Branding the FBI-for class credit

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Without committing a single crime, they've made it onto the FBI's most wanted list.

They're marketing students at several colleges around the country who have become the go-to experts for the federal agency, which is trying to boost its numbers of women and culturally diverse recruits. Forming tiny independent ad agencies, the students develop ways to sell the FBI to their classmates, especially those studying international relations, accounting or foreign languages.

The FBI's on-campus promoters share many challenges with professional ad agencies-pleasing the client, hitting the target-but their measly $2,500 budget would barely open the door at a real world shop.

"We have no money to buy media," said Lauren Pimentel, a senior at the University of Southern California who's participating in the program. "We'll rely a lot on public relations."

The USC group has dubbed its agency Weapon of Choice and set an early April date for a campus recruiting drive. Their working tagline, "Take on a career as unique as you are," hasn't been approved by the client yet.

The FBI, through a San Francisco-area company called EdVenture Partners, has tested the program for a few years and decided to expand it because of the value the agency places on students talking to other students.

The move comes as marketers continue to try to reach the elusive 18-to-34-year-old consumer and rely more than ever on nontraditional ways to do so. But while tapping into the Internet, entertainment, events and guerrilla marketing, many advertisers are finding basic peer-to-peer campaigns to be the most targeted and potentially effective way to spread their gospel.

Tapping the target

And what better minds to tap than those of the target demographic? Marketers have stepped up alliances with high schools and colleges, working deals that give class credit for brainstorming, research and creative ideas. The underlying theory: Students are the best people to reach out to their friends and classmates.

Citibank, General Motors, Clairol, Wells Fargo, the National Security Agency, the Navy along with other public companies and private sector organizations have used the EdVentures school-based program. Marketers pay about $22,000 to fund a semester-long class and have rights to use the students' work in future campaigns.

Some 40,000 students have taken part in the programs, which are monitored by EdVentures throughout the semester, said CEO Tony Sgro, and marketers have used a number of student-created campaigns. "They give the students the objectives and then give them a long leash," he said. "They're super-targeted in who they're trying to reach."

No student ideas have been picked up for national FBI campaigns, handled by Bernard Hodes, McLain, Va., but the campus agencies have been successful locally and regionally, said Gwen Hubbard, the FBI's unit chief for national recruitment. The students have brought awareness of FBI careers to youngsters who might never have thought about joining, she said.

Too far?

Such programs have been criticized for crossing the line between education and commercialism, but students say they're glad for the resume builder.

"It gives us some real world experience," Ms. Pimentel said. "And we're involved in every aspect of the campaign, from strategy to creative to final product."

Students at USC have worked on FBI campaigns before, and this year's group is feeling the pressure from what was deemed a successful program in 2004 under the tagline, "The cure for the common career."

Contributing: Ira Teinowitz

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