According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the cost of education in Australia has increased by 6% over the past twelve months – more than double the rate of inflation. That’s on top of the 5.7% increase the year before and the 5% increase the year before that. In fact the past ten years have seen education costs rise by an impressive 57.2% - almost thirty percent more than the official inflation rate. Schools still seem to be crying poor though, and according to one researcher they may be increasingly turning to businesses to fill their funding gap.
“Do I think that commercial presence in schools is on the rise? Yes I do think that and I think that the more often it occurs, the more normalised it becomes,” says Paul Harrison, a senior lecturer with Deakin University’s
Graduate School of Business. “Really though it’s a strategic decision on behalf of the profit-making company to get their brands in front of kids and therefore in front of parents, in a trusted environment.”
Dr Harrison cites sports drink manufacturers lecturing children about hydration as an example. “It’s a classic example – my son came home from school and mentioned that a representative of a particular sports drink company had been invited to come and talk to the students about hydration,” he says. “The kids had been given some samples of the product and that was all good fun. Basically it’s just product promotion though because surely the PE instructor is capable of telling the kids about optimal hydration and in fact explaining to the students that there are a wide range of hydration options beyond buying a sports drink. Did they really need a sports drink company to come and do that for them?”
Another well-publicised example is the current furore over the CEO of dieting juggernaut Jenny Craig being invited to present at the upcoming ‘Alliance of Girls Schools’ conference. A recent petition by social action platform ‘change.org’, protesting about the invitation, attracted almost two thousand signatures. In the words of their media release: “Global giant Jenny Craig thrives on women’s body dissatisfaction and the idea that their bodies are ‘not good enough.’ To date, there is no independent research to show that the Jenny Craig approach leads to sustainable outcomes for the majority (>3-5 years).
Regardless of what Jenny Craig’s CEO is speaking about, having the Jenny Craig brand adopt a leadership role legitimizes the diet industry and sends a strong message to educators that weight is what matters most. One could just as easily have the CEO of a tobacco company present an “inspiring” talk on their business success.”
Of course brand promotion at school isn’t an entirely new thing. “I can remember back when I was at school, Coca Cola used to distribute yo-yos to school kids,” says clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller
. You had to have your Coca Cola yo-yo and the company also used to hold yo-yo trick competitions at school and award yo-yo champions. It terms of brand awareness, it worked.”
Dr Fuller doesn’t see brand placement in schools as all negative. “Certainly branding within school can have a strong influence in terms of building up a positive association and building up ongoing loyalty,” he says. “But it potentially also offers schools the ability to balance the promotion with some analytic educations and teach children about marketing strategies, to help kids to be more discerning in that regard.”
The key though, according to both Dr Harrison and Dr Fuller, is for schools to use the product placement as not just a source of funds but also a learning opportunity. “I don’t believe in bans, but I believe in critical analysis of things,” says Dr Harrison. “When corporations persuade schools to favour one brand over another, there is an implicit understanding that they will promote that brand. Are the children being given the capacity to critically evaluate the messages being given to them by the companies?”Are there many obvious brand promotions at your childrens’ school? Does it bother you at all?