Chris Barrett and Luke McCabe emerge from the surf, studded with the logos of a credit card company, and begin to work their way across the beach toward a coterie of publicists and a photographer there to capture the moment.
Two bikini-clad young women step in their path and ask about all the attention. The young men, 18 and freshly graduated from high school, lean with tanned arms slung around their surfboards and chat for a few minutes before continuing their saunter across the sand.
"They thought it was really cool," Mr. Barrett says, eyes bright. Mr. McCabe pumps a thumbs-up in the air.
A publicity representative beams. Another hit in the media whirl of Chris and Luke.
Last year, the two men, seniors at Haddonfield Memorial High School, offered corporate America a deal: you pay our way to college, and we'll be your "spokesguys." After entertaining offers from more than a dozen companies, they chose First USA, one of the nation's largest credit card companies, which agreed to pay each $40,000 in tuition, room, board and books for the academic year when they enter college in Southern California next month. In return, Mr. Barrett and Mr. McCabe will spread the First USA-sponsored message of smart budgeting and financial responsibility. Among other things, they will make campus appearances, serve on a student advisory board and publicize financial tips for students on their Web site. In the meantime, of course, they are also attracting millions of dollars in free publicity with an image that is cool, blond and young.
In a world where kindergartners learn to count with books created by Cheerios, where Channel One beams commercials into classrooms and where Coke and Pepsi compete for turf alongside hall lockers, this is the latest frontier, a perfect synergy between media- and marketing-savvy teenagers and companies desperate to capture the lucrative, yet elusive, youth market.
Critics bemoan creeping commercialism in education, but Mr. Barrett and Mr. McCabe show how far it has already encroached. Students are not just surrounded by marketing tactics; they are adopting them. Among their peers, and First USA's competitors, there is neither shock nor accusations of selling out, but only, "Why didn't I think of that first?"
"They are smart, smart kids," said Doug Filak, the vice president for marketing at First USA, a division of Bank One. He often accompanies the young men on interviews, watching with a smile that is half envy, half cat that ate the canary.
Mr. Barrett and Mr. McCabe have the First USA logo on their surfboards, surf shorts, camp shirts, indeed, an entire wardrobe's worth of clothing, blurring the line between their life as average college students and their role as pitchmen. And that is just how the company wants it.
"We thought we had a powerful message, and we were looking for the best way to spread it," Mr. Filak said. "What better way than to have two cool students, two normal guys, spread it for us?"
When the First USA people refer to Chris and Luke, it comes out Chrisnluke, and in some ways, the two have become one.
"They complement each other well," Mr. Filak said, "and they know it."
Mr. Barrett, who will attend Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., is the chattier and more clean cut of the two. He was a former class president and winner of the prize for the highest grade point average in the business courses. Mr. McCabe, who will attend the University of Southern California, plays in a band called Big Fat Huge, wears sideburns tracing the curve of his face, and started a student group to fight racism. They have been friends since sixth grade and started a road hockey team at Haddonfield Memorial High. Both, according to their Web site, "enjoy golf, surfing, tennis, concerts and dating."
They thought of the idea on a tour of campuses in California, as they became more and more anxious about how much it would cost to attend. They retreated to a hotel room, where the television clicker happened on Tiger Woods, sporting his usual Nike swoosh gear. Wouldn't it be cool, Mr. Barrett asked, if we could get someone to sponsor us?
They put up a Web site, posting pictures of themselves toting surfboards: "Your logo here!" Smiling and blond, they offered their services pitching anything from sneakers to cell phone service. "We will drink your soda and eat your chips! Where we go, you go!"
After Yahoo made it "site of the day," the offers started coming in, a few to pitch cell phone service, another to sell caffeinated mints. Mr. Barrett and Mr. McCabe chose First USA, they said, because the company did not want them to sell a product.
"We wanted a message, one that we thought kids could relate to," Mr. McCabe said. "Everyone can relate to money."
Now, the two men's Web site is a mix of teenspeak ("We have been getting e-mails from girls all over the country!") and financial tips ("Start saving that change from those late-night pizza deliveries and see how fast your $2 turns into $100 when you deposit it in a savings account!")
In exchange for the $40,000 for the first academic year, they are expected to wear their First USA clothing whenever they make public appearances on their campus or others for the company. Each has to maintain at least a C average (Mr. McCabe was a straight-A student in high school; Mr. Barrett got A's and B's) and live up to the terms of a moral clause - if they misbehave, the deal is off. But Mr. Filak said he fully expected to "re-sign" them for the full four years of college.
The deal, marketing experts say, represents the evolution of The Sell, with companies analyzing how best to reach their target audiences.
"If you want to talk to college students about financial issues, it's better than some guy in a suit to have kids you see every day saying, `Make sure you manage your beer money,' " said Barbara Coulon, vice president for trends at Youth Intelligence, a youth marketing company in New York. "With credit card companies in general, college students have this view that they just want you to spend, spend, spend; they're all over the place on campuses, just to make money off you. First USA seems like the credit card that students can trust if it's coming from college students themselves."
Not everyone, though, sees this as a good thing.
"We've gotten to the point where students don't mind being used," said Andrew Hagelshaw, executive director of the Center for Commercial Free Public Education, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1993 amid complaints about Channel One. "They don't see anything wrong with using themselves to advertise for their sponsors."
He does not necessarily blame Mr. Barrett and Mr. McCabe.
"There's advertising in the hallways, in lunchrooms, in the curriculum," Mr. Hagelshaw said. "After a while, it becomes invisible: you don't understand how it's happening or how they're using you."
Kate Zernike, The New York Times. July 19, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company Inc.. All rights reserved.