When classmates market products on campus, it's hard not to notice. Students handing out logo-emblazoned T-shirts, complimentary energy drinks, and invitations to corporate sponsored "parties" have turned many universities into de facto commercial zones. It's an appealing arrangement for both sides: Companies get inside access to a large market at a low cost, and students earn extra cash and lines on their résumés.
But a handful of administrators have voiced concern about student marketing, saying that it violates university policies and could jeopardize contracts with other companies on campus. Observers outside academe question the effects of such marketing on campus culture and student life.
Still, few colleges have procedures in place to handle the practice, so relatively little is done to stop it. And some administrators don't even know it's happening.
"I personally have not heard of it or seen it," said William F. Merck II, vice president for administration and finance at the University of Central Florida. "I think if it were at any significant scale, we would have picked up on it."
But according to the dates on a number of public résumés on LinkedIn, Central Florida has had Red Bull "student brand managers" promoting energy drinks to their students for years now—a practice that Mr. Merck said would be in direct violation of the university's "pouring rights" agreement with Coke. Colleges often commit to such agreements, which guarantee them a discount in exchange for exclusively promoting and selling one brand of beverage on campus.
Coke did not respond to an inquiry from The Chronicle about whether student marketing violates its contracts. But a spokesman for Central Florida identified a clause that requires the university to "take reasonable steps" to prevent the "ambush marketing" of beverages that are not Coke products.
Considering how widespread the student-marketing phenomenon has become—some projections estimate 10,000 American college students now work as "brand ambassadors" on hundreds of different campuses—it's surprising how little faculty and staff seem to know about it. Some companies are admittedly more secretive than others. Apple student representatives, for example, told The Chronicle that they were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements and were forbidden from speaking with reporters.
More typical, though, are student "brand ambassadors" working in heavily trafficked areas on campus or at university-sponsored events, like orientation activities or football games. At Texas State University's stadium last month, a group of ambassadors distributed free Monster energy drinks to students during a tailgating event. Although the ambassadors set up a canopy tent with a large sign, two administrators from the university's campus-activities office said they were unaware of any students working on campus for Monster and that requests to do such marketing are considered case by case.
At Virginia Tech, Microsoft is seeking a Windows campus representative on the business school's job board. The post asks for someone who can organize product demonstrations, gather surveys, and conduct 40 hands-on trials of Windows software with students each week. The company offers a stipend and a free computer in exchange for nearly a year of part-time work.
An automobile company, Motozuma, is on the same job board in search of a "brand ambassador." According to the ad, the position—which requires the student to build and manage a street team of marketers—is part of an unpaid internship program in which students can receive college credit.
But Larry Hincker, Virginia Tech's associate vice president for university relations, wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle that he did not think the college "could have such marketing ambassadors," and said that the university's policy on solicitation would most likely prohibit students from marketing for companies on campus. Another Virginia Tech administrator, Stuart Mease, was aware of brand ambassadors at the college and said they have even been awarded internship credit for their work. Companies like Disney, Groupon, and Target have all hired students to advertise on campus, said Mr. Mease, who is director of undergraduate career services. "They're kind of underground," he explained. "They can reach and identify people that the larger brand cannot, and they can do it on a much more effective and efficient level."
A 'Brilliant' Decision
"There's going to be a tidal wave of more and more products being promoted in this way," said Jean Kilbourne, a filmmaker and writer who speaks frequently on college campuses about the cultural effects of advertising. The decision to hire students was "brilliant on the part of the marketers" because young people don't recognize that they're being advertised to, she said. They see it as simply "more cool stuff."
Ms. Kilbourne worries that administrators view the problem as trivial because people tend to underestimate the impact advertising can have. "We know that consumerism on an individual level can lead to all kinds of problems like depression, anxiety, and debt," she said. "It's just not good to have every experience turned into a marketing experience."
"It could be a really dangerous trend," agreed Elizabeth Ben-Ishai, campaign director of Public Citizen's Commercial Alert, an organization that works to protect communities from commercialism. While students getting part-time jobs and free merchandise might seem harmless, she said, this kind of marketing undermines independent thinking and is unhealthy for campus culture. "We see campuses moving away from some of the ideals that have made them such important places for individuals to grow and develop," said Ms. Ben-Ishai.
Some administrators also say it may be harmful to students. "What I worry about is whether the vendor, either intentionally or unintentionally, is taking advantage of that student," said Janna Stoskopf, dean of student life at North Dakota State University. "They are getting their labor for a very low cost and access to a large market."
Ms. Stoskopf, who has seen student marketers passing out fliers and free samples of food products on campus, has other concerns as well. The items may compete with the university's bookstore or dining services, and the institution may appear to show favoritism toward a specific brand by allowing students to advertise freely on campus. That's bad business practice, she said.
Ms. Ben-Ishai of Commercial Alert agreed. Permitting students to market for companies gives those brands a "credibility that is undue," she said. "It's a way for corporations to bypass the policies that campuses have previously established."
And violations of such policies are hard to police. If a university has a pouring-rights agreement with Coke and finds students giving away free Pepsi, "What's the punishment going to be?" asked Mr. Mease, of Virginia Tech. "You have to open up your Pepsi, and we're going to pour it down the drain?"
At North Dakota State, administrators have responded to the marketing by asking students whether they know they are violating university policy by advertising on campus without a permit. That seems to be effective, said Ms. Stoskopf. "The majority of the time, they don't realize there is a policy in place."
The University of Central Florida also has regulations against soliciting on campus without permission, but that hasn't stopped student marketers from pushing products, unnoticed. Alyssa Nation, a junior at Central Florida and a recent brand ambassador for Hewlett-Packard laptops, told The New York Times that she often promoted the company's products at a display table in the student union, and that she recruited 15 of her friends to paint the HP logo and Web site address on their cars, using washable markers.
Adam McCall, a senior at Emory University, said he had "never heard of anyone getting in trouble" for promoting products on campus. He personally got involved in student marketing after joining a fraternity that was "sponsored" by Monster brand energy drinks. He said Monster would deliver huge cases of the drinks each month, and the frat brothers would photograph themselves drinking from the cans and then give the rest away to students. In return, Monster paid the fraternity about $1,000 a semester.
"We did it in the middle of campus" said Mr. McCall. "We weren't told that it was against school policy or anything. I hope it was OK." Monster has since moved on to sponsor a fraternity at Georgia Tech, he said, but companies like Spotflag and Southern Tide continue to have enthusiastic ambassadors working at Emory. Perhaps the most prominent is Red Bull, whose student brand managers drive through campus, handing out cans of the drink, said Mr. McCall. With so much visible marketing, he's convinced that administrators must know what is going on.
Officials at Emory declined to say whether they were aware of the marketing, but they provided a statement on the matter: "As a professional courtesy, Emory asks that any vendor that wants to market on campus—including student marketing—contact our procurement office before doing so."
At Oklahoma State University at Stillwater, the administration generally allows students to advertise products on campus, as long as they don't sell anything. "We tell them not to be so assertive that they approach students and run them down," said B. Kent Sampson, director of campus life. "They have to stay at their table and identify themselves with signage." So far, that system appears to be working, although administrators have received rare complaints about brand ambassadors bothering students on their way to class.
Mr. Sampson considers campus marketing merely another way for students to gain work experience and earn money to pay for college.
Mr. McCall, the Emory senior, thinks student marketing also adds to the atmosphere on campus, and said he would be disappointed to see the administration crack down. "Basically, what they would be doing is taking jobs away from students," he said. "There are plenty of students who need ways to put money in their pockets, and this is how they do it."
Correction (11/28, 12:50 p.m.): A photo caption accompanying the article originally misidentified the fraternity involved in the product promotion at Texas State University. It was Omega Delta Phi, not Omega Phi. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.