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].”