Freebies surge past political concern

Hey, want a free T-shirt? A candy bar? How about a free bottle of Pepsi? Oops, make that a Coke. It’s no surprise that advertisers are after your dollar. Yes, they even want your precious student dollar — the one you might spend on a new Nintendo system or macaroni and cheese.
Last week, I watched as the numerous Coca-Cola people infiltrated our campus, passing out free coupon books and urging students to consume more of their product. I even saw them handing out these handy books to touring groups of prospective students and parents. “Wow,” I thought, “Coke knows how to get them started early.”
Sure, it kind of makes us look like a monkey target audience, readily available for any company hungry for a sale. But does it do any harm? Nah, I took my free coupon. And I’ll take them up on that free Coke, too.
Some students have demonstrated a lot of resentment toward direct marketing and deals between the University and corporations that allow exclusive sales and promotions on campus. The Aramark and Coca-Cola trucks you see on campus are no coincidence. They are the results of hard-bargained deals crafted to put more change in the University’s coffers.
I’ve talked to some students at other universities who also resent these kinds of changes on their own campuses. But at the University of Minnesota, the students seem to be particularly miffed. I can see their point, but I also realize that my student status entitles me to an abundance of coupons and deals that I’m not about to pass up.
For example, last year the Coca-Cola company launched a big promotion for Surge when the beverage entered the market. They even went so far as to build a giant green mountain of snow in front of Coffman Union while they passed out free samples of the “Generation X” soft drink. Instead of taking advantage of this free gift, some students actually climbed the mountain to protest Surge’s presence on campus, as if company executives were forcing the drink down their throats.
I understand that after a while, especially when the credit card companies appear in a feeding frenzy every fall, the marketing aimed at students can be annoying. And when they start laying on the Generation X assumptions, I sometimes get peeved. But does that mean that I want them off campus? No way. Unload the free stuff, please.
Students should realize that there are a lot of benefits to being what companies call an attractive “sales audience.” Let’s start with the freebies. In my four years of college, I’ve collected several T-shirts (good for the gym), two bottles of nail polish, several samples of Woolite and shampoo, a mini basketball hoop for my trash can and countless free candy bars and soda pops. Not to mention I get a discount at some movie theaters. Why should I complain to companies that save me some spare change every once in a while?
I think some students go a little too far to express their discontentment with corporate presence on campus. For example, some people have problems with Coca-Cola because they don’t agree with the company’s cultural influence and labor practices in foreign countries. But is saying “No” to a free Coke on campus going to make a big humanitarian statement? I don’t think so. Write a letter to the company’s headquarters or your local congressman if you want to be more effective.
I can save my opinion about the globalization of our economy and the horrible effects of American companies in Third World countries for another column. For now, I’m just a student taking what I can get. The guy under the white tent with a free sample doesn’t care about my political views.
It’s a disheartening realization, but our country is no longer divided into companies and consumers. Now, we’re a bunch of sell-outs divided not by who we are but by what we consume. And sadly, we have little control over it.
Advertisers figured out long ago that Generation X-ers are likely to spend more money on beer than broccoli each month. They know our buying habits better than we do. We’re more likely to break out the credit card to buy a CD than pay in cash. We know more about mutual funds than our parents did at our age. We don’t plan on company loyalty or job security. We have little confidence in politicians. And yes, we do eat a lot of fast food and drink a lot of Coke!
I know, it’s ugly, but it’s part of our mass consumption culture. It started with two minutes and two seconds of TV commercials. Then the mailman began bringing more mail on Wednesdays — he affectionately calls it trash day — offering me special deals on everything from personalized mugs to airline deals. I now have to ignore flashing online advertisements that border my free Microsoft e-mail account. So am I surprised that advertisers have found me again on campus?
Forgive me if I roll over and ignore this latest revelation.
I am more concerned with what this says about our culture than how tacky the advertising may make our campus appear. In our culture’s increased emphasis on name brands and image, the marketer is slowly succeeding in telling us not only what we should want, but also how we should identify ourselves.
The only thing more pathetic than the aggressive behavior of the advertisers is the sucker consumer who becomes a “company enthusiast” for no other reason than the image being sold. You know who I’m talking about — the people with Polo or Nike splashed across their chests in big letters, as if to demonstrate how much they paid for their sweatshirt. It’s like they’re paying homage to some corporate cult. It’s nice if you like the company for some reason, but to advertise for free? That’s rolling over and then some.
It’s much worse to be a walking billboard than to accept that companies use me as free game in their marketing plans. I may not like it. I may not agree with it. But hey, I got a free Coke. Did you get one too?

— Sara Goo’s column appears every Tuesday. She welcomes e-mail at [email protected]