September 12th, 2011
Advertising Creeps Into Cash-Strapped Schools
Field trips by Kleenex. Parks by Sprite. Library books from dd’s Discounts.
As kids head back to school, parents head back to fundraising, and savvy marketers see schools as an inviting opportunity to profit while doing good. Many recognize families’ desire to help schools as an entree into a lucrative market.
Schools long have run fundraisers by reaping a portion of proceeds from gift wrap, candy or cookie dough sales, or by selling discount coupon books from local businesses.
Now one increasingly popular strategy focuses on marketing, not sales, through online contests. The pitch might go something like this:
Hey, kids! Wanna help out your school? Just click on our website and sign up ... No need to buy anything ... Vote early and often! ... The campus with the most votes wins! ... We’re giving away millions of dollars. ... Tell your friends!
For more on advertising in schools, read “Commercial Signs Approved for Ga. County Schools.”
Last school year, hundreds of students, parents and teachers entreated friends and families to enter the Pepsi Refresh contest, which awarded a total of $1 million every month to 32 worthy causes. Fremont’s Mission San Jose High School band campaigned to win $50,000 for uniforms. The Lincoln High music department in San Jose sought votes in a bid for $25,000. Voters went to the Refresh website, with Pepsi advertising, to cast ballots.
In a similar campaign, supporters of fire-blighted Trace Elementary in San Jose entered the Kohl’s Cares Facebook contest to win $500,000.
Such contests are a simple, painless way to raise money, and accessible to anyone with a computer or smartphone, backers say.
Except none of the three schools won, even though they drove thousands of eyes to websites.
Even so, Daniel Valdez, who worked on the Lincoln fundraiser as a senior last year, said, “I am happy that people were able to come together for a good cause. I think Pepsi is doing a great thing.”
But the increasing commercialization, as well as the fruitless efforts toward ubiquitous school fundraising, has raised concerns.
“A contest on a website is not the way to fund our schools,” said Carol Kocivar, president of the California State PTA. She said the PTA tries to ensure its fundraising is noncommercial.
“I find it ironic that we don’t have campaigns to help out the DA’s office or the Pentagon,” said Ted Lempert, president of the Oakland-based advocacy group Children Now. Why, he asks, are Californians so underfunding education compared with other public services?
Others worry about the harm and point out a decades-long increase in advertising geared toward kids.
“Marketing in schools is particularly attractive to advertisers because it’s a way to get around parents,” said Allen Kanner, a Berkeley child and family psychologist, and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood.
“If a company truly wants to contribute to schools, the simple way to do it is anonymously.”
Schools participating in or allowing commercial contests implicitly endorse products, he said. “For schools to be funneling children to the Web is exactly the opposite of what they should be doing.”
Children, he said, are developmentally more vulnerable to manipulation of marketers.
Not all the pitches come on the Web. The state milk board is sponsoring a breakfast-eating contest giving Oakland high schools a chance to win $3,000. Chevron promises to donate $1 to DonorsChoose.org, which helps fund classroom needs, for every gasoline purchase (minimum 8 gallons) in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
And Lexus’ Eco Challenge lures students with a $30,000 prize for themselves and their schools to develop and implement a plan to address an environmental issue. Lexus also offers teacher lesson plans, and touts the concept of “sustainability without sacrifice.”
Kanner calls it “a cynical ploy to get their product associated in children’s minds with helping the environment. It’s very harmful to children to give the false impression that we can continue to consume outrageously and save the environment.”
Catherine Dobrin, a spokeswoman for Lexus and Toyota, flatly said the effort is not a commercial enterprise. Promoting the Lexus or Toyota brand is not the purpose of the contest, she said. “Corporations are larger than the products they sell,” she said. “Toyota and Lexus are committed to helping educational and environmental programs.”
Parents, students and other donors sometimes fall in the middle. “No doubt, California schools need all the resources they can get. So anything that companies do to help is wonderful,” said Jeff Fredericks, a managing partner of Colliers International, a commercial brokerage with offices in San Jose that for years has quietly donated money and volunteers to Trace and other San Jose schools.
But, he said, it’s important to know whether the promotion reaches its goal. Or in the case of Trace, which lost its quest for money, “does it just end up being a popularity contest where those with the most resources, time connectivity end up the beneficiaries?”