Like Mary's proverbial little lamb, ads are also following kids to school. School buses display large 7-UP (“the uncola”) signs. Algebra books sport bright Nike covers (Cover Concepts reports that its book cover ads reach more than 16 million kids).
Advertisers are bound by few restrictions on—and fewer qualms about—what and how they advertise to kids. They also have few if any limits on where they advertise. More and more of education is becoming ad-financed, with equipment and even hard cash being “given” to schools, courtesy of advertisers with something to sell to students or their families.
The Bottom Line
Why is this happening? Because kids of all ages are a large and growing market, and school is where they spend 20 percent of their time. Not only are there a lot of kids (more than 54 million between the ages of 3 and 17), but with their allowances, gifts, and part-time jobs, they spend a lot of money. Children from 6 to 12 spend about $11 billion annually; teenagers have an additional $57 billion of their own money to spend and $36 billion of their families'. Moreover, the youth population is expected to increase by about 10 percent over the next 10 years (Consumers Union 1995a).
Kids spend most of their billions of dollars on food and beverages, video and electronic products, toys and games, movies and sports, and—oh, yes—clothes and sneakers (Guber and Berry 1993). And no wonder: they're egged on by the tens of thousands of commercial messages aimed at them daily.
In addition to spending their own money, kids directly influence about $160 billion of the money their parents spend annually (Consumers Union 1995a). Many kids have a say in where the family eats out and goes on vacation, what car the family drives, and, of course, what the family eats and drinks (Guber and Berry 1993).
Finally, kids are “consumers in training.” They have a lifetime of spending before them (Jacobson and Mazur 1995). As a result, marketers spend their marketing dollars not only trying to develop brand loyalties for products kids want and buy now, but also in developing consumer attitudes, habits, and loyalties that will affect kids' future spending behavior.
A number of forces are converging to pressure teachers and administrators to accept these ads and other promotional materials. In addition to the growing competition among corporations for the burgeoning youth market and the growing commercialism in all sectors of society, there is the chronic school budget squeeze.
Most of the arguments in support of in-school commercialism rest on schools' financial needs and the assumption that administrators and teachers can counteract any adverse affects of the ads. No one contends that in-school commercialism per se is desirable; rather, it's regarded as a means to an end. Clearly, though, there would be no such debate if schools weren't seriously underfunded and forced to accept help from companies willing to give it.
In a new report called Captive Kids, Consumers Union (1995a) documents how the nation's chronically underfunded schools have become ad vehicles for companies eager to sell to this captive audience. The report is a follow-up to Selling America's Kids (Consumers Union 1990), which surveyed marketing strategies used to prey on the psyches and purses of our youngest and most vulnerable consumers.
As Captive Kids shows, school ads often take subtle and sneaky forms. They may be disguised as sponsored educational materials (BIC's “Quality Comes in Writing,” Domino Pizza's “Encounter Math”); as contests (Oxy 10's $10,000 Scholarship Contest,” Sears Optical's “The Eyes Have It”); or even as reading incentive programs (McDonald's “All-American Reading Challenge,” Toys 'R Us's “Geoffrey's Reading Railroad”).
Place ads appear in classroom magazines, such as Weekly Reader and Scholastic. In fact, the two biggest developers of corporate-sponsored educational materials and programs, Scholastic Inc. and Lifetime Learning Systems, claim to reach 88 and nearly 100 percent of the nation's schools, respectively. (The latter organization has distributed nutrition information packets for preschoolers with more than 1 million samples of General Mills' snack food, Fruit Roll-Ups.) These products are just the tip of the iceberg.
Commercials have also infiltrated in-school radio and TV programs, such as the ad-sponsored daily classroom news program, Channel One. The 12-minute program, which claims to reach 8 million students in grades 6–12, includes 2 minutes of commercials. (By contrast, the other main daily classroom news program, CNN Newsroom, is 15 minutes long with no commercials.)
Here is a sampling of the ad messages (and innuendoes) that Channel One broadcast to students from April 4–8, 1994—with the implied endorsement of teachers and principals:
- “CareFree bubble gum is bursting with flavor.” (Kids who chew it have great fun.)
- Clearasil's medicated formula “leaves no oily residue.” (Gorgeous, clear-skinned, fun-loving kids use it.)
- “Drink Pepsi. Have fun.” (Pepsi drinkers are cool and hip.)
- Secret deodorant is “strong enough for him (handsome teenager) but pH-balanced just for you (female teenager).” (Girls who use Secret attract guys.)
- Snickers candy bars can “stop the hunger inside you” (and help you win big in sports).
In Captive Kids, we evaluated more than 100 educational and so-called educational materials, contests, and other programs sponsored by businesses and trade groups. We found that more than half were commercial or highly commercial. And we found that nearly 80 percent of the teaching kits and packets contained biased or incomplete information, promoting consumption of the sponsor's product or service or a position that favors the company or its economic agenda.
Among the more blatantly commercial and biased:
- A Procter & Gamble educational packet, “Decision: Earth,” which taught that clear-cut logging is good for the environment (“It mimics nature's way of getting rid of trees”) and that disposable diapers are better for the environment than are cloth ones. So blatantly commercial and biased was this material that a coalition of environmentalists organized by the cloth diaper industry asked attorneys general in 11 states to investigate the kit's truthfulness.
Proctor & Gamble, the country's largest manufacturer of disposable diapers, had financed the study that produced those results. The company stopped distributing the kit in early 1994, but it continues to distribute another packet, Planet Patrol, which is nearly as biased.
- Campbell's “Prego Thickness Experiment,” designed “to help your students become aware of the many situations in which scientific thinking plays a part.” The experiment quickly degenerates into a way for kids to prove its ad claim—that Prego spaghetti sauce is thicker than Ragu spaghetti sauce.
- National Live Stock and Meat Board teaching kits plugging pro-meat viewpoints into almost every curriculum area. “Digging for Data,” which ostensibly teaches methods of scientific inquiry, provides data and actually leads students to deduce that early American settlers were short because they didn't eat enough meat.
- Kellogg's “Kids Get Going With Breakfast” program presents fat content as the sole concern when choosing a breakfast food; sugar and sodium content aren't mentioned. The program also prominently displays the Kellogg's logo and one of its cereals.
An Easy Mark
Because kids are more impressionable than adults, less sure of themselves, and less capable of sorting out fact from fiction, advertising can affect their thinking and behavior. Young children, in particular, have difficulty distinguishing between advertising and reality in ads, and ads can distort their view of the world.
Although older kids have some ability to see past the hype and manipulation, most haven't fully developed those skills. And even kids who have become media savvy can fall prey to ads that play on their insecurities. At the very least, sneaky advertising can spur kids to waste money on things they don't really need. It can encourage kids to become materialistic, giving them a desire for expensive products or leading them to equate consumption with happiness. Ads can influence values and contradict the lessons parents and teachers are trying to teach kids, leading to struggles with parents over buying and consumption.
Countless ads play on kids' insecurities. They imply that if kids lack certain products, they're losers; if they aren't skinny and beautiful or strong and muscular, they're nothing. Such ads can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. They can even promote desires for harmful or unhealthful products and lifestyles, or make unhealthy behaviors seem normal (Consumers Union 1990, Center for the Study of Media and Values 1993, Jacobson and Mazur 1995, Molnar in press).
A 1992 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 9 out of 10 food ads on Saturday morning TV were for candy bars, sugary cereals, salty chips, or other nutritionally flawed foods. Researchers have found links between TV commercials and obesity and elevated levels of cholesterol in children (Jacobson and Mazur 1995).
In the March 1995 Consumer Reports, we describe how effectively cigarette marketing tactics influence young consumers. In fact, the more money spent advertising a particular cigarette brand to young consumers, the more popular that brand is among smokers under 18. For example, in the late 1960s, Virginia Slims were introduced—the first cigarette targeted (and heavily advertised) to women. Also in the late 1960s, there was a sharp rise in the percentage of teenage girls (but not boys) who started smoking (Consumers Union 1995b).
Because fewer than 10 percent of smokers start smoking after turning 20, kids are the only new fertile ground for the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry claims it has no intention of marketing to youngsters, but its ad campaigns show otherwise. Tobacco ads appear in magazines popular with teenagers and on billboards in places they're likely to be—at sporting events and on the way to school, for example.
Beer and other alcoholic beverages are similarly marketed. According to the Center for the Study of Media and Values (1993), if you're not a heavy drinker by age 25, you aren't likely to become one. Although the makers of alcoholic beverages deny it, a survey of ads by the center shows that many target young people.
Have It Your Way
A number of education groups, including the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National Parent Teacher Association, and the National Education Association, have taken strong stands against commercialism in schools and have developed guidelines for accepting advertising in schools.
In addition, two consumer interest groups, the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business (SOCAP) and Consumers International (formerly International Organization of Consumers Unions), have prepared voluntary guidelines for education materials sponsored by businesses. The SOCAP guidelines represent the best corporate thinking on the subject. Both sets of guides say materials should be
- clearly written,
- non-discriminatory, and
Although Consumers Union believes schools should be ad-free zones, we support the standards called for in the SOCAP and Consumers International guidelines (SOCAP 1989, IOCU 1989). We have called on business leaders, educators, parents, and government to work together to embrace practical, responsible approaches that will protect the educational integrity of our school systems.
To prevent classrooms from becoming purveyors of commercial messages or influences, the education community should take the following steps:
- Require sponsored programs and materials to undergo the same review and meet the same standards as other curriculum materials, using SOCAP or Consumers International guidelines.
- Reject the idea that allowing advertising in the school is an ethical way to acquire materials or finance education, and instead pursue noncommercial partnerships with business.
- Educate children about how to deal with propaganda and commercial messages—a lifelong tool—by helping them analyze ads, demythologize products, evaluate sources of information, and clarify alternatives in the marketplace. This media literacy and consumer education should begin in the elementary grades.
Nurturing Media Literacy
Consumers Union developed Zillions magazine (formerly Penny Power) and a classroom program based on the magazine as a way to help kids become media-literate. Our threefold objective:
- To help kids see past product hype and detect false and inflated advertising claims.
- To help kids manage their money wisely—to become thoughtful consumers.
- To advise kids on dealing with peer pressures and other problems they face each day.
As readers of Zillions can tell you, marketers have some pretty sneaky ways of advertising to kids. Nine- to fourteen-year-old subscribers send in lots of examples, including nominees for the magazine's annual ZAP award (as in “Zap it off the air, please”). The more rotten the ad, the more Zs in its ZAP. Recent winners (or should we say losers) included ads for the Real Power Tool Shop, Gymnast Barbie, and Frosted Flakes (“ZAP Awards” 1993–94, 1994–95). What was wrong with these and other ads?
- Many were misleading. Some claimed or implied that using the product would make kids more competent or even more popular.
- A large number contained half truths or outright lies. Some misrepresented the size and appearance of the product; some omitted important information that would make the claims made seem implausible; some failed to show products being used in a normal setting; some used sneaky techniques to make products seem to do what they couldn't.
- Many used advertising techniques designed to hook kids by playing on their emotional vulnerabilities and insecurities—celebrity endorsements, sex appeal, cute pets, pop music, fast-paced action, fun, joy, romance.
Consumers Union's concerns go beyond the school environment to address the larger issue of the ethics of marketing to kids. We believe promotions that target kids must meet higher standards than those aimed at adults. They should clearly identify themselves as advertising and should not pitch unhealthful products or exploit kids' trustfulness, inexperience, and vulnerabilities. Living up to these standards is a responsibility not only of sellers, but of publishers and broadcasters as well.
Finally, we believe children need to learn that not every product can be wanted, not every want can be a need, and not every need can be met. Indeed, as many adults have discovered, the most important needs in life usually can't be met by products but are more profound—needs for affection, self-esteem, good relationships, and the satisfaction of being responsible citizens.
Helping kids grow into sensible and fulfilled adults entails helping them to learn to manage their wants, their needs, their money, their health, and their values and dreams. No easy task for teachers or parents—and a task made more difficult by the growing commercial pressures on kids. Teachers, who are aware of commercial techniques and how to help children deal with them, have an important role to play.
Center for the Study of Media and Values. (1993). AdSmarts: A Media Literacy Curriculum. Los Angeles: Scott Newman Center.
Consumers Union Education Services. (1995a). Captive Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids at School. Yonkers, N.Y.: Consumers Union.
Consumers Union Education Services. (March 1995b). “Hooked on Tobacco: The Teen Epidemic.” Consumer Reports. Yonkers, N.Y.: Consumers Union.
Consumers Union Education Services. (1990). Selling America's Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids of the 90s. Yonkers, N.Y.: Consumers Union.
Guber, S., and J. Berry. (1993). Marketing To and Through Kids. New York: McGraw-Hill.
International Organization of Consumers Union (IOCU). (1989). IOCU Code of Good Practice and Guidelines for Controlling Business-Sponsored Educational Materials in Schools. London: IOCU.
Jacobson, M. F., and L. A. Mazur. (1995). Marketing Madness: A Survival Guide for a Consumer Society. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press Inc.
Molnar, A. (In press). Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialization of American School Reforms. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press Inc.
Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business (SOCAP). (1989). Guidelines for Business-Sponsored Materials. Alexandria, Va.: SOCAP.
“ZAP Awards.” (December 1993/January 1994, December 1994/January 1995). Zillions: From Consumer Reports for Kids. Yonkers, N.Y.: Consumers Union.
Authors' note: For the complete text of Captive Kids, send $3 to Consumers Union Education Services. Also available: Tips and Guidelines for Evaluating Sponsored Educational Materials.
Rhoda H. Karpatkin is President, and Anita Holmes is Assistant Director of Education Services, Consumers Union, 101 Truman Ave., Yonkers, NY 10703.