Cartoon Network Woos College Crowd

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Talking meatballs and bumbling sea explorers may have made the Cartoon Network's late-night cartoon lineup a monster hit among the young and hip. But some of its popularity is owed to a trendy corps of college students enlisted to market the network's "Adult Swim" cartoons on campuses nationwide.

They come from 30 campuses to the network's Atlanta headquarters each August for some cartoon-marketing training before the start of their fall-semester classes. These students are culled for being business-savvy but not the typical khaki-wearing business student.

Their job: Making cartoons cool for peers who likely had ignored them since elementary school and probably associated Cartoon Network with baby-sitting, not TV nights at the frat house.

Now, three years after they started, "Adult Swim" cartoons are often ranked No. 1 in their basic cable time period — Saturdays through Thursdays, 11 p.m.-5 a.m. EDT — among both adults aged 18-to-34 and men aged 18-to-24. Shows such as "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" — about a talking meatball, milkshake, and box of fries — regularly beat network late-night comedy shows in the ratings among young people.

Cartoon Network executives say the college marketing program, mostly made up of sponsored drinking parties at hot college bars, had a significant hand in creating buzz for the quirky, sometimes hilariously absurd, block of cartoons.

Greg Heanue, a Cartoon Network executive in charge of marketing "Adult Swim," explained the tactic as he weaved around 60 college students pouring into the network's colorful Atlanta offices where many of the cartoons are written.

"College towns aren't the biggest markets, but if you get kids talking about something there, you eventually get everybody," Heanue said. "Take a town like Norman, Okla. Not a big market. But the whole state of Oklahoma goes through there. You seed the college towns, you get the whole state."

The students swarmed, slack-jawed, around the offbeat office — foosball tables, life-size mascots of the "Aqua Teen" characters, employees slouching around in ripped jeans and black T-shirts.

They gathered on a few beat-up couches to hear cartoon creators talk about how they got started and watched clips from a few shows that aren't out yet. Then they all headed to a dingy bar for more chatting with Cartoon Network employees before a weekend of training in selling the shows to their peers.

"It is sooooo much fun," said Barrett Darnell, a 20-year-old Washington State University student who's starting his second year as an "Adult Swim" marketer. Last year he threw viewing parties and got some cartoon T-shirts thrown from the stage at a campus Cypress Hill concert. This year's plans include a pub crawl and poster giveaways. "We give out so much free stuff. Everyone loves it."

Another returning marketer, University of Kentucky senior Shreenah Willis, went from trying to draw crowds to her Cartoon Network parties to fending off advances for more "Adult Swim" giveaways.

"Everyone on campus knows I'm the 'Adult Swim' girl. It makes you pretty instantly popular," Willis said.

Guerrilla marketing at campuses isn't new, but it's worked especially well for Cartoon Network, said Sean Sheridan, a marketing expert for Philadelphia-based Campus Party Inc. Sheridan advises big companies how to sell to college students, although he's never worked for Cartoon Network.

"I'm not surprised they've done so well. Lettermen and Leno, they're funny, but come on, they're old men," he said. "Those shows, they're sort of formulaic, reminiscent of the old Johnny Carson show. And you're not talking about a show like their parents watched. Those are shows just like their grandparents watched."

Beyond working to spread buzz about "Adult Swim," the college marketers have helped the network's ad salesmen, who are used to selling TV spots for toys and children's breakfast cereals, not products geared toward young adults.

Last spring the network sent disposable cameras to all the college marketers and instructed them to take a list of 48 pictures: Take a picture of your freezer, your closet, the inside of your car's trunk, stuff like that.

What they got back was raw data they could use to take to advertisers interested in a young demographic with photographic evidence of what products those consumers buy, eat and use.

"It's been a great learning tool for us," Heanue said.

Advertisers noticed, more young people started watching, and the night cartoon block is now the darling of the network.

"We're sort of cresting right now," said Dave Willis, a co-creator of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." "Two years from now, they might be totally over us, we'll be stupid. But right now, it's a good time."

The students nodded.

"I'm more and more shocked how many people know about 'Adult Swim,'" said Jack Nelson, a University of Georgia senior studying economics who is in his second year as a Cartoon Network marketer. "At first it was a cult thing. Now it's everyone on campus."