Kids: Is school out?

Britain's schools have failed to follow the US in allowing mass brand advertising in schools. Alex Benady reveals why the UK authorities have managed to just say no.

Imagine a morning in the life of a student at the fictitious Colorado Springs High School in the US. "Mary-Jo" boards the school bus clambering past an 11-foot 7up poster. She disembarks, enters the school gates past more posters for the local Toys4boys toystore and Big Bob's Fried Chicken Shack.

First period is cross-curricular geography and biology. She hurries past posters in the hallway advertising Skittles, and makes for the Coke machine before joining her class. There she will sit through a session about the making of chocolate and its place in a healthy lifestyle, sponsored by the Hershey Foods Corporation.

It's a vision of unrestrained commercial freedom in schools that would dismay all but the most ardent free marketer in the UK. Yet, until as recently as two years ago, such a scenario was (in theory, at least) quite possible in British schools.

"There are no specific laws at present governing the activities of brands in schools," Marina Palomba, the legal director of the IPA, says. "Schools are private property so they can do pretty much as they like. The Government is deliberating on a White Paper on food advertising but even that probably will not specifically mention advertising in schools."

The only rules governing promotions in schools, it seems, are the 600- word guidelines in the 55-year-old CAP code on advertising to children.

It offers well-meaning, but vague advice, such as that ads for children should "contain nothing that is likely to result in their physical, mental or moral harm". It scarcely addresses modern brand communications in schools.

In the past decade, there were many schemes to market in schools - to use schools as advertising channels, to sell directly to their captive audiences and to sponsor nearly every activity, including textbooks and lunches. Many well-known brands were involved.

If you believe the media, this continues. But research for this article struggled to find any questionable in-school marketing.

So British schools are clearly not awash with commercial communications.

The question is why? In part, the answer lies in changes in government funding.

"Teachers were never keen on marketing in schools. But years of desperate under-funding meant that often heads would compromise principles for new equipment or cash. Now that more money is going into schools, they don't need to get into bed with brands," a spokesman for the National Union of Teachers says.

And perhaps brands have responded directly to a profound, almost violent sea-change in public opinion. Galvanised in particular by Cadbury's ill-conceived Get Active initiative of 2004, which encouraged children to exchange chocolate wrappers for sports equipment, and Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school meals, the goalposts have not simply moved, they have been removed entirely.

"Consumer opinion has shifted incredibly fast on this issue," Jim Mullen, the director of digital at Arc Worldwide, who has worked on school-age promotions for Masterfoods and Kellogg, says. "Marketers are parents too and what was acceptable ten, five or even three years ago is no longer acceptable."

This is particularly true of snack foods and soft drinks. So Walkers has closed its Free Books for Schools scheme. Coca-Cola says it "respects the school as a commercial-free zone" and now offers unbranded vending machines to all secondary schools. The shift in public opinion has also affected in-school sampling, which has been stopped in its tracks.

There are, however, two types of activity that appear not to have been affected. The first is charitable schemes, such as Woolworths' Kids First, which has given £3.5 million to improving school playgrounds since 1999. Woolworths, along with Tesco and Sainsbury's, is one of the UK's major retailers of sweets, but they have all managed significant schemes in schools without public anger.

Trevor Dahl, the head of community affairs at Woolworths, says: "People don't object because it provides real benefits for the school. We do leverage it, but very softly. When we hand out a grant, all we get is a four-inch plaque in the playground saying what we have done."

The other area of business involvement in schools is, perhaps surprisingly, content. Increasingly, companies sponsor content related to their activities.

One example was a scheme called Living For Sport, funded by Sky, which helped truanting children set up their own sports clubs.

"Teachers reported that it had motivated teenagers in a way that they felt the day-to-day lessons could not have done," Liz Scott, the research director at the educational consultancy EdComs, says.

"Parents and teachers feel that business can bring another voice into schools. But the activity must have an educational value and actively engage the students," Scott adds.

If brand owners follow her advice, she hopes they will have a presence in schools by steering a middle course between the laissez-faire approach of the US and the blanket refusal promoted by some in the UK.

THE SCHOOL RULES

1. Eighty per cent of parents thought that business involvement was either very or quite acceptable. Six per cent found it not acceptable at all.

2. But only 32 per cent of parents were aware of business involvement in their children's schools.

3. This lack of awareness means it is the advertised, sales-related schemes they remember. Seventy-one per cent of parents were aware of redemption schemes operating in their child's school.

4. Nonetheless, parents do not see involvement as a ploy to market to children. Thirty-one per cent felt that companies were investing in the long-term future of their brands.

5. Only 14 per cent thought marketing to children was the motivation.

6. But parents do fear schools becoming over-commercialised. Sixty-nine per cent agreed that "children should be allowed to learn in schools without being exposed to branding".

7. The most acceptable activities involved businesses sharing skills or expertise, personal contact and real educational value.

8. The least acceptable activities were marketing-led, which used schools as an alternative medium to reach children.

9. Companies associated with unhealthy lifestyles were not welcome in school.

10. Commercial engagement with schools is marked by a proper balance of benefits and a genuine sense of relationship.

Source: EdComs surveyed 800 parents and teachers to establish attitudes to brands in schools.

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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).