Written by Nancy Better and Originally Published in The New York Times on May 1, 2013
It was almost midnight, and I was perched next to my teenage son at his computer. He was frantically searching the Internet for a Web site that could produce custom Chinese fortune cookies — in 48 hours. Finally he hit upon a company called Tankinz Inc., and his fingers flew over the keys, “Lizzie, will you go to the prom with me?”
Welcome to the new world of the prom “ask.” Forget about sticky notes on lockers or spray-painted car windows (and don’t even consider the classic telephone call). Today’s students are scrambling to devise increasingly clever and creative invitations. From scavenger hunts to skywritten messages to, yes, fortune cookies, the prom ask has become a major production.
Sam Zuckert, 18, a high school senior in Greenwich, Conn., ordered three dozen pink helium balloons, which he tied with ribbons to the winding staircase in the foyer of the girl’s house. He then waited at the top, with more balloons, a bouquet of roses and “PROM?” spelled out in sticks of her favorite chewing gum, until she came home from school. “I wanted to go for the surprise factor,” Mr. Zuckert said.
Pressed for time or inspiration, some teenagers are turning to professionals for help. The Heart Bandits, a “romantic events” company that handles marriage proposals, recently started receiving prom requests. For one client in California, the firm created a scavenger hunt; for another in Michigan, the firm designed a series of signs along a roadway, ending with an invitation.
“These young men wanted to do something memorable, but didn’t have an idea of where to start,” said Marvin Velazquez, who owns the Los Angeles-based business. He charges $400 for orchestrating “prom-posals” and offers suggestions on his Web site like: “Hire the high school band to ask your girl to the prom. The result will be epic and you will go down as a legend.”
It’s a race fueled by reality TV dating shows like “The Bachelor” and stoked by social media. Moments after a successful prom ask, Instagram photos appear on smartphones, and details are tweeted to friends. A YouTube video recorded in a high school cafeteria in Santa Clara, Calif. — titled “My boyfriend asked me to the prom with a flash mob” — has garnered nearly a million views.
Debbie Baldwin, who runs a child-rearing blog called Moderate Moms from St. Louis, laments the trend. “I’m not quite sure when it began, and I’m sure most of the teenage boys in America want to beat the living daylights out of whomever started it,” she recently wrote on her blog. “But now a prom invitation makes a marriage proposal at a sporting event look like small potatoes.”
Yet some students don’t mind the effort; they even profess to enjoy it. At the Brentwood School in Los Angeles, Adam Halper, 17, arranged for his younger brother and four friends to surprise his date in the middle of math class. The boys trooped in shirtless, with the girl’s name — “S-A-R-A!” — painted on their chests and “P-R-O-M?” on their backs. After a pregnant pause, Adam arrived with flowers and presented them amid cheers from his classmates.
“I was hoping she’d get a little embarrassed and flustered, because that’s the fun of it,” said Adam, who had to get the teacher’s consent and permission from the dean of community conduct before interrupting the calculus lesson. “I had some history with the girl I was asking, so I wasn’t too worried that she would say no.”
Yet etiquette experts caution against overdoing it. “Skip the loudspeaker,” said Lisa Mira Grotts, a former director of protocol for the City of San Francisco and the founder of the AML Group, a certified etiquette consultant. “Humiliation as a teenager causes too much stress.”
Ms. Grotts prefers that social invitations, including prom asks, stay out of the school setting, because students may experience hurt feelings caused by public rejection. She suggests text messaging as a simple, cost-effective alternative that prompts an immediate and private response.
Rebecca Dolgin, editor in chief of TheKnot, a wedding Web site, wonders where escalating the prom ask will lead. “It will be interesting to see how over the top marriage proposals will be in the next 10 years, when these students come of age,” she said. Already, she said, the current generation is making proposals a “much, much bigger production” than ever before. This spring, TheKnot is running the Ultimate Proposal Contest, which has among its prizes a $5,000 wedding dress.
At Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Sandy Springs, Ga., the campus newspaper is also running a contest (BestAsk2013#) in which students tag their invitations via YouTube, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. Some of the asks are dramatic, like the young man who appeared on his date’s doorstep in a giant plush teddy bear costume. Others are quite simple, like the paper Starbucks cup scribbled over with thick black marker: “Be my date to prom 2013? — William.”
The prize: a corsage from a local florist.