Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, a face tattoo, a monkey in a Rolling Stones vest and a Stanford sweatshirt star in the new Hangover 2 trailer. The Stanford sweatshirt might seem like an exciting shout out to the University. However, it’s just one example in a long history of Stanford references in popular mass media.
In 2002, Stanford played a key role in the movie “Orange County,” a comedy about college admissions and the struggle of trying to escape dysfunctional families.
For Shamika Goddard ’07, who recalled that the movie came out the same year she applied to Stanford, the reference was memorable.
“Before I went to Admit Weekend, I saw that film and hoped to find some landmark on campus from the film,” she said. “I thought it was not a coincidence that my dream school was in a feature film my senior year.”
From High School Musical 3, to Charlie St. Cloud to Hannah Montana, movies and television shows marketed to teens and tweens increasingly use Stanford as the go-to school for students with big dreams.
But Stanford isn’t only represented as a dream. The Stanford tank top that Sigourney Weaver sported in Avatar equates the University with greatness and goodness. Similarly, Grey’s Anatomy had character Cristina Yang graduate at the top of her Stanford School of Medicine class, implying a relationship between the University’s academic reputation and Yang’s technical skill and intense drive.
Stanford does have a legacy of brilliant scientists and doctors, and there are many young musicians, scholars and athletes who dream of coming to the Farm. But what actually happens at Stanford the place? This is what portrayals of Stanford typically fail to depict.
“People are shocked that there’s a community here,” said Meyli Chapin ‘14. “I think a lot of it is how Stanford allows itself to be perceived. It’s not until Admit Weekend that you see the school as more than a conceptual goal or a means to an end. The media doesn’t show us, as students, doing what we do.”
Media representations of Stanford are almost always associated with the University’s international academic ranking, according to Simon Firth, a faculty spouse and writer for the London Evening Standard.
“The times that Stanford is called upon, it has meaning,” Firth said. “It’s fairly uncontroversial that Stanford seems to mean quality.”
The University can serve as an easy reference to scriptwriters looking to symbolize an elite education.
“Stanford is popular,” said Lisa Lapin, Assistant Vice President for University Communications. “It conveys a lot and people don’t have to use a lot of space in a script.”
Outside organizations must obtain permission to use any visual representation of the University, such as campus images or Stanford paraphernalia. However, media organizations can allow characters on their shows or films to claim acceptance or rejection by the University without any official authorization. According to Lapin, Stanford never seeks out or pays for appearances on TV or in movies.
“We don’t even supply a T-shirt…We send them to the bookstore,” she said.
Although these references are prevalent, they don’t significantly impact potential applicants’ interest in the University, according to Densil Porteous, Assistant Dean of Admission for Marketing and Communication Outreach.
“I do believe Stanford’s presence in pop cultural media generates interest in understanding more about the University,” Porteous said. “But I do not see Stanford’s pop cultural image shaping the audience who applies to the University.”
To Porteous, the references reflect the University’s influence.
“I truly enjoy the obscure references or imagery found in pop culture about the University,” he said. “It is in the moments of obscurity that one realizes just how large of an impact the University has had.”
Although alumni and students are stamped with the Stanford brand, it is the people at Stanford, according to Lapin, who determine what the University’s image means.
“Every time Stanford is mentioned, it reinforces the brand,” Lapin said. “But it’s not just on television. It’s when our football players are interviewed before and after the Orange Bowl and how articulate they are, when our students go off and found companies. It’s when the President of Russia and the Chancellor of Germany want to come visit Stanford.”
“Stanford means something…it’s not just about popular culture,” she added. “It’s about what Stanford means globally.”