‘Carry out a survey of 30 mint consumers to find out which of the four variants of Polo [mint] they find most appealing.’ This is the text of a lesson prepared by food giant and sweet manufacturer Nestlé currently being used in British schools.
Such classroom activities should please heavyweight corporate lobby group the European Round Table of Industrialists who noted in 1998: ‘All too often the education process is entrusted to people who appear to have no understanding of industry and the path of progress… The provision of education is a market opportunity and should be treated as such.’
Patti Rundall, policy director of Baby Milk Action, begs to differ. ‘Teachers are coming under increased pressure to accept schemes which push junk foods in exchange for cash,’ she says. Yet underfunded schools often jump at the chance for the money and resources these partnerships provide.
Hers is only one of a number of voices expressing disquiet at the way that through ‘corporate partnerships’ the private sector is increasingly setting priorities in the public sector. The British National Union of Teachers recently expressed its concern that the General Agreement on Trade in Services agreement of the World Trade Organization might promote the privatization of education. But sponsorship deals are already letting corporations into schools through the ‘back door’.
‘What is in the public interest is not always the same as what is in the interest of corporations,’ according to Patti Rundall. ‘Companies have a duty to maximize profit for their shareholders. But education is about opening kids’ minds, giving them the tools to think critically, not exposing them to the vested interests of corporations.’
Baby Milk Action has been campaigning for responsible marketing of babyfood for over 20 years. As a result Patti Rundall and her colleagues have learned to ask hard questions about who really benefits from corporate partnerships.
‘Some of the worst corporations,’ she says, ‘are very skilled at covering this all up with humanitarian gestures and “cause-related marketing”. We have to recognize this fact and do something about controlling them.’
‘Children are being used in a giant marketing project,’ she continues. Companies like Nestlé and Coca-Cola are providing educational material through corporate sponsorship of schools. The pamphlet ‘Nestlé in the Community’ is full of buzzwords like ‘sustainable development’. Tampax are providing menstrual health guides. Pepsi are providing free book covers advertising their brand. Students’ consumption preferences can be monitored through classroom activities. In the US the corporate encroachment into education is well established. The story of the boy suspended for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt to school on ‘Coke Day’ has become legendary, while the flagship US children’s show Sesame Street is now brought to viewers by chemical company Pfizer.
The phenomenon is now spreading to other countries. In Britain, the Government has set up a Business Development Unit to facilitate corporate relationships with schools. Its brochure explains that benefits to companies are ‘substantial’ including ‘investment in the next generation of employees and customers’.
Meanwhile, according to Arun Gupta of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) India, Nestlé has begun making inroads into the Asian educational system with glossy promotional material of its sweets and chocolates. Meanwhile in Russia Nestlé is sponsoring a ‘Good Nutrition Programme’ which by the end of the year will have reached 120,000 kids in 17 regions.
Health and consumer groups from around the world are now calling for a ban on advertising to children in schools. To help teachers and their students distinguish the genuine philanthropy from the corporate hype, Baby Milk Action and the Reading International Solidarity Centre have put together a groundbreaking educational pack called ‘Seeing through the spin: public relations in the global economy.’
The pack is fair-minded and imaginative, with 14 lesson plans on everything from dissecting brands to ‘Between the lines’ activities designed to make kids read printed information critically. That includes not just weighing up the corporate advertisers but their NGO critics too.Katharine Ainger
- ‘Seeing through the spin’ can be obtained from Baby Milk Action, 23 St.Andrew’s Street, Cambridge, CB2 3AX, England. Tel: +44 1223 464420.Price £15 + post & packaging £3 (Britain) or £9 (elsewhere)
- order from http://www.babymilkaction.org