The Government’s decision to get tough on junk food in schools has alarmed the ad industry, which now fears a similar clampdown on brands in the classroom. But the controversial balance between education and promotion has already scared many brands away. Ian McCawley reports
The Government’s crusade against junk food in schools has left advertisers fretting over whether they will face tougher controls across the board when marketing to pupils.
While teachers, parents and schoolchildren alike appear to be relatively relaxed about brands entering the classroom, there is evidence that businesses are becoming more reticent about getting involved in education.
Even at a time when Whitehall is actively seeking sponsors for Prime Minister Tony Blair’s academy schools, companies are wary of provoking a brand-damaging media backlash by marketing directly to pupils.
The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), which drew up the existing guidelines for advertising in schools in 2001, along with the Consumers’ Association and the Departappears to be getting twitchy about the issue. An ISBA spokesman says: “We are aware of the issues and the idea of a review [of the guidelines] has been mooted. The original guidelines don’t touch on obesity. However, the main focus would be all commercial activity in schools – obesity is just one part of it.”
The Central Office of Information (COI) currently allows individual headteachers and boards of governors to set their own agenda on what marketing they will permit in school. An Ofcom ruling on broadcast advertising to children (MW June 2) is expected imminently and it may have a bearing on the ISBA’s and its fellow stakeholders’ thinking.
Sheena Horgan, founder of marketing to children specialist agency Kids Inc, and author of a report entitled Kids as Stakeholders in Business, hopes the new guidelines will be quick in the making. “The current guidelines say what’s wrong rather than what needs to be done right,” she says. “The new guidelines need to be detailed and specific in helping businesses and headteachers look at the best ways of getting brands involved [in education].
“Brands are very reticent because of the potential for bad press. A lack of clear direction is currently a massive barrier to corporate citizenship.”
Vehement opponents of marketing in schools believe ads can be harmful to children’s learning abilities. Harry Brighouse, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, says: “We have evidence that exposure to advertising causes increased levels of anxiety, depression, and conflict with parents in pre-teen and early teenage children. Schools have no business engaging in activities known to have this effect, which have no educational benefit at all.”
Brighouse’s view is echoed by Aric Sigman, a research psychologist, who states: “Schools should be sanctuaries where children are surrounded by wholesome things, and not subject to market pressure in the same way as they are everywhere else. They should be paying attention to learning, rather than logos and ads.”
For their part, parents seem generally unconcerned about the appearance of brands in schools but blatant advertising is frowned upon. Educational consultancy EdComs, one of the agencies on the COI’s educational marketing roster, commissioned an ICM poll of 500 parents about perceptions of business involvement in schools. Some 70 per cent of parents said they would welcome brands sponsoring teaching material. But only nine per cent were in favour of branded vending machines, and just 13 per cent said poster ads were acceptable. Meanwhile, 72 per cent of parents thought businesses could provide expert resources otherwise unavailable to schools, with only 19 per cent believing companies should have no involvement.
Many schools have already complained that they stand to lose an annual income of up to &£15,000 following the ban on branded vending machines. Teachers, like parents, are therefore keen for advertisers to help fund educational resources in other ways. EdComs chief executive Nick Fuller says: “Schools are quite cautious about allowing advertising, and 99 per cent of branding fits into the curriculum. Teachers are not anti-brand – it’s more a question of what role brands play in schools.”
Pupils are also involved in the debate. MediaCom is in the tenth year of its School Children Attitude Monitor (SCAM), a research project that surveys 1,000 pupils aged between eight and 16 years old, at 28 schools in England, Scotland and Wales, on their attitudes to advertising. The media agency then sells the results to its clients.
Realworld Insight director Mick Mernagh admits companies must comply with schools’ attitudes or have the school gates slammed in their faces. “Lots of schools cover media in the curriculum. But the landscape is very different to how it was ten years ago, and SCAM would be hard to set up now. There would be a lot more weights and measures to get through,” he comments.
Fuller agrees that brands face new challenges and need to be educated. “When Walkers’ Free Books for Schools came out the issue was literacy, and it helped the Government put books into schools. But now the obesity debate has come along, I doubt food and drink companies could start a scheme like that. Educational sponsorship is very complicated. Balance is important, and the line moves all the time,” he says.
William Anderson, an educational marketing consultant and formerly business director at Poise Marketing, agrees: “Brands in schools have taken a knocking. When marketers read that their company executives have been hauled in front of committees of MPs about food and drink in schools, for example, they are deterred from getting involved.”
He adds: “Having worked with schools, there is nothing wrong with brands in schools from an educational perspective, as long as teachers are consulted about how the brand is represented. Rather than just having a poster about the Victorians with a ‘sponsored by’ logo on the side, brands should only be present on educational material for a subject that is relevant to them.”
Poise Marketing produced material about the Adidas Predator football boot for primary and secondary school science lessons on “force and motion”. Anderson adds: “Enhancing education by using real-life scenarios is important. Pupils have to learn about these things, so we recommend companies that fit with the teaching needs.”
Learn to earn
Jazzy Media specialises in selling educational space to advertisers, in return for free exercise books, samples and class activity materials. Chairman and managing director William Rossiter says: “Under our ethical policy, the messages must promote positive themes, such as health and the environment.
“Some 10,000 schools have voluntarily registered for our programmes. Should advertising in schools be banned? No – why restrict a positive activity that is popular with schools and teachers?”
Ultimately, pupils will be bombarded with marketing messages as soon as they step outside the school grounds, even were brands in the classroom to be stamped out. MediaCom director of strategic solutions Sue Unerman points out: “Children are exposed to marketing. By eliminating it from one area we won’t fully protect them. In any case, there’s a danger in not allowing them to learn to sift through commercial messages. I think children are more media aware than people give them credit for.”
Observers agree that the value for marketers of using schools as a medium is almost impossible to measure. But lessons clearly need to be learned by teachers and businesses alike if they are to continue to have the freedom to make their own advertising arrangements.
Some school sponsorship schemes have created a healthy glow for the brands involved with them, while others have been met with the wrath of consumer groups and the educational reform lobby for their ‘educational’ attempts:
Tesco computers for schools has been hailed for providing &£92m of much-needed IT equipment over 14 years. The retailer has now launched a Sport for Schools and Clubs scheme.
Walkers’ Free Books For Schools was initially a hit, but came under fire from the National Union of Teachers and Which? over the healthiness of the company’s food products, and the number of vouchers that had to be redeemed in exchange for books.
Britvic Soft Drinks launched B stars to allow sports departments access to equipment and coaching in return for buying drinks. But William Anderson, an educational marketing consultant, says: “Britvic realised it was fighting a losing battle and was forced to pull the plug. People were unable to overtly support soft drinks in schools.”
Cadbury had to scrap its Get Active token collection scheme, launched in 2003 as an on-pack promotion to provide sporting equipment for schools, after being slammed for encouraging children to eat more chocolate.