One of most popular "reality" shows on American television this season purports to take viewers inside the world of business and marketing. NBC-TV's The Apprentice takes 16 candidates through complex tasks in New York City with the ultimate goal of being hired by real estate mogul Donald Trump. The series, which concludes April 15, has been attracting up to 20 million viewers each week. The Apprentice has also provided some interesting lessons for business students.
The Apprentice began with a quarter of a million hopefuls who applied for a chance to land a $250,000 a year job as president of one of Donald Trump's companies. Sixteen were chosen to be on the show...and they were taken to New York, where they were filmed conducting complex tasks in the business world. Each week Mr. Trump has fired some of the candidates.
Thursday, he chooses the winner from two finalists - Bill Rancic, a 32-year-old entrepreneur from Chicago and Kwame Jackson, a 29-year-old New Yorker with an MBA from Harvard.
The Apprentice is being viewed not just in homes...but also in business school classrooms like this one at American University here in Washington. Marketing professor Patricia Lewis mentioned The Apprentice to her students after finding that the show was presenting some useful case studies. "[I said] 'There was a perfect illustration of this situation on The Apprentice.' Did anyone watch it?' It turned out, most of the class had," she said. "So we engaged in a lively debate about business ethics and marketing. It was a conflict between legality and ethics that the class studied. I went home and thought this was the liveliest discussion we've ever had. People got emotional about a business subject. This is great; people are excited about business!"
Professor Lewis says her class also discussed an early episode of the series, when the contestants were put on two teams, the men versus the women... and they used different strategies to earn the largest profit for their side.
"One of the students brought it up...when the girls used their sex appeal without much substance behind it. But they were effective. So the question is: at what point do you use every tool at your disposal, and at what point do you need to pull back and say, 'I need to make certain that what I'm doing is good business.' Because, eventually, good looks will wear out," she noted, "eventually competition will get to a point where the customer is going to look for what makes good business sense. So use the tools that you have. But back it up with good business sense. And we've been able to show in group activities here how charm, good looks and humor may open a door. But it's not gonna close a sale."
American University business student Lauren Medway says she was bothered by the sexual come-ons that some of the female contestants used on the show. "I think some of the short skirts would be a good example of what not to do," she said. "I think some of the women lose a lot of their credibility. When I speak with other students and friends that watch the show, they have a lot less respect for the credibility of the women when they do that."
Another one of the students, Emily Wiley, says the series has taught her about leadership. "As far as group work goes, it shows there will always be someone as the emergent leader - no matter what group they're in, it's going to happen," she said. "Whoever is said to be a leader isn't always going to be it. And you just have to go with whoever is the best."
Second year MBA student David Osterweil says he might be the best. He is among the thousands of people who have already applied to be contestants on the second season of The Apprentice.
"It's one of those gut feelings. You watch the show and see yourself in that role. I look at myself and think, 'I could do that.' It's definitely a role I could see myself fitting into," he said.
The aspiring restaurant executive says he discusses the television series with his classmates after each episode.
"We talk about some of the strategies they use and some of the personalities," he explained. "In any business lesson, the interactions between different professionals is the most important thing you can learn in business. The way some of them have interacted, you wonder what they're thinking."
But David Osterweil also says the most important lesson from The Apprentice comes from Donald Trump's shrewd self-promotion.
"He's marketing himself, and I think that's the best lesson," said Mr. Osterweil. "He tries to preach all these other things, and I think some people say they do take away lessons from that, but I think he's just marketing himself with this whole show."
The program has been lucrative for Donald Trump, who says his new deal with NBC will pay him about $1 million for each new episode. Meanwhile, Patricia Lewis has a task for her marketing students - similar to the assignments given to the contestants on television.
"We just kicked off a new project that [the students] will do for the balance of the semester. They are individual marketing teams and have been given a brand of toothpaste. They've been assigned different roles in a marketing organization. Their job is to steal share from the other brands... call different retailers, learn what's been effective in the past," she explained. "As we've seen in The Apprentice in different situations, those teams that do their homework win. Those who don't, fall short."
And who will win and who will fall short on Thursday night, April 15? Professor Lewis's students are split over which candidate will hear Donald Trump say "you're hired" - instead of the customary "you're fired."
"I said from the first episode, 'Bill,' and I'll still say Bill tonight. I think he's the elder statesman in the group, as well as he's the one who really started a successful company," said one student.
"I think it will be Kwame," said another. " I think he has a smooth polished veneer, which I think Trump is looking for to head one of his companies, especially if you look at his associates on the show. I think he has the look, and he certainly has the education to back it up.
They'll be watching The Apprentice Thursday, at American University.