Maths, Irish, English…Would you like fries with that? Áine Kerr

Irish Times: Tuesday 22nd November 2005

Maths, Irish, English . . . Would you like fries with that?

A new lobby group is fighting to make our schools a commercial-free zone. School-based advertising is banned in many countries, but Irish pupils have little protection, reports Áine Kerr.

‘Your next lesson is brought to you in association with XXXXX, providers of education resources. Don’t forget to tell your parents that they’re running a special once-off promotion this weekend.”

This is the extreme case of education commercialisation that teachers now fear. At a time when educational spending in Ireland as a proportion of GDP languishes near the bottom in Europe, schools are struggling to acquire necessary resources and commercial companies are coming to their rescue.

Schools, which were once a commercial-free oasis, are now host to sponsors who have awarded themselves an educational dimension in order to meet their “child consumers” who employ effective “pester power” tactics with their parents.

With their direct and indirect forms of advertising, token collection schemes and sponsored activities, commercial companies are confronting a captive audience that is unparalleled in the marketing world.

In the classroom framework where the rhetoric of children is “because teacher said so”, token collection schemes operated by retailers such as Tesco and Super Valu are becoming increasingly popular because they feed off children’s insatiable appetite for collectables.

What schools signing up for the sponsored resources fail to realise is just how much the “one token for every €10 spent” schemes are actually costing, according to the newly formed Campaign for Commercial-Free Education.

One of the campaign’s founding members, Joe Fogarty, claims that it takes 74 tokens to receive a Super Valu nylon bib, which equates to €740 and over 9,640 tokens to obtain a Buntus Play Bag, which equates to €96,400 in parental shopping. He likens the competition between companies vying for the school market to a “commercialism pop show”.

Seán Cottrell of the Irish Primary Principal’s Network (IPPN) fears that the increasing role of commercial companies in providing resources for the new curriculum and school healthy-eating policies will lead to even less funding from the Department of Education.

“As teachers, we try to teach children about critical learning and then we turn around and encourage them to buy particular products in specific shops . . . where is all of this going to end if we don’t call a halt to it now? Look at California in the United States, there’s an entire town there that sold itself to Coca Cola and now everything is branded Coca Cola,” said Mr Cottrell.

He adds that the US-based Channel One, which encourages children to watch a 12-minute programme with two minutes of ads every day in exchange for school resources is a form of “educational prostitution” which should never be allowed in Ireland.

As Ireland plays catch-up with the commercial world of the US, where $600 billion (€514 billion) of consumer spending is known to be influenced by children, more blatant forms of advertising are surfacing.

Under the conditions of insurance firm Allianz’s sponsorship of Cumann na mBunscoil, annual funding provided to the national committee is allocated based on a club’s successful promotion of the Allianz name and logo in the media. Funding is determined on submission of the previous season’s press cuttings and radio clips. No press coverage equates to zero funding from Allianz.

“It’s a sore point with some counties who argue that the system is slightly loaded in favour of the larger counties,” said Malachy McGeeney of the Armagh branch of Cumann na mBunscoil.

As the line between companies providing sponsorships with no ulterior motives and those with a commercial agenda continues to blur, parents are seeking advice with the National Parents’ Council (NPC).

Increasingly, their worries concern schools’ healthy-eating policies being targeted by companies promoting products that are at odds with public health messages and the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum.

Sarah Benson, advocacy officer with the Children’s Rights Alliance of Ireland, believes that citizens have a duty under the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child to protect children from advertisements that may hinder their development.

But when parents voice their concerns, they are objecting to commercial companies that are increasingly sophisticated in their marketing techniques, who employ psychologists to devise their advertising messages and pop stars to sell their products.

“It is impossible to combat the messages of heavily-financed companies who throw billions into their sponsorships, whereas the Government can only spend small amounts of money on promoting healthy food options. The simple fact is that you aren’t going to get Britney Spears to chomp into a banana sponsored by the Irish Government,” says Benson.

However, suggestions by members of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Education that schools are receiving an unprecedented amount of unsolicited mail and are increasingly targeted by commercial companies is rejected by marketers such as Jarlath Jennings, marketing director with O’Connells.

He maintains that commercial companies are very careful to ensure that any promotions undertaken are operated via a responsible adult and that commercial companies are aware of and responding to the current debate on obesity.

Others, however, see it differently. The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has recently submitted two letters to the Department of Education seeking an urgent meeting on the subject of commercialism in schools. To date, they have received no satisfactory response to their proposal to draw up a national framework.

While school-based advertising has been banned in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Portugal and Vietnam, Ireland seems unlikely to follow the same course.

Campaign groups say that if sponsorship is to take place, it should be done without reference to logos or brands. Parents’ representative bodies state that it is the responsibility of each individual school to produce a policy, while consumer groups are calling for a ban.

Dermot Jewell, chief executive of the Consumers’ Association of Ireland (CAI), says products offered for “free” as a goodwill gesture have eliminated the consumer’s right to choice and that the only realistic solution is a ban on commercial advertising in schools.

“If we are to ban marketing and funding, then schools need to be more transparent about their funding and parents have to face the fact that they will have to pay more money . . . it’s a struggle but a necessary struggle,” he says.

But with trends in the UK showing that commercial companies spent upwards of £300 million (€441 million) targeting schools last year, and the Department of Education here insisting that private companies are free to promote their business in accordance with marketing practices, the avalanche of commercial advertising in schools looks set to continue.

The danger, of course, is that as official Department of Education funding remains inadequate, schools will increasingly turn to the commercial world in order to survive.