How Stanford is Redefining Cool

Posted by at 3:29AM

The $2.8 billion tank top? High-grossing Avatar brought Stanford's "cool cachet" to the silver screen.

Stanford has pretty impressive street cred.

I started to catch on to this when I watched Avatar for the first time.  James Cameron’s carefully-crafted CGI masterpiece may be one of the most meticulously constructed cinematic works of our generation.  Which is why I was so surprised to encounter a truly glaring instance of product placement: Sigourney Weaver‘s avatar wears a bright red Stanford tank top.

It’s easy to write this off as clever marketing (though the University was in no way involved) or simply an homage to Weaver’s alma mater.  But it’s not actually that simple.  Stanford has unquestionable purchasing power: not just as a highly-valued institution, but as a cultural symbol of an almost paradoxical confluence of brainpower and, well, coolness.

In this instance, Stanford is identified with the environmentally-conscious “good scientist,” with a confident and powerful female protagonist who is literally trying to save her world.  To those familiar with the Farm today, these are certainly resonant themes on campus which validate our claim to  “coolness.”

But Avatar is only the tip of the iceberg….  (Get it?  James Cameron directed Titanic….)

The Ubiquitous Stanford T-Shirt:

Just like Weezer, we're doin' things our own way and never giving up.

Primed by the Avatar incident, suddenly I was seeing Stanford T-shirts everywhere.  This is almost no surprise, as few universities have a T-shirt design as consistent and uniquely identifiable as ours.  But the numbers are staggering: there are 828,000 Google hits for “Stanford T-shirt” and only 269,000 for Harvard and 694,000 for Princeton.  Google doesn’t lie.

The cultural icon: The Blues Brothers shows how the Stanford T-shirt's cool power spans generations.

The unifying theme I noticed was the context in which the shirts appeared: Stanford T-shirt wearers are cool.  In the case of Sigourney Weaver, it’s a badass scientist working with state-of-the-art technology to revolutionize the way we interact with the world.  In The Blues Brothers, Mr. Stanford Shirt and his fellow concert attendees are, by and large, a bunch of young, fun-loving twenty-somethings rocking out for charity.  (Dance Marathon, anyone?)  The presence of the Stanford T-shirt in Weezer’s “Troublemaker” music video is yet another perfect distillation of Stanford’s pop culture power.  In the video, Weezer and their fans seek to break numerous world records, pushing the boundaries of the possible and having a blast while doing it – a parallel to Stanford’s prominence as a research institution.  On a more obvious level, the lyrics of “Troublemaker” can be seen as an analogy to the Stanford entrepreneurial attitude.  As the bold West Coast foil to the traditionally-grounded Ivies, we are indeed “doin’ things [our] own way and never giving up.”  You’re right, Rivers Cuomo.  “There isn’t anybody else exactly quite like [Stanford].”

Stanford, the Media Darling:

Luck's $50 million sacrifice in favor of finishing his degree speaks volumes about the value of a Stanford education.

Positive press for Stanford has been soaring in recent months.  The women’s basketball team’s definitive victory over UConn, coupled with Stanford’s impressive showing at the Orange Bowl secured us well-deserved attention on the sports media radar.  Add to this the Andrew Luck incident.  The almost definite #1 pick in the NFL draft gave up an instant $50 million salary to stick around and finish his degree.  Single-handedly, Luck has people around the world reevaluating the worth of the Stanford brand.  And believe me, $5o million weighs pretty heavily in our favor.

Yet more icing on the cake is the highly flattering attention we’ve gotten from the Princeton Review lately.  Known for their definitive college rankings and comparisons, the Princeton Review’s polls outed Stanford as the number one dream school among both students and parents.  I’d say that’s pretty cool.

I hope the HSM generation doesn't actually expect us to burst out in song at random....

Tweenage Dream:

Disclaimer: I don’t watch Hannah Montana nor have I seen High School Musical 3.  (Phew!  Street cred intact.)  However, my sources in the preteen underworld have informed me that teen heartthrob Zac Efron’s on-screen brainy yet beautiful girlfriend Gabriella chooses to attend Stanford.  This is pretty intense press when you consider that HSM3 holds the record for the largest opening weekend for a musical film.  Expect a surge in Stanford application rates in about two years when the High School Musical generation ships off to college….

Hannah Montana also apparently decides to don the Stanford Cardinal.  On the last ever episode of Hannah Montana, Miley Cyrus has to choose between going to Paris and starring in a movie with Tom Cruise, or coming to Stanford with her best friend.  After significant drama in true Cyrus fashion, she chooses Stanford and rides off with her best friend to freshman orientation.  Say what you want about the teenage superstar – hey, she has good taste in schools.

Efron: Stanford student-athlete?

Finally, don’t forget that ever-so-dreamy Charlie St. Cloud is accepted to Stanford on a sailing scholarship.  Never mind that fact that collegiate sailing teams are prohibited by national regulations from awarding scholarships based on sailing ability….  He then saves a girl’s life, becomes a local hero, and sails around the world.  I appreciate how Zac Efron’s films are always so realistic.

The Moral of the Story:

We’re really lucky to be here.  These cultural references should serve as a reminder that we’ve been blessed with an immense and incredibly desirable privilege of which we should take maximum advantage.  To the world, Stanford is the good scientist, the defy-er of conventions and the breaker of records.  That’s pretty awesome.  Let’s keep up the good work.


29 Responses to “How Stanford is Redefining Cool”

  1. Tiq says:

    Also, Broadway show “In the Height’s” main character is a student who attends Stanford.

  2. kevin says:

    Charlie St. Cloud goes too Stanford too, I think

  3. Kristi says:

    Thanks, good catches! I added Efron to the Tweenage Dream section.

  4. Spencer says:

    Don’t forget about Chuck!

  5. Josh says:

    The information tablets at Arches National Park also feature a hiker wearing a Stanford shirt. It’s everywhere…

  6. Uly says:

    Gilly went to stanford too.

  7. GULY says:

    GULY went to stanford too

  8. Laaady says:

    Also a bunch of characters in crappy TV shows like CSI (Greg) and Grey’s Anatomy (Dr. Yang) etc.

  9. Nathan says:

    We get the “good scientist” along with the bad, apparently. The evil super-villain from “The Bourne Ultimatum” had a two-second flash of his file on screen, with the words “PhD in Neuroscience, Stanford University, 1968” prominently featured. We can hope that our current crop of Neuro PhDs produces fewer evil geniuses in the future. No promises, though.

    I guess they say any publicity is good publicity.

  10. Cindy says:

    Going low-brow: Orange County is all about trying to get into Stanford.

  11. Julie says:

    Sad to say, while they talked Stanford this and Stanford that in Hannah Montana, they did NOT wear the correct clothing (I think it was grey, and actually said “Standford” on it…bizarroland). So many facts were wrong. I think the only thing they got right was that it is in Northern California and hella cool, of course.

  12. A. says:

    Saved by the Bell Quote Hall of Fame

    Jessie: Time? TIME??! There’s never any time! I don’t have time to study! I’ll never get into Stanford! I’ll let everyone down! I’m so confused

    Zack: Everything will be all right, just calm down, OK?

    Jessie: You’re right! Everything will be OK. I just need one of these!

    Zack: Pills?? You mean you really are taking drugs?!

    Jessie: I need them! I need them Zack I HAVE TO SING!

    Zack: Jessie! You can’t sing tonight!

    Jessie: Yes I can! I’M SO EXCITED! I’M SO EXCITED! I’M SO … (sob) …. SCARED! (Cries)

  13. Katie says:

    We’re also forgetting Rachel Flatt, the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Champion, in the sports section! She’ll be starting this coming Fall quarter.

  14. Platopus says:

    Hmm… when I google “stanford t-shirt” I get 74,000 hits, 805,000 without the quotes. Far short of the 1,770,000 figure. Yet the other values seem correct. What an odd mistake to make.

  15. Kristi says:

    @Platopus: weird. That was completely unintentional. I just checked and got 828,000 hits. This might have something to do with the fact that I finished this article at 3:29 a.m…..
    Anyways, I apologize for the error. I’ll correct it now. Thanks for your vigilance!

  16. Sasha says:

    1,260,000 for Stanford shirt. 917,000 for Princeton shirt. 372,000 for Harvard shirt. And, yes, I realize those were not real sentences.

  17. Tony says:

    Even in rap songs

    @ 2:24

  18. Nicole says:

    I love how you mentioned that Sailing scholarships don’t exist!!!! No one ever acknowledges that. thank you.

  19. alumnus says:

    stanford looks amazing from the outside in. but as an alumnus i can’t say it’s as cool as it’s cracked up to be. it’s largely a pre-professional institution where most students are focused on getting the right job when they get out, rather than exploring an education while they’re there. so yes… it’s an amazing place, and it has undeniable cache, but cool isn’t a word i’d used to describe it. cool doesn’t care what others think.

  20. Kelli says:

    great post kristi – lol my pet groomer even showed up with a stanford t-shirt on yesterday – was loving that – not quite sigourney weaver in avatar, but seriously cool nonetheless

  21. Matthew says:

    Trouble is, In The Heights completely misrepresents Stanford’s primary mission: supporting students to get their degree. The musical’s financial aid drama is built on a model more like the Ivy League, not Stanford. Not surprising since it was originally written with one of them as the school…

  22. Cindy says:

    And then there’s Heathers: “I’ll have to send my SAT scores to San Quentin instead of Stanford!”

  23. Brad says:

  24. student says:

    I love this article!

    My favorite thing about Sigourney’s shirt is that it tells us that Stanford still exists in 2134, or whatever year it was. It’s comforting.

  25. sylvie says:

    hey guys, not to spoil the fun, but there is also a dude with a kal hat in that weezer vid…and if you search “cal shirt” and “stanford shirt”, you’ll see we’re behind by ~4,000,000 hits.

    i wanna compete with the public schools, not just the ivies! though population-wise, we’re at an advantage if we continue comparing with similarly-sized schools.

  26. Wait Tila Commercial says:

    Stanford has unquestionable purchasing power, yes no doubt to that! Go Stanford, keep cool always and keep up the good work!

  27. Diana says:

    And the Hangover II. That grey and red hoodie is pretty important.

  28. Tina says:

    Wow that’s pretty disturbing. It’s a clever marketing ploy but does it really put stanford in a positive light?

    Mommy, blogger and shopaholic

  29. Josh says:

    Another Stanford moment–in the new Alexander Payne (himself a Stanford grad) movie The Descendants, Matthew Lillard’s character is donning a Stanford baseball t-shirt when we see him jogging on the beach. I think I was the only person to notice.


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