See How Brands Are Using Virtual Proms to Engage Gen Z

Teen Vogue, American Eagle, and Jack in the Box recently hosted star-studded virtual proms for high schoolers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Check out the creative ways they got students involved.

Jerry Harris, the breakout star from Netflix docuseries Cheer, hosted clothing brand American Eagle's virtual prom on May 14.
Jerry Harris, the breakout star from Netflix docuseries Cheer, hosted clothing brand American Eagle's virtual prom on May 14.
Photo: Derrek Harris

This past weekend, Barack Obama delivered a headline-grabbing commencement speech for the Class of 2020—well, virtually. "Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020" aired on television networks all around the country, and featured a jam-packed lineup of Gen Z favorites such as Zendaya, Yara Shahidi, Megan Rapinoe, and LeBron James. 

But there's, of course, another major milestone these students are missing due to coronavirus-related school shutdowns: prom. While today's teens may not get to experience the night of high school gyms and sweaty palms, the gap is being filled in other ways. In addition to increasingly popular drive-by celebrations, schools around the country have been organizing their own digital prom nights; even actor John Krasinski got in on the action, hosting a prom on his "Some Good News" YouTube show with performances by the Jonas Brothers and Billie Eilish. 

So it should come as no surprise that big brands are taking notice: Recent weeks have seen star-studded virtual prom experiences from the likes of Teen Vogue, American Eagle, and Jack in the Box. “We know our customers, more than ever, are consuming culturally relevant digital content—specifically livestreams,” said Adrienne Ingoldt, chief brand and experience officer at Jack in the Box, which has previously hosted memorable in-person pop-ups such as a tongue-in-cheek art gallery in Los Angeles. “We wanted to create feel-good moments that would have a lasting impact and be unique and true to our brand."Jack in the Box's #PromInTheBox took place on May 9.Jack in the Box's #PromInTheBox took place on May 9.Photo: Courtesy of Jack in the Box

On May 9, the fast-food chain worked with Nice Sweater, the newly formed experiential arm of Cashmere Agency, to produce an hourlong, taco-theme prom on Zoom. The virtual event was emceed by popular YouTube star Jesse Wellens; it also featured DJ sets from Diplo and Dillon Francis, and a surprise appearance from TikTok star Jalaiah Harmon. 

Meanwhile, clothing brand American Eagle’s virtual prom—held on May 14—also felt like a natural fit for the company. “AE is a youth culture brand, and what is more synonymous with youth culture than prom?” explained Ashley Schapiro, vice president of global brand acquisition for AEO Inc., who worked with SHADOW on production, casting, influencer marketing, and media relations. “Music and technology are part of our brand DNA, and have the power to connect and unify people. During this time when in-person connections are lacking, we knew this was something we had to do to rally around our community and bring them together for one of the biggest nights of their lives.”

The so-called #AExMEProm—which drew 17,500 attendees—took place on Zoom, and was simultaneously streamed on YouTube to allow for more attendees. Jerry Harris, the ever-enthusiastic breakout star from Netflix’s Cheer docuseries, hosted; other performers included social-media personality Addison Easterling, who taught attendees a new TikTok dance; singer-songwriter Tinashe, who performed three songs; and DJs Cash Cash, who spun throughout the hourlong event. To make its virtual prom more interactive, AE's livestream cut to a select group of attendees at various times throughout the event.To make its virtual prom more interactive, AE's livestream cut to a select group of attendees at various times throughout the event.Photo: Derrek Harris

Perhaps the biggest challenge for virtual events? Making attendees feel engaged, invested, and involved—from home. American Eagle did this by having the host ask questions to the crowd through Zoom's chat function, and facilitating giveaways of AE products throughout the night. The brand also invited a select group of VIPs to join Zoom as "panelists" rather than "attendees." At various times throughout the event, organizers would turn on that group's cameras to show off their at-home prom setups and TikTok-inspired dance moves. “These individuals included everyone from AE employees and family members to brand ambassadors, and even members of our AExME Council—AE’s group of young advocates and change-makers influencing our business and working together towards a better, more inclusive world,” explained Schapiro. “They have been with us since the start, and we wanted to recognize them in a fun way.”

The Jack in the Box prom featured DJ sets from Diplo and Dillon Francis, plus custom-made Giphy stickers.The Jack in the Box prom featured DJ sets from Diplo and Dillon Francis, plus custom-made Giphy stickers.Photo: Courtesy of Jack in the BoxJack in the Box's prom, meanwhile, took a more local approach by teaming up with two Los Angeles-area high schools. During the prom, both schools had their own private Zoom-based experiences so students could see and interact with their peers. The event’s public-facing content, however, was streamed to Twitch and Instagram Live so fans around the world could tune in. “When we first started planning, we wanted to partner directly with schools in order to create a very custom experience for them, since we knew how important this night was,” explained Ingoldt, who added that the public stream ended up drawing in viewers from around the world, including in countries such as Mexico and Argentina where Jack in the Box does not have physical restaurants. The event’s hashtag (#PromInTheBox) drew a whopping 30 million impressions on social; six custom-made Giphy stickers generated some 12,300 views. 

A third recent prom, hosted by Teen Vogue, took place on May 16 and was sponsored by Axe and OGX. The media brand—which is known for hosting Gen Z-friendly events such as the popular Teen Vogue Summits in New York and Los Angeles—allowed attendees to register as individuals or by school. During the event, students from the same school could see each other and interact through Zoom breakout rooms. (Groups could be as large as 500 students, though some were much smaller.) A "chaperone" from Teen Vogue controlled the main speaker screen, which featured the brand's produced content and celebrity appearances—including Gen Z faves such as Emma Chamberlain, Charli & Dixie D’Amelio, Chloe x Halle, Lana Condor, and Storm Reid.

To further the interactive element, registered attendees for the Teen Vogue prom could nominate their friends to the "Virtual Prom Court," which highlighted students who are making positive changes in their communities right now. 

As another way to engage attendees, all three brands worked to build excitement in the weeks before the virtual experiences. Leading up the #AExMEProm, for example, American Eagle hosted "At Home With AE," a three-week social media-based concert series with live performances from JoJo, Vincint, Surfaces, Lauv, and more. In addition, the brand used its social accounts to help attendees prep for prom night with get-ready programming such as an Instagram Live makeup tutorial from e.l.f. Cosmetics’ global artistry manager Anna Bynum.

Teen Vogue took a similar approach, posting daily prom-focused content—including a mix of practical and fun tips for getting ready for the virtual event with a ring light, portable chargers, a tripod, props, and more. 

Jack in the Box, meanwhile, worked strategically with its sponsors to build excitement. Before the prom, registered attendees were sent digital coupon codes for the night's sponsors—which included 1-800-Flowers, LULU’S, Black Tux, Higher Education Skincare, and UberEats—so they could get physical deliveries such as flowers, dresses and tuxedos, and other prom necessities. “We wanted to go a step further to make sure we gave some of the special moments that are part of the overall prom experience back to the students, such as picking out your dress or tux, purchasing flowers for your date, or getting your makeup done,” said Ingoldt. “We also utilized UberEats to deliver our fan-favorite tiny tacos to students, as the perfect prom snack.” Before Jack in the Box's taco-theme prom (yes, you read that right), guests were sent coupon codes to shop for prom necessities. And during the event, sponsor UberEats delivered the fast-food chain's tacos to students' homes.Before Jack in the Box's taco-theme prom (yes, you read that right), guests were sent coupon codes to shop for prom necessities. And during the event, sponsor UberEats delivered the fast-food chain's tacos to students' homes.Photo: Courtesy of Jack in the Box

Some brands are also using these virtual proms as a way to give back—or to pay it forward. Later this week, for instance, MTV is teaming up with none other than Michelle Obama for its own virtual prom, which aims to promote voter registration for students who have recently turned 18. Co-hosted by the network and Obama's When We All Vote organization, the May 22 event will include an all-day MTV takeover airing prom-theme movies and original content. That night, the virtual prom will stream on MTV's YouTube; the event will recognize and celebrate 20 high schools that worked with Obama's organization to register students to vote.

For American Eagle, it was important to have a charitable component to its virtual prom. Throughout the evening, guests were encouraged to visit to donate to America’s Food Fund, a nonprofit that helps ensure reliable access to food. The brand planned to match donations up to $100,000. “AE is driven by the power in the optimism of youth, and it is with that same sense of optimism and empowerment that we come together to support others during challenging times," noted Schapiro. "With everything going on in the world, it was important for us as a brand to support those in need."AE provided branded Zoom backgrounds for its virtual prom attendees.AE provided branded Zoom backgrounds for its virtual prom attendees.Photo: Courtesy of SHADOW

Up next for brands? Virtual graduations, of course. Teen Vogue plans to host a virtual commencement on May 31 via YouTube livestream. The event will feature appearances by Aly Raisman, Tracee Ellis Ross, Anna Wintour, Stacey Abrams, and more. Students can apply to give a speech during the event through a partnership with TED; 10 finalists will be featured on Teen Vogue's platforms, while two winners will deliver their speeches during the live event. Through a partnership with Adobe, the brand will also create a digital yearbook.

Ingoldt thinks these Gen Z-focused virtual events are a natural fit for brands. “Right now, consumers more than ever are craving connection and interaction,” she said. “Using these events to bring together the masses—or classmates, in this case—to instill some joy is what we strive to do.”

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