Time to get strict on classroom marketing

Branded educational materials are now the norm, but is weak legislation leaving children vulnerable to blatant commercialism?

Pop band Atomic Kitten are three teenage girls who are determined to follow in the footsteps of the Spice Girls and All Saints.

They launched a tour of Scottish schools last week, and just like their older Spice Girl sisters, admitted that performing in schools is an essential part of their marketing campaign.

The sight of the girls gyrating and singing their new song “See Ya” in school assemblies was too much for some in the Scottish educational establishment, who complained that commercialisation in schools has gone too far. Brand owners from McDonald’s and Tesco to The Sun newspaper and Cadbury’s have jumped on the brandwagon, and now see advertising in schools as an essential part of the marketing mix. The Scottish Consumers’ Council said: “We feel there should be some very robust guidelines around the way companies use schools.”

While Atomic Kitten sent the fur flying in Scotland, discussions were continuing between the Department for Education & Employment (DEE) and the Consumers’ Association (CA), about just how such guidelines should be implemented. The only guidelines available on marketing to children in the classroom were drawn up by the National Consumers’ Council in 1989, and relaunched in 1996.

They contain a checklist for assessing whether materials coming into schools meet certain requirements such as balance, type of commercial content and potential negative messages. But these measures have no legal status and depend on take-up by individual schools.

The Consumers Association prepared a report last year on the subject of commercial materials in schools and surveyed 876 parents on their attitudes.

The study’s authors Margaret Atherton and Benet Middleton say the lack of statutory guidelines on marketing in schools “leaves us with an interesting situation over the potential for use of school materials as an advertising medium. Effectively it means that advertising to children, while they are a captive audience within schools, is subject to less control than most other forms of advertising.”

According to the CA survey, most parents do not oppose the idea of brands sponsoring educational materials in schools. “By saving the college money for products, there’s more money available for education,” says one parent, and another adds: “I would prefer not to have logos, but accept that it may be the only way to have equipment provided free.”

But the survey found that most parents assumed the activity was tightly regulated, which is far from true. In fact there are no statutory regulations as to how brands promote themselves in schools. Only two per cent of parents thought that business activities were not controlled. Four in ten had no idea how they were controlled, though a quarter thought it was the responsibility of the school governors. Slightly fewer thought it was the head teacher, 15 per cent thought they were controlled by law and 13 per cent thought the responsibility lay with local authorities.

After nearly two years of discussions between the DEE and the CA, the issue of how far brands should go in targeting school children in the classroom is far from resolved. A DEE spokesman says: “The guidelines in existence are from the National Consumers’ Council, so there are no Department of Education guidelines. There are meetings going on with the Consumers’ Association. It has been a lengthy process, but it’s coming to a conclusion.” He says the talks should produce results within the next year.

One source claims the CA is about to launch a new campaign on the pitfalls of pester power, and force the issue of marketing to children further into the public gaze. A spokesman for the CA says he is unaware of any such campaign. But the consumer group is fiercely lobbying the DEE to come up with statutory guidelines on marketing to children in schools.

The Consumers’ Association says the education ministry is considering using the Consumers’ Council guidelines as a basis, and putting them on a Website for schools to access.

Relationships between the Consumers’ Association and brand owners have reached a delicate stage. The body that coined the term “rip off Britain” is cutting up rough on another issue which is close to the hearts of marketers in the UK.

Following its campaign against “rip-off” car prices – which created national headlines much to the anger of the auto industry – the CA is setting its sights on child marketing, a potentially explosive issue for brand owners.

It is unclear why there has been such a hold-up over producing DEE guidelines on marketing in schools. But as the years pass by and schools are targeted without controls over the way children are advertised to, public concerns will continue to mount. The public is, in general, supportive of brands playing a part in the education system. But their patience may soon run out if they feel their children are not being protected from blatant commercialism.

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