'They're Ready to Spend and We Reach Them!'

ALEX MOLNAR

April 08, 1993|By ALEX MOLNAR

"They're ready to spend and we reach them!'' brags Lifetime Learning Systems in a classic Advertising Age ad. ''Kids spend 40 percent of each day in the classroom where traditional advertising can't reach them. Now, you can enter the classroom through custom-made learning materials created with your specific marketing objectives in mind. Communicate with young spenders directly and, through them, their teachers and families as well.''

Lifetime Learning is only one of many marketing firms that specialize in pitching products to a particularly lucrative group of consumers: students. According to Business Week, children 4 to 12 account for $131.7 billion in purchases every year. And more and more corporations are looking to take their share of that figure by pushing ''custom-made learning materials'' and other thinly veiled promotion in the schools.

According to Consumers Union, a non-profit consumer-interest group, students can learn about nutrition using worksheets provided by Chef Boyardee, for instance, or about how to keep food fresh with information provided by Reynolds Wrap. General Mills' ''Gushers'' snack campaign is typical of the sort of educational materials corporations use to pitch their products in the classroom. ''Dear Science Educator,'' the educational packet begins:

''They are earth's great geothermic 'gushers': volcanoes, geysers and hot springs. For centuries, humans have been fascinated by these 'wonders of the world.' Now, your students can share in this fascination. Lifetime Learning Systems, in cooperation with General Mills Inc., maker of Gushers fruit snacks, is pleased to present you with this free educational program, 'Gushers wonders of the world,' along with free samples of Gushers for your students to enjoy for use in the junior high school science curriculum. 'Gushers wonders of the world' will heighten your students' interest in geology and the Earth Sciences, and motivate them to investigate this interesting subject area on their own.''

The teacher is invited to ''distribute the samples of Gushers supplied with this program and suggest that students place Gushers in their mouths.'' The candy is filled with liquid that squirts out when it is bitten. The packet suggests that the teacher ask the class: ''How does this process differ from that which produces erupting geothermic phenomena?''

Marketing firms invariably claim that they are merely providing a community service, and that the advertising benefits their clients derive from placing their products or messages in the schools are a secondary concern. But one prolific classroom marketer bluntly laid out the aim of in-school advertising campaigns.

''More and more companies see education marketing as the most compelling, memorable and cost-effective way to build share of mind and market into the 21st century,'' wrote Mark Evens, senior vice president of Scholastic Inc., in an October 10, 1988 Advertising Age essay that outlined the future of in-school advertising. ''Gillette is currently sponsoring a multimedia in-school program designed to introduce teen-agers to their safety razors -- building brand and product loyalties through classroom-centered, peer-powered lifestyle patterning.''

Mr. Evens pointed out that his company's ad campaign was building on a previous effort by Schick, which ''had sponsored a similar in-school information program that was equally successful in generating requests for Schick (male) and Personal Touch (female) razors to be distributed to students through home-economics educators.''

Other companies attempt to ''build product and brand loyalties'' by sponsoring school contests that offer prizes or cash rewards for schools that encourage people to buy their products in large quantities. In exchange for 5,125 soup labels, for example, a recent Campbell's catalog offered to provide a school with the film strip, ''Boyhood of Abraham Lincoln.'' For 20,000 more labels the school could earn a projector to show it with. Another 6,750 labels bought a screen to show it on.

Orville Redenbacher, the popcorn company, has offered 10 cents for every label a school collected, and Hershey's 5 cents for every wrapper. Wal-Mart gave schools a chance to win a computer by encouraging customers to buy featured products. These are just a few examples. The Wall Street Journal reported that during the 1991-92 school year, Houston schools alone sanctioned more than 100 different contests sponsored by such companies as Duracell, Eastman Kodak and McDonald's.

Of course, ad campaigns like these aren't anything new. Corporations have been pitching their products in schools for decades. But in an age of shrinking budgets and dwindling resources, the temptation of high-dollar items such as computers and film projectors in difficult to resist.

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