Get ’em young

Picture 2Do you want fries with your maths homework?

I did live in hope that we would not go the way of US schools, but I guess it was always going to be a bit difficult to resist. News that “leading educators” (are these official titles?) are willing to back sponsorship of schools by food companies such as McDonalds, and other commercial brands, puts children at more risk than being exposed to what Institute of Public Affairs executive director John Roskam says will be “five minutes of advertising a day”.

Of course, numeracy and literacy programs are critical, but at what cost?

A sensible educator, whose role it is to put the needs of his or her students ahead of other factors, needs to look at the issue from a number of perspectives – not just the income generation opportunity. McDonalds are not sponsoring schools as a community service – these are marketing exercises, focused on introducing young consumers to brands, and influencing their behaviour over the long term.

Businesses sponsor schools to increase sales and generate product loyalty. Schools provide brands with the ability to reach large numbers of children and adolescents in a contained setting (what others might call a “closed market”), and corporations exploit the financial vulnerability of schools by offering to help out with literacy and numeracy programs. Over time, these sponsorships can even allow brands to undertake a range of marketing research activities, from gathering basic data about attitudes toward the brand, through to detailed insights into consumer behaviour of adolescents and younger children that will influence future strategies, including product development and promotional activities.

Over time, it is likely that the schools become reliant on the funds and incrementally reduce barriers to the brands 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 brand is concerned, this is part of a broader corporate strategy. This is what businesses do – this is marketing.

One of the best ways to examine the influence of school sponsorship, would be to look at US schools, who have had sponsorship by fast food and soft drink brands for more than two decades. In Fast Food Nation (2001), Eric Schlosser highlighted a brochure released by a promotional company that encouraged brands to make sponsorship deals with school districts. The brochure claimed, “Discover your own river of revenue… Whether it’s first-graders learning to read or teenagers shopping for their first car, we can guarantee an introduction of your product and your company to these students in the traditional setting of the classroom.”

Schools in Seminole County, Florida took this advice and ran with it. Their school reports were sponsored by McDonalds, and came with a free Happy Meal for students who got good grades. The Happy Meals in the US include a product called Apple Dippers, that come with “Low Fat” caramel dipping sauce and 0 per cent fibre (what happened to it?). Just the ticket to wean children of real fruit…

Sponsorship is an effective way to get children, including adolescents – who are highly vulnerable to promotional messages – to be “nudged” toward your product. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 1982, found that children exposed to just five minutes a day of advertising while attending a summer camp were influenced to make choices different from control groups. Each day, after the exposure, children were given a selection of fruit, juices, lollies and soft-drinks to eat. Children in the lollies condition chose significantly less fruit (25 per cent) than those in the fruit condition (45 per cent).

Another paper, published this year (2009) in the journal, Health Psychology, and written by Jennifer Harris and colleagues from Yale University found that both adults and children were able to be primed to eat more food while being exposed to advertising. She found that children consumed 45 per cent more unhealthy snack food during and after exposure to snack food advertising, while adults consumed more of both healthy and unhealthy food during exposure. She argues that the experiments provide evidence of a direct causal link between food advertising and greater snack consumption, that further contradicts “industry claims that advertising affects only brand preferences and not overall nutrition”.

There is a naïvete amongst many commentators that regresses the discussion to the notion of single exposures to brand messages. The argument is then made that this is harmless, because it is only five minutes of advertising, or just some posters or branding in the gym, but the reality is that these sponsorships are part of a broader integrated marketing strategy, both within the school and outside of the school. All of the brand messages, whether delivered on school grounds, or outside the school, add up to provide an incremental inevitability that makes it “easier” for the child to choose one brand over another, and one product over another.

In other words, if a child is consistently exposed to a particular brand (e.g., Mcdonalds) in an environment where they are educated, then they will make unconscious (and positive) links to that brand. So when it comes to making a choice about take-away food (which all families indulge in from time to time), it becomes easier to choose that brand – partially because of the exposure to the brand at school, partially because of exposure to the brand across a whole range of media platforms, partially because it is easy to access, partially because it is relatively cheap to buy (in the short-term), and partially because it provides an instant reward in the form of sugar, fat and salt.

Usual defences, such as parents controlling their children’s healthy eating, are circumvented by this type of strategy. Parents are not with their children when they are being exposed to these positive messages about their brand, and the schools implicit support of the brand means that parents are not in a position to influence their children’s developing attitudes toward the brand, at that time.

Of course, parents are able to say no to their children when they insist on eating at a particular take-away food “restaurant”, but this becomes more difficult to defend because recall is strong and powerful, and exhausted parents relent. Marketers call it “pester power”. It also becomes a particuarly onerous responsibility to place squarely, and solely, upon parents, in the absence of any corresponding responsibility placed upon schools, government, and commercial businesses.

In marketing, it’s all about building familiarity, trust, and the promise of a better life. Funnily enough, marketers know this – that’s why they spend so much money on research into consumer psychology.

One thing that they know is that the more we are exposed to a particular ad, or product, or brand, the more we are likely to believe that it is a good product or brand. It is hardly rational, but we don’t really think about it. We should, but if we spent our time thinking through every decision in a rational, methodical manner, we would hardly get out of bed in the morning.

As Max Sutherland, author of Advertising and the Mind of the Consumer says, “Much of advertising creates only marginal differences, but small differences can build into larger differences. Even small differences can tip the balance in favour of the advertised brand.” And in marketing, it is all about degrees of difference.

This is how school councils and principals should be thinking. The objectives of schools (and teachers) are to provide children and young adults with the skills to contribute to society, through the development of  knowledge, critical thinking and social skills. One element of this is the development of numeracy and literacy skills.

The objectives of McDonalds are  somewhat more prosaic – they are to sell burgers, such as the Big Mac (with 27 grams of fat, which is 38 per cent of your recommended daily intake) and fries (with 20 grams of fat, or 28 per cent of your recommended daily intake), to provide returns for shareholders. The question is, do these objectives align?

Schools should resist the temptation to commercialise the education environment, simply for the short-term benefits of very small amounts of educative assistance.


This is a longer version of an article originally published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers on 22 October, 2009.



Gornand, G.J. and Goldberg, M.E. (1982), Behavioural evidence of televised food messages on children. Journal of Consumer Research, 9(2), 200-212

Harris et al. (2009) Priming effects of television food advertising on eating behaviour. Health Psychology, 28 (4), 404-413.

This entry was posted in Advertising, Consumer Behavior, Ethics, Philosophy, Research, Social Psychology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Get ’em young

  1. Pingback: The end of Qantas as we know it? | tribalinsight

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