Several articles that I’ve read about how children are targeted by marketing campaigns have really stuck with me. One by Story & Simone (2004) was particularly striking in the way that it portrayed how marketers have become deeply entrenched in our schools. Schools are usually places where we imagine that children will be safe from aggressive marketing of products. However, in the past ten years, schools have been integrated into the marketing plans of advertisers.
In the 2007 Report on Schoolhouse Commercializing Trends, advertising firms that target youth are quoted as labeling schools as a good place to “reach” children because of the “highly targeted and uncluttered environment.” These kinds of marketing campaigns involve everything from reward programs for reaching certain goals to in-school sales of foods to free book jacket covers. The largest product advertised in schools: fast food and drinks.
You may be wondering why this is a problem. For one thing, what is taught and presented at school has traditionally been things that our culture considers important truths (such as how to read or do math) or right (such as appropriate social behaviors). The mixing in of product promotion confuses the message for children. Is it “right” then, to drink a certain brand of soft drink or vitamin drink? Is a certain fast food company “good?” When children from the age of 4 or 5 years old are coming into contact with product promotions within an environment of learning, the message is being absorbed that these products are not only acceptable, but good and important parts of life, just like reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Another thing to consider is that fast food companies are also very often closely linked with sexualized media. For example, Subway and Taco Bell, both of which have significant in-school marketing campaigns, were both primary sponsors of the new MTV program Skins. This show has drawn considerable criticism for its glorification of substance abuse and sexual acting out targeted at children as young as twelve. This connection between “trusted” brands presented within the school setting and sexualized media is problematic. If a child has grown up being convinced that a certain company is healthy and good and has developed brand loyalty, then they see that the same company is sponsoring a new television show or movie, they are more likely to want to watch it. That’s the whole point of advertisements, after all, to link things that we like with new things that will entice us to try them out. We all need to be on guard against this invasion of a place that has previously been off-limits to advertisers. Schools should not be marketing havens, they should be places of learning.
Story, M & Simone, F. (2004). Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the US. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 1, pg. 3-17.