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Back To School: Study Questions Ads To Kids In School

A just-released survey of individuals working in youth-related fields revealed a sharp schism in attitudes about marketing to children during school time, with roughly half of respondents saying they have no problems with in-school advertising and the other half saying that schools should be ad-free.

However, the Harris Interactive/Kid Power Poll of Youth Marketers also found that most respondents (64 percent) believe that reaching budding brand devotees in the school environment is “not very” or “not at all” important. Which, of course, doesn’t mean they expect it to slow down: 74 percent expect the amount of advertising in schools to surge in the future.

“Everybody has an opinion about this, and the opinions are very divided,” notes Harris Interactive vice president of youth research John Geraci. “Marketers think that reaching children in schools is important to them, but what this study shows is that you have to be so careful how you do it.”

The primary reason that the issue of in-school marketing remains top-of-mind is the budget crunch currently faced by most superintendents. The few public and private institutions flush with cash don’t have to consider, say, plastering Gatorade all over the gym scoreboard. But when asked to choose between accepting those ads or cutting an after-school music program, school administrators often find themselves in the center of controversy. “A lot of things marketers do help these schools, but there’s a line. It has to be done right,” says MindShare Worldwide senior partner, group research director Debbie Solomon.

According to the study, examples of appropriate marketing in the school environment include sponsoring sports competitions (84 percent of respondents give a thumbs-up), creating loyalty programs that reward schools for gathering product labels (83 percent), advertising in school newspapers (73 percent), and outfitting teams in gear that features corporate logos (65 percent). Inappropriate marketing includes advertising on school buses or book covers (69 and 65 percent of respondents, respectively, disapprove), providing instructional material that integrates brand names and products into lesson plans (61 percent), and in-school media that highlight school events as well as ads (54 percent). Exclusive vending contracts are deemed appropriate by 46 percent of marketers and inappropriate by 54 percent.

“[Respondents] like things that support the curriculum,” Geraci explains. “The things that are favored are the ones that support the educational mission of schools.”

Solomon, a survey participant and owner of a degree in child psychology, expresses surprise at a handful of the activities deemed inappropriate. “Advertising on book covers--I don’t understand that,” she says. “It seems pretty innocuous to me: kids can use them or not use them. And I can’t see why anybody would object to advertising in a school newspaper. That’s part of what a newspaper is. How you fund a newspaper is part of the learning experience.”

In fact, Solomon believes there is considerably less in-school marketing than there was five years ago. “You had lunchroom menus with ads, tray liners, school calendars and day planners, book covers, wall boards, and so much more,” she recalls. “Maybe some people said ‘we have to take a step back here.’”

Geraci is as surprised by the respondents’ overall outlook as he is about any specific finding. “They’re not ducking the obesity issue,” he says. On the other hand, he notes that many of the survey respondents believe that their organization acts responsibly, but that others in their industry do not. “What I worry about is that if you feel like everything’s okay in your own neck of the woods, that sort of leads to inaction. You don’t feel like you have to do anything, which sometimes creates problems.”

As for the future, both Solomon and Geraci believe that in-school marketing will probably evolve in a positive way. “If there is advertising in school, teachers could use it as part of their lesson plans--they could help kids understand how to be responsible consumers,” Solomon suggests. “We do live in a consumer society.”

Adds Geraci: “Some of the dumber things that have been done will go away. [Corporate support] is how we’re going to save non-core curriculums like music, sports, and language programs. Corporations will end up looking more like saviors than like villains.” He pauses for a second, then adds: “Eventually, that is.”

The Harris Interactive/Kid Power Poll of Youth Marketers, conducted in February, tapped the expertise of 878 youth marketing, research, ad/PR, media, education, and non-profit professionals.


Larry Dobrow, MediaDailyNews. April 15, 2004

Copyright © 2004 MediaPost Communications. All rights reserved.