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:
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 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:
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.
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.
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.