Local teens get creative, competitive with over-the-top ‘promposals’

Armando Conover asked Haley Cogburn to the McClatchy High School prom with an extravagant move at a Sacramento Republic FC game.
Armando Conover asked Haley Cogburn to the McClatchy High School prom with an extravagant move at a Sacramento Republic FC game.

During the Republic FC’s recent preseason match against the San Jose Earthquakes, the Tower Bridge Battalion’s cheering section was up to its usual antics, with supporters belting out songs and banging on drums as they whooped and hollered for their team.

But at halftime, their raucous cheers grew strangely personal.

“Haley! J.P.! Haley! J.P.!”

Haley Cogburn, 17, was returning from a trip to the concessions booths with some pals when it registered – the section was chanting her name, followed by the initials for “junior prom.” At that point, her friend Armando Conover, a fellow McClatchy High School junior, led her past the enthusiastic chorus and took his place in front of five people holding red letters spelling out “Prom?” He gave her a bouquet of flowers and a delicate hug as a wave of “awws” rose from the stands. The battalion kept up with the action, switching its refrain to “She said yes! She said yes!”

Spring is prom season at California high schools, and gossip abounds about who’s asking whom to the all-important event. But the days of stuttering through the question at a crush’s locker or scribbling a note during chemistry class are over as “promposals” become the standard for guys and girls alike. The premeditated, over-the-top ask to a school dance is usually done in a public place and documented on social media. And whether it’s a staged production at a sporting event or a punny offer writ large on a front lawn, teens are going to greater lengths than ever to pop the question.

Conover, 17, started planning his promposal to Cogburn a week in advance. The two were going to the game with a group of friends, so doing it there was a no-brainer, he said. First, he called the Tower Bridge Battalion’s leader and asked whether the cheering section would help. Next, he asked his friends to hold the sign and Cogburn’s friends to distract her at the right time. He also had to pick the flowers and find someone to film the whole thing.

“I just wanted to do something special for her, and I thought it would be fun,” Conover said. “I was pretty sure she would say yes.”

“I was a little scared because the whole cheering section was just chanting at me,” Cogburn said. “But it was pretty exciting because it was so big. I love soccer, and it was really cute how he did it.”

So cute, in fact, that couple ultimately won their school’s competition for best promposal, landing them free tickets to the March 12 dance.

"Promposals," or extravagant productions around asking someone to prom, are becoming increasingly popular among teenagers. Armando Conover, 17, asked Haley Cogburn, also 17, to the McClatchy High School junior prom during a Sacramento Republic FC

Students say that social media acclaim and high praise from peers are the marks of a successful promposal. Many teens search Pinterest for ideas or gather intel from a prospective date’s friends in order to craft the most personalized, most original ask.

Puns are a commonly used device, as is food. “Are you In or Out for prom?” scrawled on an In-N-Out burger bag is among the most common gimmicks. A large sign reading “Will you roll to prom with me?” might come with a side of sushi.

The idea of burnishing one’s social status by staging a flashy promposal and sharing it online is a relatively new one, said Golden Gate University psychologist and millennial expert Kit Yarrow. She traces the trend back five to eight years, but said it continues to gain momentum. The word itself certainly has entered the mainstream. Last April, MTV launched “Promposal Mania” – a two-day live celebration and contest around the big ask. This March 11 was declared the first official National Promposal Day.

“It’s so social. It’s so broadcast,” Yarrow said. “And the winners get more acclaim than ever” now with social media.

San Mateo High School senior Brandon Cadiz, 17, was gunning for all the likes and shares he could get a few weeks ago when he asked Sacramento-based Ultimate Fighting Championship star Paige VanZant to his prom via YouTube video.

Hoping the “Dancing With the Stars” sensation would see his message, Cadiz donned his sharpest sports jacket and turned the camera on himself, giving an awkward but endearing speech about his personal admiration for the 22-year-old fighter. He also rattled off his prom date credentials, weaving in childhood photos of himself in kung-fu class and video testimonials from friends referencing his positive personality traits.

He made a point of mentioning that both he and VanZant have dogs, and that they share a birth sign – Aries. “We share a lot of similarities that you don’t know – it’s a perfect fit,” he said in the video.

Cadiz ended the four-minute promposal with a scrolling list of his social media accounts, VanZant’s social media accounts, and the hashtags “#PaigetoProm,” “#FanZant,” and “#PaigeVanZantProm,” asking viewers to help it go viral.

“Promposals can have a big presence on social media if you put in the time and effort for your friends to see it,” he said. “But if you don’t have enough people to share it, it won’t go anywhere.”

The video has received about 6,000 views and enough social media traction to catch VanZant’s attention. She ultimately turned Cadiz down with a video of her own and offered him free tickets to her next match instead. Cadiz said he wasn’t disheartened by her passing on the offer. He’ll be going to the April 9 prom with a group of friends.

“I felt like my video worked,” he said. “My goal was to make it big, and it got there.”

Yarrow worries, though, that some teens might mistake Twitter and Instagram popularity for actual social belonging during a crucial period of development. “If this is somebody that’s already well-connected and (the promposal) is something they’re doing as performance art, then that’s great. But if this is a desperate hope for fame that they’re thinking is intimacy, then that’s sad.”

Students said that promposals are just for fun and are usually executed by extroverted, school-spirit types. While promposals might spur friendly competition within certain social circles, there isn’t a schoolwide expectation that everybody will do one.

Often, promposals happen between friends rather than between people who are dating, said Keri Ruanto, a 16-year-old Pioneer High School sophomore whose promposal was written on a bedazzled Chipotle bag containing her favorite meal. The person asking usually knows in advance whether the date will accept the offer because they’ve already asked casually or have gathered information from the date’s closest pals.

The promposal experience can get expensive. A 2015 survey conducted by Visa pinned the average cost of a promposal at $324 – more than a third of the $919 total that the average prom-going teen will spend on the dance, according to a Visa release.

Allston Segale, a Rio Americano High School junior, broke open her wallet a few weeks ago to buy a Joe Montana jersey for her prospective date, 18-year-old Hunter Hull. She got it embroidered with “PROM?” in white lettering, and brought it with her on a drive to Golden Gate Park with a group of friends.

While everyone was checking out the bridge, Segale pretended she needed a sweatshirt from the car. Instead she came out in the jersey, holding a sign reading “On 4-9, will you be mine?” – a reference to the date of the April 9 junior prom.

After Hull accepted, Segale said she made a point of recounting the day online. Now, she’s just waiting to see whether he’ll return the favor and ask her to the senior ball later in the year.

Promposals, she said, “make the whole season more fun for everyone.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola