The youth marketing industry’s practices are coming under increased scrutiny by the media, academics, and government. Issues such as increased commercialism directed towards children, online privacy, marketing in schools, the content of children’s media and advertising, and childhood obesity have become part of a national discourse.
This post is going to stress the topic of marketing in schools.
There has been a lot of information and misinformation placed into the public debate regarding commercialism in schools. At Crux, we feel we are in a unique position to comment. We have worked with and for school districts for many years and have close relationships with many school administrators. At the same time, we work with some of the most respected brands in youth marketing. So, the topic of marketing in schools is one we contend with often.
Commercial presence in schools is not something new. Local corporations have a genuine interest in the quality of their school districts. Not only are companies significant taxpayers that want to be sure their taxes are being spent wisely, but the quality of the workforce they can attract, local housing values, and quality of life for their employees depends greatly on the schools.
In terms of brands in schools, there has been marketing in schools for a long time, but it has really been the last 20 years or so that commercial interests really started to see schools as an untapped resource. I don’t think too many people would deny that the level of marketing activity in schools has been on the rise. You can notice this in your own travels in schools. You just “see” brands in school environments much more than you used to.
I thought I would share some of my own anecdotal conversations I’ve had with school Superintendents.
First, when I myself first starting “selling” our research to school leaders, I learned right away that the “pitch” had to be couched in a certain way. I had to show them how the research would lead to greater staff productivity or greater parental involvement in the schools. And, it was the moment that I had information that showed that our studies directly lead to greater student achievement that our services got easy to promote.
Which leads me to an important point: the motivations of school leaders are very pure – in a way you don’t see often in the corporate world. They are all about the kids. If you have a program and want to win over a school administrator’s heart, show them how it benefits the kids. Financial issues are very real to them – but are not what makes them tick.
Second, if you think you have pressures in your job, consider theirs. I’ve been to dozens of school board meetings. These are people that are at the center of many controversies. They are negotiating with the union. A parent has a concern. They have a crazy school board member to appease. The governor has given them some more unfunded mandates. They are adapting to new Common Core Standards. In short, they have a lot of battles to fight. Don’t assume that yours is going to make their priority list. So I learned that early on – if you are doing something that creates controversy, they will shy away.
Budgeting and school law are a big part of their job. But, it is also a part of their job they hate.
Finally, and probably the salient point for those who want to market their brands in schools, is when you speak to Superintendents about marketing in schools, the ONLY thing they will play back are the financial benefits. I have never met a school official that thought allowing marketers into schools is a good idea. But I have met plenty that feel it is a better option than making further cuts to the school music program.
And that is a perception that needs to change.
So, why do we see corporate involvement in schools? First and foremost, school budget issues are very real and acute. But, there is also a sense that society has become so commercial with advertising clutter everywhere, that allowing it into schools isn’t such a big deal.
And, the youth market is seen as a growth area – more and more marketers are developing plans for the youth demographic. The youth market has become increasingly lucrative. At the same time, schools have become relatively poor and more focused on their finances.
This makes a point that I think many people in the corporate world don’t realize. Typically, somewhere between 80% and 90% of the annual school budget is not under the discretion of school leaders. Between the union contract and state mandates, there really is little discretionary spending. The budget situation became dire in the recent recession and has yet to pick up.
So, what we see are schools taking some desperate measures to stay afloat fiscally. Some of these measures would be quite comical if they weren’t true. We have found cases where schools have hired marketing firms to sell naming rights to their buildings and facilities, have held fundraising telethons, etc. We have even found a case where parents held a blood plasma drive in order to make enough money to save a teacher’s job.
Now certainly all schools aren’t this desperate, but they are certainly not flush with cash either.
So, let’s think about it a little more rationally. Why would educators want corporate involvement in schools?
Certainly, financial considerations are important. But there is also a big trend towards narrowing the curriculum to core subjects. Schools are being held accountable for test scores in math and reading. So their resources are flowing to core subjects. This is putting non-core subjects (music, languages, arts) all at greater risk.
And, since the economy hasn’t been great recently, taxpayers have not been supporting tax increases like they once would.
At the same time, corporations want to be in schools like never before. Young people spend about a fifth of their lives in schools, and schools are about the most uncluttered advertising environment available. Also, to some extent the medium is the message – an advertising message delivered in schools carries an implied endorsement.
Finally, traditional advertising venues are not working – at least not as well as they used to. Media has fragmented and the way young people use media has fundamentally changed. It is a bit of a mess.
So, companies do a variety of things. They place ads in the schools, on buses, on scoreboards, and on book covers. They distribute product samples in schools and place yearbook ads. They work with textbook publishers to get their products mentioned in books. They sponsor programs like the High School Heisman, Odyssey of the Mind, National Science Bowl, and National Spelling Bee.
And, in what might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, they establish vending machine contracts and pouring rights for soft drink companies. This created such controversy that sugary drinks have been disappearing rapidly from school hallways.
It is easy for the youth marketing industry to look like a villain, but there are some strong arguments that can be made in support of advertising in schools:
- Companies provide materials and financial support that would not be available otherwise.
- Commercial materials present an opportunity for teachers to discuss media literacy in their lessons.
- Teachers are capable of evaluating materials for commercial bias and using materials appropriately.
- Businesses have unique information and resources that improve education – often better resources on some topics than educator’s have.
- Problems with marketing in schools have been exaggerated. Commercialism is everywhere today and our kids can handle it, perhaps better than adults.
Of course, there are strong arguments against having a commercial presence in schools:
- We are ceding control of education to people outside of education, and education is supposed to be locally controlled. Education isn’t and shouldn’t be a business.
- School marketing efforts can compromise the integrity of education.
- Ads in schools imply an endorsement from the school, which isn’t accurate.
- There is a blurring of the line between education and advertising and kids don’t understand the difference, particularly younger kids.
- Teachers are not appropriate gatekeepers as they have no training in this area.
- We are promoting materialism.
So, how can youth marketers get on the right side of these issues?
Well, some ways of reaching young people in schools are seen as more appropriate than others. Sponsoring sports competitions, providing loyalty programs that reward schools for gathering product labels, purchasing sports equipment with brand names on them, school book fairs, and advertising in school newspapers tend to all be seen as appropriate tactics to reach children in schools.
Advertising on school buses, advertising on school book covers, and integrating brands into instructional support material and lessons tend to be seen as inappropriate.
So, below is our 6 step guide for organizations who seek to further their brands in a school environment.
- First, realize that to date opposition to in-school marketing has effectively positioned youth marketers as the “bad guys.” It doesn’t have to be that way, but the industry is starting from a negative position.
- Improve PR: It is not inconceivable that marketers can be positioned as a “savior” and not a “villain.” Done right, school marketing provides more than financial support – it can provide educational support as well.
- Stop doing the “really dumb” things. Your involvement has to be more than just advertising. It has to further an educational mission at the same time.
- Clearly delineate commercial messages – don’t “veil” them in curriculum, place them in contexts that are obvious advertising vehicles.
- Show that your involvement makes a difference to an educational need, and not just a financial one. I think most school leaders would agree that this is the essential approach.
- Leave curriculum and instruction to the educators, but if your organization has an expertise that is relevant to the curriculum, offer it!
Remember, school leaders have to choose their battles. Your in-school marketing can be something they trumpet, not something they have to defend.