Harvard University as Product Placement: A History


Rivaling Facebook for brand exposure in new film The Social Network is Harvard University. As the backdrop for where it all goes down, the storied Ivy League school comes across as a hive of grist erudition, and maybe even greater elitism. This is by no means Harvard’s first onscreen role. The university boasts a robust filmography, with its appearance generally fitting one of three (strereo)types:

1) Harvard Fish-out-of-water – a tale of an outsider who doesn’t fit into the “Harvard” character

2) Harvard Genius – The school is a background setting for a disturbed or rebellious genius, struggling to find his own way; and

3) Harvard Love – The school a background setting to a contentious Romeo and Juliet tale of love.

In pop culture, all of this onscreen attention reinforces the Harvard brand as both a place of high intelligence, and a place unwelcoming of outsiders. The result makes it hard for Harvard to communicate how it is today, not how it’s portrayed in popular culture. After the jump, we rate some of Harvard’s most memorable cameos and leading roles. [more]

Film: With Honors (1994)

Harvard Genius: Despite his Ivy League education, this Harvard student has much to learn about the hard knocks of life from a man of the street.

Film: How High (2001)

Harvard Fish-out-of-water: This tale of African American potheads enrolling at the prestigious school was released the same year as Legally Blonde, making 2001 the year Hollywood declared war on the Harvard stereotype.

Film: The Firm (1993)

Harvard Genius: Though this film quickly moves from Harvard after the beginning, it’s the perfect tale of a Harvard genius struggling to find his way.

Film: Stealing Harvard (2002)

Harvard as Backdrop: Despite making it into the title, Harvard is just a background character here.

Film: Soul Man (1986)

Harvard Fish-out-of-water: The most shocking detail in this tale of a man dreaming of Harvard Law school? Not that Hollywood thought putting a guy in black face was a good idea, but that Harvard Law School tuition was only $10,493.

Film: Good Will Hunting (1997)

Harvard Genius: Despite the main character being a custodian and not an actual student, this story has Harvard Genius all over it.

Film: Legally Blonde (2001)

Harvard Fish-out-of-water: Along with How High, this is Harvard at its most stereotypical, a school packed with old money and no outsiders.

Film: 21 (2008)

Harvard Genius: This is the tale of a super-smart prospective, but poor, Harvard student using his powers for evil and learning a lesson about the real world. (Benefits from being a real story.)

Film: The Paper Chase (1973)

Harvard Love: Classic tale of a student struggling to maintain his top-of-class standing while romancing his Harvard Law professor’s daughter.

Film: Harvard, Here I Come (1941)

Harvard Fish-out-of-water: Ex-boxer Max “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom arrives as a freshman, only to be studied by Harvard scientists as the possible missing link between humans and apes. (Yes, for real!)

Film: Love Story (1970)

Harvard Love: Love means never having to apologize for being from a long line of privileged, and prejudiced, Harvard graduates.

Film: The Social Network

Harvard Genius: In this tale of Facebook’s founding, the main Harvard genius (Mark Zuckerberg) is portrayed as only likeable next to far more unlikeable Harvard alumni.


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