UI's new halftime commercials tout graduates

The Wall Street Journal didn't exactly say employers would be "blown away" if they hire University of Illinois graduates — but this is television, after all.

The latest UI halftime commercials wrapped up filming on campus Wednesday, and strong breezes and windswept hair were the order of the day.

The idea behind the spots: "Our graduates will blow you away," said UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler, unofficial creative director behind the annual ad campaign.

For the record, the Wall Street Journal did rank the UI as the third-best place in the country to recruit graduates, a fact that will be touted during the ads.

The two spots will feature top UI students being asked by a prospective employer, "Why should I hire you?" The students will then think back over their experiences at the UI — volunteer work, competitive sports, study abroad experiences, internships, leadership opportunities and the like.

Cut back to the employers, and we will see their hair blown back, tie askew, papers on the desk blowing around — you get the idea. The last scene will show the three windblown employers commiserating by the water cooler (which proved to be tough to find on campus, according to Kaler).

The spots will air during sportscasts, and "the most effective commercials for that crowd are the ones that use humor" a la ESPN's house ads, she said. "That's what the audience is used to. They're fun."

And Kaler doesn't want the UI's commercials to look like every other school's, with the typical scenic vistas, professors lecturing and students working on laptops.

Starring in the commercials are Cecilia Marizu, 23, a former UI swimmer and now a graduate student in education, and engineering major Arshan Pouladdej, 22.

Both were acquaintances of Kaler through friends and relatives but turned out to be perfect for the roles. Kaler and her team, including production manager Chris Harris, thought of different scenes ahead of time to showcase the diverse skills of UI students.

When Kaler talked to Pouladdej, she asked if he could pretend to play a piano, work in a lab or be a Big Ten athlete.

Check, check and check. No pretense required.

Pouladdej actually a) plays classical piano, b) is majoring in general engineering major with a minor in electrical engineering and c) is a former track athlete and now a walk-on for the UI football team.

In Marizu's case, Kaler wanted to show students doing public service. Mirazu had just returned from building a foundation for a new school in Ecuador with Student Athletes Leading Social Change.

Scenes include Pouladdej participating in a recreated robot wars at Engineering Open House, playing his own classical composition at Smith Music Hall, doing research at the Beckman Institute and climbing the rock wall at ARC; and Marizu talking to a journalism class, swimming at ARC and recreating her departure for Ecuador at Willard Airport — which was tricky because of security precautions.

Overall, Marizu said, "It's been a blast."

Pouladdej said the commercial is "a great way to separate the U of I from other schools" and show the many ways students can expand their interests outside the classroom.

A native of Tehran, Iran, Pouladdej emigrated to the United States at age 11. He ran track for the UI for two years, then made the football team last spring. He is interning this summer with Northrup Grumman.

"One of the things I try to do here at Illinois is to be involved. You don't get many electrical engineers who are also on the football team," he said.

The only time the two students appear together is in a shot filmed Wednesday at Foellinger Auditorium, a fake student senate debate in front of about 50 student extras. They held up campaign signs with qualities that Kaler said reflect the UI, too — from "loyal" and "leaders" to "visionary" and "integrity."

Harris said it's important to use real students, not actors, and he was pleased by the turnout, adding "80 degrees and sunny doesn't hurt."

The crowd included future and former UI students, including incoming freshman Kahlilah Cooke, whose dad is a UI professor.

"It sounded like a lot of fun and a way to get involved here," she said.

Added Rosemarie Lerma, a third-year graduate student: "I thought this was a perfect opportunity to develop more school spirit and be part of the campus — and not feel so old."

DAV Productions of Las Vegas has produced the commercials since 2004, the year of the infamous Dee Brown three-point shot in the trash can at the UI Library.

The company is owned by UI alum Ben Brownback, a 1998 graduate, and his wife Amy Quigg, class of 2000, who both "speak fluent Illini," Kaler said.

The UI spends about $19,000 on the commercials, but DAV usually throws in extra special effects or graphics, she said.

"We love doing it. It's one of our favorite projects," Quigg said Wednesday.

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