We’re educators, not providers of cannon-fodder for multinationals. – Hilary Curley.
|From Village Magazine
Written by Hilary Curley
|Friday, 02 September 2005|
Low spending on primary education means many Irish schools must turn to competitions and other projects sponsored by multinationals. As schools – and advertisers – prepare for the new school year, Hilary Curley reports on children’s increasing influence on their parents’ shopping habits
Back-to-school fever is raging, and while parents fret over school transport and school lunches, multinational companies are quietly restarting their latest campaigns to attract a lucrative market: the 450,000 primary school children who, through “pester power”, now exert a significant influence on the purchasing decisions of parents.
Every school year, each of the State’s 3,500 primary schools gets up to 300 items of unsolicited mail. The bulk of these are promotional materials, in the form of sponsorship deals or competitions promising prizes for the school with the best poem written about the product, the best drawing with the product incorporated or a specified number of tokens collected from the product packet.
“Advertisers are only too well aware of what great sellers teachers can be,” Joseph Fogarty, a primary school teacher in Glasnevin Educate Together National School, Dublin, told Village. “The culture of the education system is to sit and listen to the teacher, a highly influential and trusted person. If the teacher introduces a product into the classroom, children can’t turn it off, they can’t look away, they can’t leave – a perfect captive audience.”
Advertising and promoting products in schools has become common practice in the United States and in Britain. The prevalence of direct advertising on notice boards, the branding of a school by a particular product, such as Coca-Cola, and sponsored competitions have drawn intense criticism from parents and educators.
The Guardian newspaper recently reported that the consumer power of children is valued at £30 billion sterling in the UK,while in the US, the spending power of the four-to-12 age group alone increased from $6.1 billion in 1989 to $30 billion in 2002. It is estimated that children influence a further $330 billion of adult purchasing.
Companies do not need permission to circulate their promotional material to schools. The material is usually sent directly to the school principal and he or she makes the decision as to whether the school will participate in the competition or promotion in question.
The Department of Education has issued a number of circulars about the use of commercial marketing material. The most recent dates back to 1991. It asked school authorities “to consider carefully the implications of allowing any situation to develop which would result in parents being put under undue pressure to purchase a particular commercial product”. Yet Fionnuala Kilfeather of the National Parents Council says that parents are being put under pressure every day by competitions and promotions in schools.
The Department of Education told Village “it would be inappropriate to prohibit marketing or sponsorship initiatives”. It recommends school management boards devise policies in relation to commercial promotions but does not monitor whether these policies have been developed or implemented. It is however “satisfied that due awareness and vigilance already exists in relation to this matter”.
Schools participate in these promotions because they are starved of resources, said Sean Cottrell of the Irish Primary Principals Network
“We invest less than the OECD average on primary education and many schools are desperate for equipment and resources,” he said. “It is fundamentally wrong that schools have to rely on multinationals to prop them up. We are educators – not providers of canon-fodder for the multinationals.”
While some of the sponsored materials distributed around schools is not overtly commercial and pupils and parents do not have to buy anything to participate, there are others that are designed to change the purchasing decisions of parents. These are the ones that cause most concern and originate from large multinationals.
Perhaps the most well known promotional campaign is the Tesco “Computers for Schools” Competition. A token is received for every €10 spent in a Tesco store. Children are encouraged to bring in tokens. Each basic computer purchased through this scheme is the equivalent of 13,690 vouchers, accounting for almost €140,000 worth of sales at the supermarket, according to research done by teacher Joseph Fogarty.
In another well known campaign run by Independent Newspapers, “Building for the Future”, the competition requires that each child in the school collect 30 tokens featured in the daily Irish Independent and weekly Sunday Independent. Collecting these tokens qualifies the school to enter a project to win the €237,000 development grant competition. To ensure that each child has collected the tokens, a wall chart is enclosed with the information pack, which allows the teacher to enter each child’s name and the number of tokens he or she has collected written beside it.
“The competition between young children to bring in the most tokens, at an age when children want to impress the teacher, is intense,” Fogarty said.
Classes were also caught up in the Domestos “germ catcher” campaign in 2003 to promote national hygiene week. The teacher of the winning class received a €1,000 holiday voucher. The pupils won return flights to London with €100 each to spend in a toyshop there. The competition consisted of a cartoon-like poster depicting mayhem at a birthday party. The children had to find the 23 germs in the poster and then locate the nine Domestos products on the poster.
The lack of research on this issue in Ireland means that parents or teachers cannot make informed decisions about which competitions or promotions have educational value and which ones are too commercial. There is no guidance available from the Department or from any of the teaching or parent bodies.
A new group is being established by Fogarty to highlight the dangers of commercial promotions in schools and to act as a resource to parents and teachers.
“We are going to draw up simple criteria to help assess the promotional products coming into the school and review all the material,” Fogarty said. “We will then post this on a website we will set up, giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to a particular promotion. At least it will give people some idea about what they are dealing with. We have to start protecting what is left of childhood innocence and return to educating children.”