In the Bear Creek High School 2016-17 yearbook, pictured between students Aleah Dean and Bea Dela Cruz, is one Ellen DeGeneres. On another page, Cassandra Gabel’s portrait is flanked by those of Morgan Freeman and Lady Gaga. And on yet another page, smack-dab between Gregory Salgado and Sonia Sandhu is ... Col. Harland David Sanders?
Why are these famous folks, who clearly didn’t go to school together — or to Bear Creek — in its yearbook? And why is The Modesto Bee writing a story about a Stockton high school?
The answer to both questions is: Downey High School senior Hannah Hightman.
The Modesto student did the bulk of the work that put the famous faces in the yearbook and in the process raised about $2,000 for the school, where her mother teaches.
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Her work was brought to the attention of Ad Age magazine, which included her among its “Creativity 50” profiles. She’s in the company of 49 other not-so-famous and famous achievers, including Stephen Colbert, Jordan Peele, hip-hop star Cardi B, “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins, Rihanna, Melissa McCarthy and actor-writer-rapper Donald Glover.
Seventeen-year-old Hightman has written three years for the Downey High magazine, The Realm, whose adviser also oversees yearbook. The summer before the last school year, Hightman had an idea she thought could help the yearbook creatively and financially.
“I collect old yearbooks and have always had an interest in school portraits and that whole aesthetic,” she said Friday. “And I wondered why more people didn’t take advantage of how iconic it was. Why didn’t more advertisers think of that?”
She thought of companies that market to teens. She pictured famous faces like Col. Sanders and the Geico Gecko scattered among senior portraits, and she set to work.
“I was emailing CMOs of basically everywhere I could think of,” she told Ad Age. “Then I started getting responses back.”
Unfortunately, the timing of the responses didn’t work for Downey’s deadlines. She talked with the yearbook adviser and editors at Bear Creek, though, and they were interested.
“I was super happy about that because I thought all of that work was going to be for nothing, but they came in and really saved the day for me.”
The product placements ended up being just two: KFC and Geico. “But since the theme of the yearbook was ‘Out of the Blue,’ I really wanted to drive that home creatively,” Hightman said. “So I contacted Seth Poppel’s yearbook library, which holds the rights to basically every celebrity high school portrait image, and they let us have the use of, like, 20 celebrities, for free.”
Also in keeping with the yearbook theme, the inclusion of the famous faces was kept hush-hush, Hightman said. Only she and the yearbook editors and advisers knew. Not even the rest of the staff. “We wanted that confusion, to match the ‘Out of the Blue’ theme.”
When Ad Age learned of Hightman’s work, it first ran a brief article. “An enterprising teenager might have unlocked the secret to reaching elusive young consumers: high school yearbook ads,” it read.
When it later contacted her to include her in the Creativity 50, “I was really excited,” Hightman said. “... It was a very humbling experience. I think a lot of people would expect to get a swelled head, but it makes you realize how kind of small you are to these other people. Also, I think it’s great they would feature a high school student.”
She said she’s not sought to repeat the project for her own school’s yearbook. “I kind of feel like I’ve been there, done that.”
But if she had, whose picture would she have liked to see next to her own?
“There are definitely a few celebrities in the yearbook I chose because I personally like them, like Stephen Colbert and Zooey Deschanel, so probably one of those two.”
Deke Farrow; 209-578-2327