American parents are accustomed to being treated like human cash machines during prom season, spending close to $1,000 to guarantee that a high school dance doesn’t become an emotional catastrophe. A hundred bucks for tickets, and hundreds more for fancy clothes — even the corsage costs $20. And before any of that begins, your kid wants $300 for a promposal. Wait, a what?
A “promposal” is an elaborate invitation to the prom — a concept that first gained web traction in 2011 and now is an institution alongside limo rentals and after parties. Asking someone to the prom has been tradition for as long as there have been school dances. But the concept of promposing took on new life in the digital era. Teens now plot grandiose events to gain the attention not only of their potential date, but of everyone else on social media, in turn generating YouTube channels, Twitter and, of course, listicles.
Students lucky enough to experience a promposal are sometimes on the receiving end of an outrageous, and often complex, feat of planning. One promposal that went viral involved the purchase of Kanye West’s expensive sneakers, the Boost. Another promposal, less expensive but much more difficult to pull off, involved Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz reading a prom invitation on behalf of a teenager. For the rest, it can be expensive cosmetics, Beyoncé tickets, or even a puppy. One thing they all have in common is that parents are picking up some, or all, of the tab.
Predictably, brands have gotten in on the action, looking to capitalize further on the already expensive event. National Promposal Day, March 11, was registered this year by Men’s Wearhouse, which rents tuxedos for the occasion. A branded social media campaign about the day reached more than 2 million Facebook and Instagram users, and a promposal-themed SnapChat filter, made available to students at more than 18,000 American high schools, was used almost a million times.
It’s unclear how many teens ended up with dates that day, but Men’s Wearhouse is hoping it’ll lead to a boost in sales and rentals. Not to be outdone, prom dress retailers are latching onto the phenomenon in store and posting about promposals on company blogs. “We know our customers are receiving proposals, and they like reading about them,” explains Devin VanderMaas, director of marketing for Faviana, a special occasion dress retailer in New York City. “It’s also one of the more searched keywords right now. Girls who are most likely going to buy our dress are also Googling promposal stories. That’s another way for us to find new people and have them discover our brand.”
You know something has arrived in the teen consciousness when credit card companies take notice. Visa, which tracks prom-related expenses in an annual nationwide survey, added promposal costs to the total prom bill for the first time last year. The company found the average American household with teenagers spent $324 on promposing. Promposal spending varies around the country: New England families with teenagers come in at $431 per promposal, compared with $342 in the West, $305 in the South and $218 in the Midwest. Promposals are so prolific that they’re becoming the most expensive part of the event. Total spending on the prom, which includes the cost of clothing, transportation, tickets, food, photographs and the after party, is down since 2013, when it was $1,139, according to Visa. In 2014, it fell to $978 and again last year by 6 percent, to $919.
With promposals on the upswing, parents find themselves more willing to foot the bill: In 2014, parents surveyed by Visa said they were planning to pay for 56 percent of prom costs. The next year, parents upped the amount to 73 percent. “Teens have no incentive to cut cost with parents still subsidizing this much of the total prom spending.”
Conventional wisdom would assume wealthier families spend more on proms, and promposals, but Visa found families making less than $25,000 per year spend $1,393 on proms, compared with families that earn more than $50,000 spending just $799. Visa referred to the finding as “disconcerting,” but the study didn’t explain why this might be the case. In fact, low-income families are often encouraged to turn to charitable organizations, such as Operation Prom, for free prom dresses and tuxedos. The New York nonprofit is considering expanding those services to include promposals.
“We’ve thought about these promposals over the past two years as they’ve increasingly gotten popular,” says Operation Prom founder Noel D’Allacco. She’s working on making her organization part of the process, considering whether to encourage wealthier students to use her organization for their promposal and in the process help fund prom expenses for those less well-off. “We’ve been trying to get creative for what we can do to help that promposal come true.”
Despite the growing trend, not all teenagers are wooed by pricey promposals. “I’ve seen on Twitter where boyfriends buy their girlfriends hundreds of dollars worth of makeup to ask them, which I think is ridiculous,” says Meghan, 16, from Pueblo, Colorado. “People buy their girlfriends fishes, and puppies, and clothes, all kinds of stuff. It’s crazy.” Meghan was promposed to more simply: Her date purchased a Starbucks coffee and wrote “Prom?” on the side and carried a poster reading “This is hard to espresso … but I’ll take a shot.”