Since I teach classes at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I hear a fair bit about college internships. The UCSC Legal Studies students who populate my classes are generally interested in finding an internship with a nonprofit or government agency that works on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, racial justice or gender justice reform, political reform, or that has some kind of environmental mission. I applaud their efforts, and I try to help them when I can. This is, however, apparently not the only kind of internship that college students are now pursuing.
An article in the February 18, 2023, edition of The New York Times is headlined, "Wanted: Interns Who Can Make TikTok Hits." The story features Mary Clare Lacke, pictured above. Lacke is a 20-year-old student at the University of Missouri, who interned at Claire’s last summer. Claire's is a store that sells earrings, body jewelry, and other fashion items. As The Times tells us, one of Lacke's tasks, as an intern, was to "help the teen accessories company with its nascent TikTok account." As the article also reports, "it didn’t take long for [Lacke] to produce a hit."
In an 11-second video, Ms. Lacke riffed off a pranking trend inspired by Kris Jenner to promote a style of the retailer’s earrings. "My team was just like, ‘We’re not 100 percent sure what this is, but go for it,’” Ms. Lacke said. And then it became the most successful video that the account has seen. The video generated 1.5 million views and 20,000 new followers for the company’s TikTok account. Now, Ms. Lacke is one of four new TikTok "college creators" working as interns for the brand during the school year, churning out fresh videos every week that they often star in themselves. Claire’s is keen to hire even more student creators.
It is hard not to applaud an episode of student success. Nonetheless, I couldn't help but think of one of those Bob Dylan songs to which I often repair for life insights:
Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you
Internships in online advertising might produce a "hit," sometimes, but I think I'd recommend that students pursue real social, political, and economic changes, as they search out internship possibilities. Pursuing "eyeballs" on the Internet is not going to "change the world" (at least I don't think so), and that's the task we all need to tackle. Current college students are going to have the heaviest lift.
Dealing with environmental, political, social, and economic challenges is that "life outside," beyond the advertising universe in which we wade so deeply. It will be our success (or failure) in those areas that will either make or break our efforts to maintain the human world.
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