our applications cause students to begin to consider themselves in terms of taglines and talking points as they scramble to mold themselves into the image of the ideal student? This is not our intent, but I fear that it is our future. If we, as professionals in Higher Education, do not understand the possible implications of branding culture upon ourselves, our students, and our occupation, we cannot hope to begin to address the commoditization of college applicants.
[i] A more complete history would begin with the post-war economic boom of the 1950s, but mention of this is omitted in the interest of space as it is not directly relevant to the youth population. There are, however, interesting examples in this decade of branding’s movement away from mere signification to a means of differentiating the self in a culture dominated by norms of conformity. More information on the phenomenon of conformity and avoidance of ostentatious display can be found in William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956).
[ii] It should be noted that Apple seemed to grasp this concept fairly early on and developed a successful series of ad campaigns around the idea of community, most notably the “Think Different” slogan and the recent rash of “Mac vs. PC” television spots. The “Think Different” campaign, in particular, positioned users of Macs as a group in league with great thinkers of the modern era and also invoked the principle of psychological reactance in order to further strengthen the inter-community bonds.
[iii] The concurrent horizontal and vertical spread of advertising is reminiscent of memes, a concept created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins, memes represent discrete units of cultural knowledge that propagate in a particular society (analogous to genes) through a number of transmission methods (1976). While the concept of memetics certainly spans across areas other than advertising, Dawkins notably included, as examples of memes, catch phrases (i.e., slogans), melodies (i.e., jingles), and fads. Consequentially, although advertising inevitably forms a new type of culture in societies, ads also serve to broaden exposure to, or strengthen the connections of, existing aspects of culture for those subjected to it as they burrow deep into our collective society.
[iv] There are many volumes written on this subject from the perspectives of both Social Psychology and Advertising. As a brief example, I will mention that a fairly common heuristic positions cost as directly proportional to value. The foundation for this equation lies in the belief that more expensive items tend to be better quality, more exclusive, or somehow desired. For a more comprehensive review of heuristics in the realm of persuasion, please see Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Cialdini 1984).
For anyone who has thoughtfully considered the role of art in society, Coonoor Kripalani’s position is not necessarily novel: film, like many forms of art, holds the capacity to comment on its cultural context and to proffer new insights (often accomplishing both feats simultaneously. Focusing specifically on Bollywood film, Kripalani recounts a history of the genre, listing off various stars who served to influence fashion or vernacular (2006). Although Kripalani mentions offer a quick retrospective of Bollywood cinema, the larger cultural issue resides in films’ reflections of an upwardly mobile and aspirational culture. From stories enmeshed in the caste system to romances that defied arranged marriages, the stories told through these films spoke to viewers because they offered a glimpse of the world as it might be. Although not explored in the course of the paper, we might also consider how cult films like Jai Santoshi Maa also become popular because they speak (perhaps indirectly) to a previously unarticulated desire or sentiment.
Shifting to focus on the power of the image, Kripalani then mentions Indian brides being idealized through wedding video and segues to the normalizing influence of product placement in Bollywood films. Lampooned by films such as The Truman Show, the phenomenon noted by Kripalani is not unique to Bollywood: in a fashion similar to American advertising, Kripalani notes cinematic experiences that are achieved through the use of consumer goods.
I would also argue that American youth can be understood to exist in an aspirational culture that highlights the benefits of consumption, with the most readily salient effect of this consumerist culture mixed with the cult of celebrity—and, if recent documentaries like Race to Nowhere are to believed, an overemphasis on achievement—being that children start to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they don’t have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) rather than on their strengths. Brands, however, provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by acting as a substitute for value: the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon teens, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if teens aren’t good at anything, they can still be rich and be okay. For some, this reliance on branding might explain a relative lack of substance amongst the teenage population, but the ramifications of a culture dominated by consumerism extend much further.
Further complicating the relationship, branding culture also exerts an influence on youth through lifestyle. Although the basis of this connection can be seen in the relationship between consumer culture and branding, brands can affect the process in more indirect ways. A number of factors, for example, from the emphasis on teen culture to increased pressure surrounding college admission, might be forcing adolescents to classify themselves earlier than ever. Emphasis placed on entrance to selective universities provides an excellent demonstration of the drastic changes that young people have had to undergo in the early part of their lives; for many students aspiring to elite schools, college acceptance (and attendance) confers a particular type of status and failure to achieve this goal by the age of 18 represents an extremely large disappointment. In order to secure this dream, young people might begin to package themselves—a “successful applicant” is no longer a student who did his best, but rather one who meets a specific set of criteria—turning their lives into a product, which they hope to sell to colleges and universities.
Branding associated with college admission showcases how marketing has developed into the promotion of a particular lifestyle, as opposed to a means of distinguishing products (or, perhaps more cynically, as an extension of this process). In many areas, the mystique of the brand has become the important factor for consideration; the actual quality of an item does not seem to be as important as its perceived value.
 Although I have not done extensive work in this area, my anecdotal exposure to cult films in America suggests that these productions often attract fringe or minority individuals who feel, in some way, disenfranchised. The sense of community that develops in this shared media experiences helps such people to feel like they belong (i.e., there are literally “other people like me”). This is not to suggest that the popularity of cult films can be solely defined in terms of this process, but I would suggest that this theme again reflects an underlying aspiration: the desire to become, to be, or to belong.
 A book coauthored by Annenberg professor Michael Cody spoke to a similar affective tie in a McDonald’s advertisement, essentially arguing that family happiness could be had through consumption of a food item. Although Cody’s argument was more about nostalgia and family values, we can see how a product is depicted as the conduit for, or conveyer of, emotional responses or attachments and thus crucial to the process.