Own ’em young

Get educated:

For more information, contact the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education at unplug@igc.org or visit www.commercialfree.org.

“If you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come. More and more companies are saying, ‘Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger.’ ”

Mike Searles, former president of Kids-R-Us

remarks on marketing to children

It was no big surprise when the Roseville Joint Union High School District voted unanimously last week to approve a five-year contract with Pepsi Bottling Company. The soda firm agreed to pay $1.2 million (a one-time payment of $75,000 plus an extra $40,000 a year, plus annual “product donations”) in exchange, primarily, for the exclusive right to install a new vending machine on each campus in the district.

Why is a simple vending machine in a school worth all that dough?

The answer, of course, is that the Pepsi people stand to gain huge profits over the long years from the exclusive placement of their giant advertisement (a 5-and-a-half-feet-tall glowing, red-white-blue, neon Pepsi machine!) in a location where kids will see it everyday.

They’ll develop a taste for Pepsi. They’ll develop a loyalty to Pepsi. They’ll influence their parents (to the tune of $300 billion a year!) to buy Pepsi and other food products that are constantly being promoted to them via television ads, billboards, logo emblazoned T-shirts and, yes, vending machines.

So when did schools become such a marketing opportunity? Since corporations found out that it pays to hit ’em while they’re young. Dozens of companies now create “free” ready-made lessons for teachers to use in the classroom. Chips Ahoy has a counting game for kids where you have to figure out the number of chocolate chips in their cookies. Kellogg’s has an art project where you make sculptures out of Rice Krispies snacks. Campbell’s Soup has a science game where students compare the viscosity of Prego sauce to Ragu!

Meanwhile, corporations routinely produce public relations materials designed to look like class lessons, then send them to resource-starved schools. Example: Exxon offers teachers a free “lesson plan” about the healthy, flourishing wildlife in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Of course, the “lesson” is a PR stunt designed to help Exxon fight the negative marketing vibes leftover from the Valdez oil spill.

It is true, of course, that advertisements are everywhere anyway. You can’t turn on your computer or read a magazine (let alone watch TV or drive down a highway) without being enveloped by efforts to sell you stuff. As adults, most of us accept this ad bombardment as an unavoidable ingredient of the modern world.

But can we really expect that level of maturity from our kids?

Schools should be an open environment where kids learn to grow and make choices. It shouldn’t be about allowing corporations like Pepsi to “own kids” by providing a prime location to hit up the youth niche market with YOUR AD HERE advertisements for sale to the highest bidder.