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Teens Are Going to Extremes for Viral 'Promposals'

Teenagers are spending big bucks and doing elaborate stunts like jumping out of planes, all with the hope of going viral and locking down a prom date.

by Erica Euse
Nov 1 2016, 3:00pm

Illustration by Mai Ly Degnan

In 2005, millions of people watched Kristen Cavallari on MTV's Laguna Beach as she followed a trail of white roses up the brick walkway leading to her parents' home. She picked them up one-by-one while her boyfriend Stephen Coletti waited inside to surprise her. He had scribbled the words "prom... please?" across his bare chest in black sharpie. When she came inside the house, the 18-year-old high school senior and reality star was the recipient of one of the first high-profile prom proposals.

The broadcast of Coletti's romantic stunt, along with those staged by his friends, helped launch the growing prom proposal trend among American teens. In the past, elaborate proposals such as these were reserved for major life events like marriage, but today teens are expected to create extraordinary invites for school dances—not just prom, but homecoming and Sadie Hawkins, too. The "promposal," as it's called, has become just as necessary as renting a suit or buying a corsage.

"Although it took some time to catch on nationally, teens' fervent use of Facebook in 2006 to 2007, and their increasing willingness to share their lives publicly, helped propel promposals as a mainstay among American youth," said Andrea Richeson, the founder of Youth Tribes, an organization that studies youth culture.

Over a decade after the affluent California high schoolers introduced the world to promposal, the invites have taken many forms from thoughtful surprises like Coletti's to elaborate stunts like jumping out of a plane, all in the name of a school dance.

It was only two weeks into my little brother's freshman year of high school when my mom called me up to see if I had any cool ideas for a homecoming proposal, even though the event was still six weeks away.

When I attended my first homecoming 12 years ago, my date asked me to the dance in the cafeteria of our Catholic high school. It was only a couple days before the big night and the awkward face-to-face encounter lasted about five seconds. When I suggested my little brother just do something similar—like, just ask the girl face-to-face—he scoffed. The promposal was a tradition he told me, and if he wanted a date to the dance, he had to do one and it had to be clever.

My mom had already purchased him a large white poster board, which appears to be the format of choice for many promposals. He planned to write some kind of corny poem on it. For example, his friend had wrote, "I couldn't bear to go to homecoming without you" on a sign and handed the girl a stuffed teddy bear.

Since my date could hardly muster the words to ask me to the dance, it was hard to believe that so many teens would want to put themselves out there like that. A promposal video that went viral last spring captured just how a proposal can go wrong. Daniel Pena had hoped to create a memorable promposal for his girlfriend Alex. He set up signs along the road that read "Alex. Will. You. Marry. LOL JK. Go To. Prom. With Me" before picking her up in his car.

Pena filmed the couples' ride, in which you can see Alex read the first couple signs aloud. Alex calls the promposal "shitty" before realizing that it was actually for her. While the invite didn't go as planned (she still said yes), the video has been viewed over 13 million times.

The rising popularity of promposals has been fueled in recent years by the obsession with social media. For a successful promposal, it is not just about the date saying yes, teens have to produce something that is worthy of YouTube views and Instagram likes. As Richeson shared with me this "continuously ups the ante and the pressure to have a share worthy moment that is liked among friends, family, and the world."

As I searched the internet for inspiration for my little brother, I quickly learned how big the promposal trend really was. There were Tumblr and Instagram accounts with thousands of followers that were dedicated to the extravagant invitations. The propositions ranged from a bouquet of suckers that says "prom would suck without you" to a teen enlisting Senator Ted Cruz to read a promposal script on camera.

"I think promposals have become such a big trend because they garner such positive reactions, not just from the lucky recipient of the promposal, but the social community as well. Just like teens refuse to be photographed wearing the same outfit because they want to get fresh responses from their followers, grand gestures like promposals are valued for their inherent originality," said Richeson.

Thomas Maher, a teen from Arizona, gained media attention earlier this year when he offered his long-term girlfriend a trip to Hawaii in exchange for being his date to prom.

"This was my eighth time asking her to a dance and I try and make each one better than the previous in terms of creativity," said Maher.

"The only expectations I cared about were hers and my own. I know she would be happy with anything, because she is the type to appreciate any act that had thought put into it. But I am a perfectionist and I expect something to sweep her off her feet each and every time."

In addition to the pressure of expectations, the grandiose events have become an added expense for American families. As was the case with my brother, my mom ended up footing the bill and doing all the work. According to a study done by Visa, the average household with teenagers spent $324 on promposing in 2015. New England families with teenagers spent the most with $431 per promposal, compared to Midwest families, who spent an average of $218.

The staying power of the promposal was cemented earlier this year when the dress clothes retailer Men's Wearhouse registered March 11th as National Promposal Day. To celebrate the event, Men's Wearhouse created "the most epic promposal ever" for social media personality Brent Rivera. Rivera and his date were offered a private helicopter ride over a beach, where down below the word "prom" was spelled out by people holding umbrellas. The whole production looked more like a scene from a James Bond film than a teenager's invitation to a dance, proving that that we've come a long way from Laguna Beach.

"Because we are all so keen to be liked, and to have our lives liked, life milestones such as engagements, weddings, pet adoptions, pregnancy announcements, and house purchases, have become these events that demand grand gestures, quirky originality, and magazine-style photo shoots," said Richeson.

Ultimately, my brother went with an emoji-themed poem for his homecoming proposal. He rolled the poster up with a bouquet of flowers and hid them in his date's locker, but he was sure to be there when she opened it, so they could get a customary picture to document the occasion. Even though he didn't even end up going to the dance with that girl, he had successfully completed his promposal rite of passage.

Follow Erica Euse on Twitter.