Advertising in schools

The booklet can be found here. Crikey approached education departments, both Catholic and State, around the country for their policy and views on corporate advertising in the classroom. “A spokeswoman for the NSW Education Department said the department does not endorse commercial products and services, but schools choose which resources they use. ‘These can be from within the Department or from external commercial providers. In using commercial resources, this doesn’t imply that they are endorsing any products’ she said.” Crikey reports that a spokesperson for the Victorian department said its policies “specifically prohibit the promotion of alcohol, tobacco and gambling products” in schools, but there was nothing to stop companies including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, or Pfizer advertising in resource books, unless they were deemed “offensive” by parents.

The NSW state opposition spokesperson for Education, Andrew Stoner, said that corporate advertising is not appropriate in the classroom.

Crikey wants to know, if J&J can advertise tampons in the classroom, what’s to stop other corporates like Coca Cola from pushing soft drinks, McDonalds selling cheese-burgers and Pfizer advertising anti-depressants to school children?

In the context of anti-depressants, the NSW Department of Education’s response looks very weak. However, it is ethically quite sound. Crikey’s rhetorical question, from an ethical point of view, could be rephrased, “What is to stop these sorts of harm being inflicted on children?”

Although Cokes and cheese-burgers are in a different class to anti-depressants, none of them are very harmful in themselves. Used properly or appropriately they can be beneficial: a coke might be a good interim measure against dehydration and anti-depressants clearly have their place. An exclusive diet of cokes and cheese-burgers, however, is harmful and the harm is not just theoretical. We also recognise that there are significant problems with wide-spread obesity in children as well as substance-abuse. Advertising these products to people who cannot reasonably be expected to manage the criteria necessary to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate use, such as someone with a pattern of substance or dietary abuse, places them in greater difficulty. Our society accepts that children are in the process of growing into the capacity to make informed and balanced judgements and need, and have the right to, an environment which contributes to the educative process necessary to grow in this respect. One aspect of such an environment is that they should not be expected to achieve tasks beyond the next step in the developmental process. Some children, supported by their parents and other mentors, such as teachers, can discriminate, others because of their age or other factors cannot. The important principle is that children are in the process of growing into rational balanced decision-making.

Does this mean that all advertising to children is wrong? Advocates who argue against marketing to children usually specify specific products: food, clothing and toys are typical examples. In other words, the arguments are constructed on the harmful effects of advertising these products to children. Children, like the rest of us, are exposed to advertising constantly. Many schools take advantage of advertising to defray the costs of the school magazine and other publications. Advertising and sponsorship do enable good things to happen that would not otherwise. While the products in the J&J booklet would not be suitable for very young children, there is no suggestion that they represent a problem to those learning about their personal development and hygiene; that is, the products do not have any harmful aspects to them as do the other examples. Thus, there is little argument to suggest that advertising, on principle, should be banned from schools. What should be banned is advertising of products or via methods that may harm these people who are in the process of learning. Who is best placed to make that judgement? The people who are making these sort of decisions on a day to day basis are exactly parents and teachers, in most cases working together. They are the people who take on this responsibility and have the capacity to judge the appropriate levels of responsibility of children, both as individuals and in groups. Crikey’s question seems to presume that the only way to adequately protect children in schools is via department policy, but there should be a burden of proof that parents and teachers cannot do so. Otherwise it merely undermines parents’s and teachers’ capacity for responsible ethical decision-making.

When ethical watch-dogs like Crikey are too quick to bark, they run the risk of debasing the currency. They can target organisations that are actually making a real effort to contribute to improving ethical practice and therefore have a certain profile which makes them soft targets. J&J does have an impressive, though not perfect, history in this regard. As early as 1935, in a pamphlet titled TRY REALITY, Johnson urged his fellow industrialists to embrace what he termed “a new industrial philosophy.” He defined this as the corporation’s responsibility to customers, employees, the community and stockholders.”

J&J’s credo:

“We are responsible to the communities in which we live and work

and to the world community as well.

We must be good citizens – support good works and charities

and bear our fair share of taxes.

We must encourage civic improvements and better health and education.

We must maintain in good order

the property we are privileged to use,

protecting the environment and natural resources.”

It concludes with “When we operate according to these principles, the stockholders should realize a fair return.“ This is not to say that they should never be questioned. J&J has no policy easily accessible on its standards of advertising and, especially in the pharmaceutical world, advertising is a very controversial issue. Choice CEO, Peter Kell, makes the argument that food, drug and toy companies have done much harm via their advertising and there is urgent need to apply clear and universal standards for target publics below 12 years old. However, questioning practices should be informed and based on good information and sound ethical thinking. Crikey can do better.

Not surprisingly, J&J have announced that they will remove all branded advertising from any future publications destined for use in schools.

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