Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Tracey Barnett: Soft sell easy as ABC when corporates sponsor schools

It was like selling ice in the Amazon. "What would you think about inviting 10 of your friends for a sleepover party and you agree to show them some free products?"

My 11-year-old's eyes lit up. "Free? Can I do it?"

What 11-year-old wouldn't have sold her consumer innocence in a heartbeat for some free shampoo or videos? She didn't even know it was for sale.

She could have been a "secret agent" from the marketers at the Girl's Intelligence Agency or one of 250,000 teens solicited by word of mouth from Proctor & Gamble's Tremor division, who are asked to talk with their friends about new products, more commonly known as buzz marketing.

She stages the party; she gathers the information from 10 of their valuable target consumers. She helps to create the friends-telling-friends buzz, and gives the corporate suits all the marketing information gleaned from the evening. What does she get for casting the perfect marketer's fishing net? Not a cent. If my daughter had her way, they could have charged her for the honour.

New twist on an old salesman's story? Hardly. There is only one thing missing from sellers' stealth pursuit of saturating our children's personal lives - a stop sign.

Corporations are targeting our children in venues that were sacrosanct less than a decade ago.

Ask Barbara Barbieri McGrath, a former kindergarten teacher from Massachusetts who came up with the idea of using paper M&Ms to help her students learn to count. She sold the idea to publishers and today children can have their first learning experiences with The Oreo Counting Book or The Kellogg's Froot Loops Counting Book. The books have sold millions.

Who would have imagined 20 years ago that we would allow a junk food advertisement wrapped up as a learning tool to sit happily on our school library shelves?

What's more, how much would you expect marketers to pay publishers to have this kind of can't-buy-it publicity? You guessed it - not a cent.

McGrath has to pay them for the privilege of selling their wares. Today she pays the trademarks an initial fee, then more than half of her royalties depending on the deal. "The company generally makes more than the author or illustrator," she said.

My daughter doesn't have to peddle products for marketers at sleepover parties at home when she can now find them in never-before-acceptable venues at school.

She might be one of eight million American school children in almost 12,000 schools whose faculty have agreed to have their students watch Channel One: 10 minutes of daily news, features, and fluff, with two minutes of advertisements. Provided they watch it 90 per cent of the days that class is in session, the schools get free televisions, video recorders and satellite dishes. The kicker for a growing number of angry parents - researchers found 69 per cent of all advertising minutes on Channel One were for junk food.

Many cash-strapped school administrators argue that this commercialism is a necessary evil to combat skimpy budgets. It is a fiscal reality of many schools. The question remains, have education budgets in the past two decades decreased in the same proportion to the onslaught of acceptable branding that has slipped into our classrooms?

We are not talking about identifiable, separate ads found on the back pages of textbooks. We are talking about branding inside the curriculum.

New Zealand has not been immune to the pull of corporate dollars, especially in low-decile schools. McDonald's offers a school reading programme that will have your child doing a lesson that includes, "Everyone helped to hang up the balloons, Daniel put his favourite tape into the recorder, and Dad arrived with bags and bags of McDonald's goodies."

McDonald's has long been a big supporter of children's athletics in New Zealand in a bid to position themselves as guardians of children's health. It argues the reason for child obesity is a lack of physical activity in children, not consuming junk food. Its public relations strategy is that "we are not the problem, we're part of the solution".

In New Zealand school resource rooms today it is easy to find beautifully packaged corporate kitset teaching resources, complete with balloons, stickers and videos. Chelsea Sugar addresses "Sugar and its role in a healthy diet" and uses phrases like "Sugar is sometimes made out to be the 'baddie' in tooth decay".

A South Auckland primary school has even legally changed its name to include its corporate sponsor, Baird's Mainfreight Primary School. The school has painted its hall in red and blue, Mainfreight's company colours.

Can we blame emaciated school budgets solely for forcing us to choose textbooks that sell our children products? Surely it is not only financial constraints but concerted exposure that convinces our teachers to choose free corporate field trips and branded teaching resources?

Perhaps the line of acceptable selling to our children has shifted so far and so fast we simply shrug it off as part of our changing age.

Ask any parent if their child is for sale in any manner and they will read you the riot act.

Ask that same parent what they are doing individually or collectively to stop branding to their child in the classroom, or within their school curriculum, and the answer might be they didn't realise how much of it was there.

So the next time your daughter needs help with her maths - do your homework. It's easy, just start by teaching her the concept of product placement, brand blogging or buzz marketing - then take a gamble her teacher will cover the topic in tomorrow's kindergarten class.


* Tracey Barnett is an American journalist working in Auckland.

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