Selling Frenzy : Students on Spring Break Find Marketers Have Set Up Shop

Corporate sponsors are turning college spring break into a sprawling commercial break.

Their aim: to get college students familiar with their brands. To do that, marketers are invading the hottest college vacation spots and setting up elaborate displays, sponsoring events and giving away products during the monthlong spring break period that ends at Easter.

When students check into hotels in Daytona Beach, Fla., and South Padre Island, Tex., some are handed "gift packs" filled with samples ranging from Pringles potato chips to Prell shampoo.

At the beach, they may participate in volley ball tournaments, tug-of-wars or even line up by the thousands to form elaborate corporate "human" logos with the Chrysler insignia.

On hotel pool decks, students may observe bikini contests sponsored by Shape magazine or fashion shows sponsored by Perry Ellis. When they return to their rooms, they can make free phone calls back home, courtesy of Sprint.

This is all a far cry from the spontaneous spring breaks of just a decade ago, when youngsters with nothing to do mostly drank beer and hung out at such familiar spots as Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Springs. That's when the big brewers and cigarette makers first began to set up shop at these spring gatherings--preying on a natural market.

Because the sheer numbers of corporate sponsors have grown so large--to more than 100--some critics say students are being exploited by big advertisers. At the very least, they say, over-commercialization has changed the atmosphere of spring break to something more akin to another day at the shopping mall.

"Everything these days has a sponsor--even spring break," said Kim Rotzoll, head of the advertising department at the University of Illinois at Urbana. "The advertisers will all defend this by saying that it's good market philosophy. But it is physically and mentally disturbing to be surrounded by commercial clutter wherever you go."

For their part, marketing executives say they are giving kids something to do at spring break besides drink beer. Rarely is there any real hard-sell marketing. What's more, executives point out, the kids now expect these freebies.

"It's the students themselves who want this stuff," said Joseph Venaglia, president of West New York, N.J.-based College Market Consultants. "It's the students that control the venues. The venues do not control the students."

Still, the $145 million that companies will spend this year on overall marketing to college students is twice what they spent just five years ago, estimates Eric Weil, president of Ridgewood, N.J.-based Strategic Marketing Communications. And with good reason. The annual purchasing power of American college students is estimated at about $30 billion annually.

But bad publicity in recent years forced a series of changes in spring-break marketing.

First, cities such as Palm Springs and Ft. Lauderdale stopped trying to entice students to come at spring break. And with the national media reporting student deaths related to alcohol consumption, the national brewers mostly abandoned these spring flings. But they have been replaced by dozens of other national marketers who are eager to get impressionable students to try their brands.

Behind all this marketing hoopla are middlemen who find out what the advertisers want, then speak directly with city officials and local hotel operators to organize the spring break events. Among the most successful is Richard Tarzian, president of Leonia, N.J.-based Intercollegiate Communication. He says the events he plans help keep kids out of trouble.

"Let's say there is some kid who would have had 10 beers a day," Tarzian said. "If I can create enough activities in a day so that he only has five beers, I have done my job."

Not that Tarzian is acting out of altruism. He represents a number of advertisers that are each spending from $50,000 to $700,000 to attract college-student customers. Because college students generally watch little TV--and read few newspapers--event marketing is regarded as one of the few ways to capture their attention.

"It's the ideal situation," said Mike Hogan, president of Burbank-based Hogan Communications, which arranged spring break screenings of Tri-Star's "Thunderheart" and Columbia Pictures' "A League of Their Own" in several Florida towns. "We can reach kids from all over the country who are gathered in one place."

Trying to increase awareness of Sprint among college students, the long-distance carrier is offering free, three-minute phone calls to students visiting several Florida cities this spring. It also sponsored a giant sandcastle building contest, for which it even flew in a sand sculpturing expert.

"I don't think it's overkill," said Al Lenio, marketing manager at Sprint.

Briefly . . .

Katsin/Loeb Advertising of Irvine is the new agency for the Long Beach Area Convention & Visitor Council. . . . The renamed San Diego agency Capener, Matthews & Walker--formerly Capener Co.--will handle marketing for Mexitlan, the Tijuana tourist attraction. . . . Brigham Scully of Woodland Hills was named ad agency for Hughes Identification Devices of Rancho Santa Margarita. . . . Carpeteria floor covering chain of Valencia has narrowed its agency selection to four firms. . . . The Nickelodeon TV network will launch a magazine in 1993 targeted at 8- to 12-year-olds. . . . Los Angeles Magazine's Publishing Week Convention, sponsored by Folio magazine, kicks off Wednesday at the Hyatt at LAX.

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