While children are clearly helpful to advertisers, are advertisers helpful to children? The old question is being asked again following a tobacco company's donation to a city technology college and the National Consumer Council's criticism of sponsored curriculum material for being heavy on logos and light on context.
A Cadbury's resource pack for Year 7 pupils, for example, offers the information that "chocolate is a wholesome food" and a McDonald's key stage 1 pack invites infants to search for product names in a word puzzle. The NCC also accuses British Nuclear Fuels of "trivialising" nuclear risks with the lines: "Accidents happen all the time. Can you think of some accidents that have happened in school, at home, or locally?" Mars, the NatWest and Halifax are censured for excessive plugging within ostensibly educational texts.
The NCC cited good examples too but, whatever the quality, the wide range of advertising displayed in an educational context begs large questions about commercial involvement in formal schooling. "Schools should be places of learning, not a free-for-all for business interests," says the NCC chairman David Hatch. The objection is that advertising bias undermines the educational principle that information should be presented in a balanced way.
The most discreet product logo promotes a single viewpoint which eventually translates into an invitation to purchase. When a captive audience of schoolchildren receives such messages in class, they are imbued with a credibility unparalleled in any other medium. And, as we all know, the medium is the message.
Many schools ignore the objection. Urged to view themselves as businesses, schools must scrabble after cheap resources and can only afford to ask whether sponsored texts are, on balance, any good. At the kernel of NCC guidelines on sponsored teaching aids is advice for teachers to satisfy themselves that educational value outweighs marketing messages.
Others go further and argue that insinuating marketing slogans into school texts is a valid part of education. Jenina Bas, of the Food Advertising Unit, asserts: "It is part of the educational process that people grow skilled in assimilating pressures of commercial exchange." And the Advertising Association's Graham Fowler says: "We live in a consumer society and the earlier we're advertising literate, the better."
True, these two are hired hands of the ad industry, yet they find themselves in agreement with Gareth James, a National Association of Headteachers adviser. "Product advocacy brings real life into classrooms and can be used as a tool to ask about the purposes of advertising," he says. He refers heads to Marketing in Schools, an NAHT brochure which puts the onus for choosing decent material on teachers. "There can't be a blanket ruling. It's a matter of common sense. Nobody gives anything away for nothing and schools should weigh up implied obligations against benefits."
Ian Pearce, education director of Business in the Community, has no doubt about the benefits of sponsored teaching aids and extends the debate to sponsorship in general. He resigned in protest from the NCC committee which drew up the guidelines, saying: "NCC criticism of the practice of putting company logos on teaching materials or voucher schemes encouraging purchasing are effectively stopping resources reaching schools. They are falling to take reality into account."
His version of reality is an education system receiving Pounds 300m a year in subsidised equipment and twice that again in myriad employee placement schemes. He says the motives for nearly a billion pounds in corporate largesse are threefold. To precis: it enables a company's staff to understand the community; prosperous high streets need prosperous back streets and business thus has an active concern about low achievement and crime; and companies build a reputation in the community.
Eamonn O'Kane, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, is blunt in his threefold response. He reckons it a fallacy that corporate staff are isolated from schools. "Don't they have children in school? And if business is as socially minded as it says, it wouldn't cavil at the higher taxes necessary for large-scale job creation. As for `building a reputation', that's just a euphemism for advertising. Is this the way a deficit in funding should be made up?" Mr O'Kane asks. "No. I'd suggest the underlying motive is to induce a general feeling that the private sector, ipso facto, is the most efficient way of organising things."
Whether or not one accepts this, it is certainly true that policy has dictated a deeper partnership between private and public sectors. The most vivid example of commercially inspired politics fuelling this partnership comes from the CTCs. I visited the first, Kingshurst in Solihull, in 1988 and found a school cast in a corporate metaphor. Department heads were area managers and wore plastic identity tags to prove it. One area manager spoke of "learning parameters and procedures" and showed a "team of children" being briefed to "produce sufficient product (yoghurt) to allow a full-scale market research test". "Sufficient product?" I wrote at the time. "Market research tests? For 11-year-olds?" Eight years on and this doesn't seem strange, for business rhetoric has become the currency of the mainstream. However, CTCs failed to match government plans that business would "wholly or substantially" meet capital costs. Business rejected being taxed twice, voluntarily for new schools and compulsorily for old but it has welcomed the invitation to partnership with smaller-scale sponsorship and advertising.
Dr Brian Young, of Exeter University psychology department, says adult views of childhood largely determine adult reaction to advertising directed at 5- to 15- year-olds. Some believe that we must protect children from commercial values, at school and at home. This view depicts advertising as a seducer of innocents. Others, particularly those with commercial interests, see not children but streetwise kids who form a sophisticated audience.
When tapping into youthful spending power, it pays to treat 5- to 15-year-olds as little adults with their own pride and language. Advertisers learn the language . . . you'll probably have to ask a 14-year-old to interpret the current Hula Hoop ads.
It also pays to bolster the pride of target markets and, rather than offer stereotypes of immaturity, ads intended for 11-year-olds, say, appear to be aimed at older age brackets. "Every kid aspires to be older," explains Alan James, TV buying director of the Ogilvy Mather agency.
Hit-the-kids cynicism is fettered by swathes of legislation and voluntary rules whose existence confirms that advertisers do indeed view children differently.
Not differently enough, according to Labour's spokesman for consumer affairs, Nigel Griffiths. "I feel strongly about overlarge ad budgets promoting unhealthy foods," he says and he promises a Labour government would give the Advertising Standards Authority statutory teeth. But why should children be treated as a special case?
"For the same reasons as we bar smoking, drinking and getting married, " he replies. "Society must protect children."