Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tesco vouchers

It’s that time of year, that activity which has almost become a fixture in the school calendar – counting the Tesco ‘Vouchers for Schools’ (if you spend £310,500 you’ll earn enough vouchers to buy a £720 RM computer, so for every £100 spent you get 24p in vouchers). It’s known in the trade as ‘cause-related marketing’. Seemingly a win-win situation for both the company and the recipients of their largesse. In fact for only a small donation (Tesco donate less than 0.5% of profits) firms are able to advertise their products in schools and convince parents of their ‘social responsibility’. It’s estimated that £300 million is spent every year on advertising directly aimed at schools.

Why do companies want to advertise in schools? Catching them young is the best way to build brand-awareness and loyalty. Companies also count on pester-power when children pressure parents to buy particular brands. Of course if it’s ‘for school’ it makes even greater sense.

One of the most successful cause-related marketing scams was Walker’s Crisps ‘Free Books for Schools’, which ended after five years in 2003. Vouchers were printed on those healthy snacks – Quavers, Monster Munch, French Fries, Squares, Footballs, 3Ds and Wotsits. I fondly remember the hours that children and staff spent cutting out those vouchers from the greasy packets and the laborious counting. Some schools were almost evangelical in promoting this scheme sending out letters, with the Walker’s logo prominently displayed, extolling its virtues. It was also heavily promoted in the ‘Sun’ and ‘News of the World’ – naturally this was entirely unconnected with the fact that all books had to be ordered from Harper Collins (proprietor R Murdoch). As the head of Walker’s advertising agency admitted at the time, “The goal is to drive sales, but there is a degree of altruism involved.”

Fifty packets of Walkers crisps were required to obtain the cheapest seven books on the list – an outlay of £15 for a £4 book. But half of the 157 books required 200-250 purchases - a spend of over £60. A child would need to eat a packet of crisps every day for six months to obtain a book worth just over £5. After five years 6.6 million books had been given away - worth £35.4 million.

With more companies attempting to jump on the bandwagon a serious blow to cause related marketing came with Cadbury’s ‘Free Sports Equipment’ campaign. It was scrapped after it was revealed that pupils would have to eat 5,440 chocolate bars, containing 33kg of fat and nearly 1.25 million calories, to qualify for a set of volleyball posts.

It’s not just schools, in other parts of the public sector companies are queuing up to sponsor organisations. In the NHS Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital has been the recipient of considerable corporate donations. However, would this be the same for the local mental hospital or geriatric ward? Our local children’s hospital allowed one of its facilities to be named ‘Ronald McDonald House’ with a large picture of this gentleman on the front of it.

Advertising in American schools can be found on book covers, half of their students received free exercise books with covers advertising Frosted Flakes and Lays Potato Chips. There are also branded menus in school canteens; coupons from fast food companies as rewards for reading; sponsor’s logos on schools buses, websites, sports fields, gyms, libraries and playgrounds, also school events can be paid for by corporations. There was one infamous case where a school signed a sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola where the donation depended on the amount consumed from the school’s vending machines. As the deadline arrived the principal was reduced to writing letters to parents encouraging their children to drink more Coca-Cola. To celebrate the sponsorship a ‘Coca-Cola’ day was held, when a boy was discovered with a ‘Pepsi’ T-shirt he was suspended for the day.

Where will this sponsorship end? Probably with the same situation that cash-strapped public services face in America, they depend on donations for basic funding. Bill Clinton’s former legal adviser Joel Klein is currently running New York’s schools and he managed to secure a $52 million donation from the world’s richest man Bill Gates. Klein boasts about his connections and ability to tap into ‘Big Philanthropy’ or as he put it, “the swells I hang out with”. Of course there is another way to fund schools it’s called taxation. The elected government decides how to allocate resources.

I’m not arguing against wealthy philanthropists donating money, before he died in 1919 Andrew Carnegie funded the building of 3,000 public libraries (380 in Britain) and donated $350 million to his charitable foundation. The problem is that Carnegie was and is the exception.

Some schools have asked parents to go into Tesco stores to collect ‘Vouchers for Schools’ - they’d be better employed sitting at home with their children reading to them. Cause-related marketing really is the thin end of the wedge parents and teachers have to think, ‘where will it end?’ Like America?


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