Ads in schools. Gift or Trojan horse?

The Government may be enthusiastic, but even cash-strapped schools seem wary of allowing ads into the classroom. John Tylee on the moral dilemma taxing academia and the advertising sector

The Government may be enthusiastic, but even cash-strapped schools seem

wary of allowing ads into the classroom. John Tylee on the moral dilemma

taxing academia and the advertising sector

Like thousands of other head teachers throughout the country, Pat

McDermott is having to decide whether to open his school gates to the

encroaching commercial world or slam them firmly in its face.

McDermott took charge of St Anne’s Roman Catholic High School for Girls

in Enfield, on the outer reaches of surburban North London, two years

ago with a reformist agenda and a mission to provide quality but cost-

effective education for his 950 pupils.

Ask him if the need for financial stringency would ever tempt him to

augment the school’s income by allowing advertising to appear in

classrooms and corridors - as the Government would now permit him to do

- and his answer is, understandably, equivocal.

His board of governors almost certainly wouldn’t stand for it, he

replies, and it would provoke the outrage of many parents who have come

to play a highly influential role in school life.

All his own instincts, too, scream out against the idea. ‘It doesn’t

rest easily with me. Exposing children to advertising in a classroom for

up to four hours a day is exploitation amounting almost to brainwashing.

What’s more, children haven’t the intellectual capacity to deal with


Today, however, lofty principles come with a price-tag. The fact is that

St Anne’s costs pounds 2.5 million a year to run and McDermott

acknowledges that he can’t afford to discard any opportunities of extra


Also, in a rapidly changing and evolving world where his charges can

expect to change jobs up to ten times in their working lives, is it

right for schools to isolate pupils from the commercialism they will

have to confront soon enough, he asks.

The controversy about whether or not schools such as St Anne’s should be

free to accept advertising was brought into sharp focus last week with

the news that an Essex marketing company was offering head teachers the

chance to earn up to pounds 10,000 a year for making 100 poster sites


Cheryl Gillan, a junior education minister, stoked the flames by

implying that the Government had no objection in principle to the idea

as long as head teachers and governors agreed.

Imagination for School Media Marketing claims that between 600 and 700

schools have already indicated an interest and McDermott predicts that a

significant amount will be prepared to do a deal. ‘I’ve no doubt there

will be some takers,’ he says. ‘There are enough cash-strapped schools

around that are desperate to preserve staffing levels.’

The outcry against the scheme from teaching unions, parent groups and

consumer lobbyists has been predictable and some of the reaction has

been knee-jerk. Not least from Nigel Griffiths, Labour’s consumer

affairs spokesman, who called for the Advertising Standards Authority to

bring down the full weight of its wrath on the initiative.

Caroline Crawford, the ASA’s communications director, says: ‘Labour sees

us as the cure for all advertising’s ills, which is flattering but

misdirected. We have no power to say where ads can and cannot appear.’

Curiously, it is the Government rather than the ad industry that is

taking the flak for prodding schools into making pacts with the Devil.

As Nigel de Gruchy, the general secretary of the National

Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, says: ‘It’s

outrageous that schools have been reduced to such penury by the

Government that it’s prepared to acquiesce to them dabbling in the

commercial market.’

Meanwhile Doug McEvoy, de Gruchy’s counterpart at the National Union of

Teachers, warns of the possible insidious growth of the scheme as one

school feels obliged to take part merely to keep up with a neighbour.

Their anger is shared by Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of the

National Food Alliance, which monitors confectionery advertising to

children. ‘It’s a scandal,’ she fumes. ‘There’s only so much that

parents will take and this idea is way over the line.’

Agency executives too, particularly those with children of school age,

recoil from the prospect. Their big fear is the inevitable incident when

a school accepts a totally inappropriate piece of advertising and the

resulting publicity which might well jeopardise the self-regulatory


‘You have to ask if it’s worth the risk,’ Ken New, the Abbott Mead

Vickers BBDO media director, says, while Adrian Birchall, the chairman

of the Media Centre, warns of ‘communication going a bridge too far’.

Andrew Cracknell, the chairman of Ammirati Puris Lintas, dismisses the

whole idea as a minefield ‘too dangerous for advertisers to enter’, and

Carol Reay, the chief executive of Mellors Reay and Partners, declares

that ‘even if there was a miraculous way of resolving the difficulties

I’d still want no part of it’.

Hysteria aside, the truth is that advertisers already have a firm

foothold in schools. Removing them is likely to be as successful as

trying to put toothpaste back in a tube. The question now is how the

relationship between education and the business sector can be

successfully managed.

In the US, advertising in schools has been a phenomenon for the past

five years. The catalyst was the marketing entrepreneur, Chris Whittle,

whose Channel One cable network offers participating high schools free

TV monitors.

In exchange, students arriving in class each day watch a ten-minute news

and current affairs programme specially tailored for them, which is

punctuated with a couple of commercials for products ranging from soft

drinks to sneakers.

‘They’re the sort of ads you see every day on MTV,’ explains Julie

Halpin, general manager of Kid Connection, the child marketing

subsidiary of Saatchi and Saatchi in New York. ‘There’s been some

opposition to it, but most parents are pretty relaxed.’

American companies also have access to schools via the National Book

Covers Programme, which allows advertising to appear on specially

donated text-book covers.

In Britain, commercial sponsorship of school learning material is now

commonplace. So too are retail promotions by companies such as

Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Boots, whereby the size of shopper’s spend

determines the number points they can accumulate to enable their

children’s school to buy equipment. The NUT opposes such schemes,

however, claiming they pitch child against child.

In the end, it may be that advertising in schools will be the result of

evolution rather than revolution. Nick Phillips, director general of the

Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, says: ‘Advertising comes a

long way behind the critical discussions about the role of commercial

enterprises on school premises.’

McDermott would agree. St Anne’s is currently exploring an alliance with

Barclays through which the bank would provide help for the business

studies department, offer work experience and donate pounds 1 to school

funds for every pupil who opens an account.

But he is determined the school will not sell itself short. ‘Barclays

can’t just expect to sign us up and move on,’ he says. ‘We’ve just spent

pounds 45,000 installing computers on our two sites. The bank’s

networking expertise would have been invaluable to us and we’d want to

take advantage of it in future.’

For the time being, though, it might be worth recalling what happened

five years ago when NHS reforms gave birth to self-governing hospital

trusts eager to embrace the market economy.

A call to the Department of Health: what happened to that grand scheme

for turning hospitals into the most exciting new ad medium in 25 years?

‘I’m afraid,’ a DHSS executive says, ‘that it just never caught on.’

Sponsored schooling

John Owen

The growth of sponsored learning packs in British schools prompted the

National Consumer Council to issue new guidelines on their use in May. A

Cadbury pack entitled ‘The World of Chocolate’ contains heavily branded

free sheets, accompanied by activity sheets which encourage children to

sample a wide range of chocolates, while a McDonald’s teaching pack asks

pupils to search for McDonald’s products in a word puzzle. Retailers

also regularly target pupils’ parents with voucher schemes of the sort

pioneered by Tesco in 1992. The Tesco initiative, which is still going,

provides an Acorn computer for every 2,500 vouchers collected by

parents. As they receive a voucher for every pounds 25 spent, this makes

the ‘cost’ of each pounds 500 computer around pounds 62,500.

Sainsbury’s, Boot’s, W. H. Smith, Asda and the Co-op have all run

similar schemes.

The teacher’s perspective

Lynette Blackhurst

There is an ice-cream van parked outside my school. Each day at 3.30pm,

waiting parents and their pre-school and buggy-bound offspring begin a

daily battle of wills, as the war-cry of ‘Can I have an ice-cream?’

commences. It is an ideal spot for observing ‘pester power’ in action.

Every afternoon we witness the same tantrums and accusations of

unfairness, meanness, and varying degrees of emotional breakdown among

our under-fives.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for ice-cream as a treat or, I admit, a

bribe. What teachers object to is the van’s location. There is a feeling

that the way this chap is capturing his target market is exploiting us

and our children. But imagine if we opened our gate and allowed him into

the playground?

The issue of allowing commerce, including branded advertising, into

schools provokes instinctive objections from parents and teachers.

As an infant-school teacher, I have an enormous responsibility for my

pupils’ education, not only as laid out overtly in the national

curriculum, but also via the ‘hidden curriculum’ covering values,

beliefs and attitudes concerning society outside the school.

‘Equal opportunity’ is more than a buzzword in schools: it is central to

the ethos of daily school life. Teachers work hard to raise the self-esteem and acceptance of others, and to celebrate each individual, among

children from vastly different backgrounds. Children are discouraged

from competing with each other and materialism is frowned upon.

In pupils’ eyes, if a teacher says something, it is fact. Ideas are

validated simply by being in school. Likewise, parents assume that

promotional literature stuffed in their child’s rucksack, alongside the

squashed banana and latest masterpiece, has the blessing of the

educational establishment. In my time, I have dished out ads for kids’

holiday courses, freebie parent newspapers, charity competitions and

small-business mail-shots.

Often, though, schools chuck out promotional bumph, although deals

offering educational value and low-key branding will be accepted. If

there is anything in it for them, schools usually cannot afford not to

participate. One school I worked in makes children cross out mistakes

rather than erase them because it cannot afford to replace rubbers.

Another I know received 150 free ‘lucky bags’ from a retailer filled

with goodies and Pritt sticks. As Pritt sticks are like gold dust they

were kept, and the rest of the contents binned.

Teachers are not stupid. Many have become disillusioned with big

‘coupons for schools’ promotions, realising that retailers gain more

than the schools. The task of sorting the mountains of vouchers on these

promotions usually falls to parents, already burdened with school fund-

raising. Even teachers have to dip into their own pockets to buy

resources to supplement topics where school stocks fail.

Advertisers should remember that parents’ and teachers’ pockets are

being drained enough as it is without additional badgering from product

hungry children. They might, however, score in poorer areas, where

schools with cash-strapped parents may be more tempted to sell ad sites

to raise funds which their parents cannot.

‘Pester power’ is awesome, even among the very young. In ‘show and tell’

time, infants bring a treasured possession into school to show the

class. As crowds of excited faces gaze upon yet another plastic Disney

character from McDonald’s, anything uncommercial, like a mummified frog

skeleton, stands out and I seize on it.

Power Ranger lunch boxes brim with Pocahontas yoghurts, Peperamis and

Penguins. Over lunch, children berate others for having maths computer

games rather than ‘fighting stuff’. Peer pressure is a driving force -

these children don’t have the cash themselves, but are skilled


If advertisers had their way, how could I teach my class about healthy

eating when ads for sweets line the playground? Or encourage families to

share books when posters for videos beckon through the window?

At present, advertisers do not target children in schools directly,

preferring to concentrate on their parents, but we should not be naive

about their intentions for in-school advertising - in my previous

career, as an account planner, I would have rubbed my hands in glee at

such an opportunity.

Children are exposed to so much outside the school gates, let’s keep the

inside special. Unless, that is, you’re selling healthy Lion King

lettuce or Toy Story broccoli, in which case you can drive your van into

my playground any time you like.

Lynette Blackhurst, a former account planner, is a primary school