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.
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.
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.
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.