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Why schools and corporate brands shouldn’t mix

The furore following the announcement that Jenny Craig CEO Amy Smith would address a gathering of hundreds of girls' school teachers has once again brought the uncomfortable issue of corporate presence…

Businesses sponsor schools to increase sales and generate product loyalty. Elizabeth/Table4Five

The furore following the announcement that Jenny Craig CEO Amy Smith would address a gathering of hundreds of girls' school teachers has once again brought the uncomfortable issue of corporate presence in schools to light.

The public response – that school groups should not be seen to endorse the dieting industry – is certainly warranted. But such corporate presence in education is really just the tip of the iceberg.

Over the past two decades, fast food companies, financial institutions, supermarkets and other businesses have found increasingly innovative ways to build brand awareness among not only teachers, but also a captive and impressionable audience of school children.

Positive associations

As much as we try to rationalise our consumer choices, many of our decisions are automatic. This makes sense – thinking through every decision would take enormous effort, so our brains have to be efficient. If we have strong associations, the brand is familiar and it’s convenient for us to buy the product, we flick the switch to automatic: “let’s just buy it”.

Businesses sponsor schools to increase sales and generate product loyalty. And schools provide companies with the opportunity to expose their brand to large numbers of children and adolescents in a contained setting.

So when executives representing PepsiCo’s Gatorade brand approach a secondary school to talk to students about fitness and hydration, teachers become complicit (and unpaid promoters) in a corporate marketing activity.

Similarly, when Coles asks schools to collect coupons for sporting equipment, they are reinforcing positive associations with the Coles brand. And in the highly competitive retail environment, every tiny association counts.

And when kindergarten fund-raising drives are built around sales of Freddo Frogs and Caramello Koalas, they are doing a long-term branding favour for Cadbury (owned by Kraft Foods).

Sponsorship deals can even allow businesses to undertake market research in the school environment, from gathering basic data about attitudes to the brand, through to gaining detailed insights into the consumer behaviour of adolescents and younger children. This data influences future strategies, product development and promotional activities.

Over time, schools become reliant on corporate funds and may incrementally reduce barriers to a brand’s involvement in the school. What starts out as a simple poster thanking the brand for their sponsorship, may lead to preference of that brand’s products over others at the school.

As far as the company is concerned, this is part of a broader corporate brand strategy – it’s marketing 101.

Bad habits

When health psychology researcher Jennifer Harris and her colleagues at Yale University examined the impact of advertising on adult and child food choices, they found both groups were primed to eat more food when they were exposed to advertising.

Children consumed 45% more unhealthy snack foods during and after exposure to snack food advertising, while adults consumed more of both healthy and unhealthy food during exposure. Harris argues this shows a direct causal link between food advertising and greater snack consumption, which further contradicts industry claims that “advertising affects only brand preferences and not overall nutrition”.

A single exposure to a brand message, or some posters or branding in the school gymnasium, is not harmless. All brand messages, whether delivered on school grounds, or outside the school, add up to an incremental inevitability that the child will favour one brand over another, and one product over another.

If children are consistently exposed to a particular brand (say, McDonald’s) in an environment where they are educated, they will make unconscious (and positive) links to that brand. If they then see the brand on television, on outdoor advertising, even the logo as they drive past the store, this connection is reinforced.

So when it comes to making a choice about take-away food (which most families indulge in from time to time), it becomes easier to choose that brand. It’s also relatively cheap to buy, and provides instant rewards in the form of sugar, fat and salt.

Parental control

Usual defences against corporate influence, such as parents controlling their child’s healthy eating, are circumvented by this type of marketing. Parents are not with their children when they are exposed to these positive brand messages and the school’s implicit support of the brand reduces parents' ability to counter the influence.

Of course, parents are able to say no to their children when they insist on eating at a particular fast food restaurant. But this becomes more difficult to defend when the child’s recall is strong and powerful – marketers call this “pester power”.

The objective of schools (and teachers) is to provide children and young adults with the skills to contribute to society, through the development of knowledge, critical thinking and social skills.

The objectives of corporations are somewhat more prosaic – they are to sell their products, and make a return for their shareholders and owners. Although many of these large businesses work hard to promote their corporate social responsibility credentials, the bottom line is paramount. This is why most corporate social responsibility (CSR) divisions reside in the marketing area - it’s primarily seen as a marketing and promotional activity.

Of course children should be exposed to the outside world, and the corporate world forms part of this exposure. But marketing is all about trust and the promise of a better life. School councils and principals must consider this influence before allowing the corporate sector into their schools.

Join the conversation

17 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Fair comment - businesses have an agenda when they enter schools.

    I'd only suggest all organisations have an agenda. So when an environmentalist from Greenpeace, or an economist from the IPA, or a Buddhist, visits a school to speak to children, their aim is also to increase the influence of their organisation and its ideas.

    That's not a bad thing, however. Paul Harrison rightly says we have to develop students' critical thinking skills. The more exposure students have to different agendas - and the more power we give students to evaluate these ideas - the better.

    The alternative is that students mainly experience the one world view of their teacher. That's not rich and varied input.

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    1. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to James Jenkin

      James - if you're equating McDonalds, Coles or other retailers with Greenpeace or Buddhists, can you please clarify exactly what commercial products Greenpeace and Buddhists exist solely to sell?

      cheers.

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    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Their immediate aim might not be to make money - but all organisations want influence and power. That's all I'm suggesting

      I'm really interested why you left out the IPA - are right-wing lobby groups not so trustworthy? I'm not being facetious, I really am interested.

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    3. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to James Jenkin

      James, because I'm Scottish and to any Scot those three letters mean only one thing: India Pale Ale.

      I'm not being facetious, either, I had to google the acronym just now. Having limited time to procrastinate, I stuck to what I knew in my comment.

      I don't know of any cases of any environmental organisations, religious representatives (apart from S.R.E.) or think-tanks rocking up in schools in all the time I've worked in them. Mostly lots of junk-food manufacturers and food retailers who have a reputation for treating their suppliers - ahem - not too well.

      I think the case against junk-food is obvious enough but I'd like to broaden it to the consumerist pressure for more and more stuff. There's a good deal of evidence to show that more consumption does not lead to more happiness - I think teachers have a moral obligation to pass that information on, especially when society is being bombarded, by advertisers, with the opposite message.

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    4. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Hi Lorna, IPA - that's very funny!

      I actually agree completely that students have to learn to deal with consumerist pressure. But I'd say the best way to do that is exposing students to real messages at school, and confronting them head on - not cocooning students, so after class they're innocent victims at the mercy of marketers.

      Maybe I'm out of touch, but when I went to school we had lots of guest speakers from environmental groups, political groups, even the Hare Krishnas! If that's not happening now I think it should, and teachers can help students respond critically to the messages.

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  2. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    "If children are consistently exposed to a particular brand ..in an environment where they are educated, they will make unconscious (and positive) links to that brand."

    One state (QLD) gave every teacher a laptop, and the teachers wanted 20 pieces of software placed on those laptops. Every piece of software was imported from US companies with nothing from Australia. When NSW gave every student a laptop, 30 pieces of software were placed on the laptops, and every piece of software was imported from US companies with nothing from Australia. As well, look around any school, and it is almost impossible to find a "Made in Australia" sticker anywhere, and almost everything is imported.

    It reinforces into the student’s mind that nothing produced in Australia is any good, and when chosing to buy something, their minds will make unconscious links to products made outside the country.

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    1. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Off-topic again Dale, but maybe I can answer the question you keep asking about the lack of "made in Australia" stickers on computers etc.

      Australians can't legally be paid the slave-wages, or made to work the slave-conditions, that most manufacturers of electronic goods impose on their workers in order to shave margins, push up profits, and keep flicking out new versions.

      Personally I'd pay more for a device that wasn't made using slave labour (as I already do for chocolate) - but I'd expect the damn thing to last. Electronic devices like smart phones are being sold as fashion accessories, "updated" every time a new version comes out, and people are buying iPads even thought they have no real use for them.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      My concern is that the huge amounts the education system is importing into schools and universities encourages students to import also, and never produce anything.

      We also have situations in schools and TAFE colleges where courses in “Excel” or “Word” are run, and not courses in spreadsheets or word processors, but “Excel” and “Word” are actually brand names.

      Or while we may want to be a high skilled and high tech country that carries out value adding, nearly all the equipment for teaching is now being imported, and the education system is just a customer.

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    3. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Sorry no time to reply, propriety stats package license expires today, uni does not provide replacement.

      Oh the irony.

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    4. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Lorna
      Yes, I have done a statistics courses through a university also, and every textbook and piece of software was imported (from the US), and had to be purchased by the student.

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  3. Adam Spence

    logged in via Facebook

    Not quite the same context, but the GFC and federal funding combined are putting great pressure on the higher education sector. Several Universities including ANU, Monash and Sydney have announced hundreds of job cuts.

    University of Canberra has also had to make cuts, yet recently announced a very generous naming rights sponsorship of ACT Rugby team The Brumbies.

    There's a place for commercial interests in schools, sporting goods companies for example are very helpful. But commercial partnerships can't be allowed to take away from the core of what education institutions are intended to do.

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  4. Lorna Jarrett

    PhD, science educator and science advocate

    I've seen McDonalds "buy one get one free" vouchers handed out as rewards on one school. That's right - "BUY ONE" vouchers!! I've also been constantly pestered to buy sugar products laced with traces of cocoa harvested by child-slave workers in Africa - "do your bit for the school by acquiring type-2 diabetes and tooth decay!".

    Paul - you're absolutely on the money. Public schools are underfunded, and retailers are ruthless. It's a dangerous combination.

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  5. Roger Jones

    Australian Citizen

    The fact is that the CEO of Jenny Craig was approached by the conference committee and asked to speak not about Jenny Craig but as an 'old girl' of the Grammar about her achievements as a woman in the corporate world. The speech and panel discussion was not to students but to a teachers conference.

    It is hard enough for young women to fight their way to success in a male dominated corporate world without this sort of false drama thrown in their way. Maybe we should also ban successful people like Gail Kelly from speaking to schools because she is the CEO of an 'evil' bank having once been a school teacher.

    This is different from companies coming to sell burgers to kids in schools.

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  6. Pauline Miles

    Arts Practitioner/Practicing Artist

    This totally a ploy to get the corporate propaganda on the agenda using our young people who are vulnerable to the fashions of the day that are touted as being the thing you should be doing in order to be one of the crowd. Irresponsible if this is not coupled with critical debate and an avenue for kids to be taught the skills of critical thinking. Whilst I agree with many of the ideas expressed by others, there is a need for not just children but adults to think critically. I do hope the teachers that this is aimed at have the ability to flesh out what the messages they are exposed to and take the responsibility to think critically about what they are hearing.

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  7. Dawn Riley

    logged in via email @yahoo.com.au

    Big Fat Lies

    How the Diet Industry Is Making You Sick, Fat and Poor

    Author: David Gillespie

    published 2012

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