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Spring breakers soak up an ocean of promotion

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. &

The sand is white, the water is blue-green, and the nation's college students are celebrating the proud rites of spring as they always have, with beer and wet T-shirt contests. What more could they possibly need?

More. So much more.

Behold, the marketers of spring break have descended, transforming the beach into a corporate wonderland. There's a Geico gaming tent and a Neutrogena spa, and the Trojan booth offers pina-colada-scented oxygen you can inhale through a tube. There's free mouthwash and chewing tobacco, free sunblock and tampons, and after a free massage, you can make a delightful lunch out of Jack Link's beef jerky and 180 energy drink.

As many as 300,000 breakers will have descended on this stretch of beach by the end of spring break in early April. As they depart, they take with them bags and bags of branded loot, as well as fond memories of bikini dance contests and at least one mayonnaise-eating competition.

Some folks might believe that youthful revelry occurs naturally, the way rocks are slowly worn down to sand, but it turns out that's not true. During spring break, at least, lusty excess must be carefully planned. Who makes the machinery of this annual celebration turn, bringing in the hot salesgirls and organizing events overseen by bawdy emcees? Who schedules a "J-Lo Booty Shakin' Contest" to promote a new perfume?

The marketers, that's who.

Look over there! As part of a "Sand Castle Demolition" contest, a squirming heap of spring breakers are scrambling for bottles of Vitamin Water hidden in the sand. They emerge with sand all over their chins.

And another day &

glance toward the sky! Above the Venus Breeze banners floating proudly on the wind, above the Def Leppard wailing from the speakers, a lone parachuter spins and spirals across the sky, spewing a majestic trail of red smoke. Then there are more parachuters, and more, all members of the Army's Golden Knights, trailing yellow parachutes that say ARMY.

"If you want to find out more," a voice says over a loudspeaker, "GoArmy.com."

The marketers will tell you that spring break is a fabulous opportunity because so many students are here at once and they're not doing much. People this age, they say, are picking out the products they may use for the rest of their lives. Matt Britton, the chief of brand development for a company called Mr. Youth, says that at 32, he still uses a credit card he signed up for in college to nab a free T-shirt.

"That's college marketing at its finest," Britton says.

Marketers speak of things like HBA and ROI and CRM, of "premiums" and "metrics" and something called "deep-dive brand engagement." But the talk boils down to this: At spring break, there is almost no empty space. Advertising is everywhere the students are, from the hotel rooms to the nightclubs, and beyond.

Witness what Britton calls the "interactive brand experience" he runs for Neutrogena to promote its Acne Stress Control line. Inside the tent, there are sinks where you can wash your face with Acne Stress Control Power-Foam Wash. There are free massages. A beautiful blond woman encourages visitors to give their names and e-mail addresses in exchange for free samples and the chance to win a gift basket. There's a casting studio where kids can tape videos in hopes of making it onto a Neutrogena-sponsored online reality show.

"Tell us what stresses you out," says Erin Holbrook, the casting director, to a petite young woman in a polka-dot bikini who is asked to identify herself by her casting number, 1570. "I want you to be honest."

"Driving stresses me," says 1570, whose real name is Jessie Gudahl, and who confesses afterward that she has no interest in using Neutrogena, although she really does want a Neutrogena T-shirt. (Free stuff. Who can explain the magical lure?)

So much to do here. When the girls tire of tanning and the guys of football, they may walk over to the Geico tent and play some Xbox. On the way out, they can grab a Geico drink "coozie," or insulator, for their beer can. They can grab a free Sobe Life Water from a barrel that's constantly being refilled.

The loot accumulates as if splitting off from itself, amoeba-style. One guy has four hats and three T-shirts. A college senior named Tori Voorhees makes off with an entire case of Vitamin Water.

Even the senior citizens want a piece. An old guy with a cane limps off toward a condo with two energy drinks and a bag of skin-care samples.

This stretch of beach along the state's panhandle, sometimes derided as the "Redneck Riviera," feels more south Alabama than Florida. Big new condos are gradually swallowing the old motels, but Panama City Beach still feels like a sweet seaside town. There's a Grubby's Airbrush Shak and a Panama Pawn. There's a Dippin' Dots, promising "the ice cream of the future." It might be 1982 here, and it might be better that way.

Traffic moves slowly on the narrow roads. Spring breakers walk barefoot along the blacktop. Their official costume is surf shorts and bikinis &

which is, it turns out, exactly what spring breakers were wearing 40 years ago, except back then, the guys called their shorts "jams" and the girls didn't keep cellphones in their bikini bottoms. Anyway, the swimwear is for show, since hardly anyone goes in the water. It's way too cold.

They come here from Illinois State and East Carolina, from Valencia Community College in Central Florida and Itawamba Community in Mississippi. (One group comes all the way from SUNY Buffalo &

26 hours &

on a bus.) They sleep five or six to a room, except for that guy who never comes back at night. They wheel coolers of Bud Light and Busch onto the beach. They eat cheap: Wendy's and Waffle House and a free pancake breakfast the evangelicals are serving down the street.

Even in the era of "Girls Gone Wild," there is still about spring break an appealing purity. Perhaps it taps into something ancient and pagan in us, something reminding us of maypole dancing and rabbits. The tradition is often traced to the 1930s, and the 1960 movie "Where the Boys Are" helped popularize the notion of spring break as a time for love and zany high jinks.

To some extent, the holiday's twin traditions of riotry and product promotion grew up together. In 1964, when spring breakers were dancing the monkey and searching for riots, the Ford Caravan of Music arrived, sponsoring "folk and jazz wingdings." As far back as 1979, the New York Times was bemoaning the presence of corporate America at spring break.

Richie Tarzian, the president of a Manasquan, N.J.-based company called the Passion Group, has been doing spring break promotions and college campus marketing since the late '70s. In those days he spent a lot of time driving from campus to campus, stopping frequently to make pay-phone calls. One of his first spring break gigs, he says, was placing Bic pens in the kids' hotel rooms.

These days, Tarzian, 53, has about 120 employees working for him during peak season, and about 80 of them descend on various spring break locations. He often travels with a laptop and an assistant, and he has two cellphones and three BlackBerrys. One is for Panama City Beach, one is for South Padre, Texas, and one is for locations in Mexico like Cancun.

Here in Panama City Beach, Tarzian pays several hotels for the right to market his clients in their properties and along their beachfront. At one property, shower curtains for Axe, the body spray, hang in the bathrooms. At another, the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort, Trojan condoms and Banana Boat sunblock samples are placed on the pillows, as if by some perverse tooth fairy.

The SunSpree is saturated with marketing. This year, Tarzian's company has placed ads for two clients &

the Army and Gillette's Venus Breeze razor &

on the columns in front of the hotel, on the lobby floors and windows, and wrapping the elevator doors from floor to ceiling. When the kids check in, they get keycards branded by the Army and bags of toiletry samples according to their gender.

Out back by the pool, there are more ads, and spring breakers play in the water with beach balls branded by another of Tarzian's clients, Geico. Tarzian has taken to renting the property next to the SunSpree in part to prevent his competitors from getting his marketing "runoff." Spring break is Tarzian's season &

he sleeps little and works much. His tightly scheduled days involve pasting down floor ads and hoisting up logo banners, creating a fully branded landscape that hundreds of thousands of young consumers will see.

When Tarzian's daughter was in fifth grade in Catholic school, a nun asked her what her father did for a living. "Bikini contests," the little girl said.

The owner of the SunSpree, 74-year-old Lela Hilton, strolls down from the hotel's pool deck to the sand one afternoon and surveys the beach &

the tan bodies, the corporate branding. She lives around here, she says, and sometimes during spring break she stays at the hotel, amid all the revelry. The music on the pool deck plays till 2 or — in the morning, she says. Does it bother her?

"Absolutely not," she says. "Because it sounds like dollars."

If you watch things carefully here, the messages in the sky and the messages in the sand, you begin to wonder. At what precise moment did we cease to be surprised by ads on our coffee sleeves? When did bags of swag, for so long the exclusive province of celebrities, make their way down to the masses? And when we get something for free, is it really free?

On a rainy evening, reps for the Victoria's Secret's swimwear line and the Victoria's Secret sub-brand Pink come to the SunSpree lobby to do a little research. They're giving away bikinis, bags and makeup to survey-takers. The questions are about where and with whom the young women shopped for spring break necessities, how often they use fragrance and what month they start buying swimsuits.

One researcher says she's noticed how much the girls love sequins on their bathing suits. One notes the pride a young woman takes in her Abercrombie bikini, the way she points at the logo. Still another says she is listening for verbal cues. (It was during research like this in Miami last year, says Victoria's Secret Direct copywriter Sarah Stark, that Pink discovered its demographic prefers the word "underwear" to "panty.")

Michelle Finney dashes out of the lobby of the SunSpree, clutching a yellow Victoria's Secret bikini like it's the Golden Fleece. She shows it to three friends waiting in a car, and they run inside to get their own free stuff.

"Can you believe that?" Finney asks in exhilaration. She is 19 and goes to school in Muncie, Ind. "I was like, 'Wait, you get the top AND the bottom?' and they were like, 'Yeah.' "

While she waits for her friends, Finney explains how they wound up here. They'd left the hotel so their friend Tiffanie Pence could get a tattoo, but Pence thought she'd forgotten her ID, so they had to turn around and drive back to the hotel. At which point they noticed the commotion in the lobby and Finney went in to investigate. And we find out later that Pence only thought she forgot her ID; she had it with her the whole time.

So here we all are, and maybe it feels a little like fate. Or the marketers' intelligent design.

Pence comes out proudly carrying a pink tote bag that says "Victoria's Secret" in sparkly letters.

"Are you so excited?" Finney asks.

"I am, like, the most excited," Pence says.

"It's so cute," Finney says.

"I'm really excited," Pence says.

The other two friends come back, each carrying a free blue bikini, and after a brief discussion of the benefits of the Venus Breeze razor's built-in shave gel, they are off to the tattoo parlor.

The foursome return some time later, with Pence sporting a bandage on her ankle. They go across the lobby and get their evening makeup done (for free) at the Venus Breeze spa.

It's a fabulous life.