The program, inherited by Reckitt Benckiser when it acquired Clearasil as part of its buy of Boots Healthcare last year, enlists teachers to distribute brochures and product samples. It also once again raises the hot-button issue of marketing to children in schools -- and the hackles of watchdogs.
The company defends it as an educational effort. "The material is all educational in terms of proper skin care," a spokesman said. "It's obviously sponsored by Clearasil, but the actual purpose is to be educational."
Education about personal hygiene is fine in any school, but branded content on an acne treatment isn't, said Gary Ruskin, director of the advocacy group Commercial Alert. "It's totally inappropriate to run a sampling or advertising program in school for an over-the-counter medication targeting impressionable children," he said.
The Clearasil brochure bills the brand as "Clear. Smooth. Cool" and advises children to "Get the jump on pimples, acne and oil with Clearasil." It includes pictures and blurbs on five products, and, in smaller print on the bottom of the page, answers four questions about acne and hygiene.
The kit includes a sample of daily face wash with information on how it works and how to use it. And the brochure directs students toward the Clearahill.com snowboard game site, where they can also register in sweepstakes for music downloads and iPods.
Data from Alexa.com suggest Clearahill has seen a spike in traffic around the start of the past three school years, though it's running less than 50,000 monthly visits -- less than half its peak during the 2004-2005 school year.
The Reckitt spokesman said teachers nationwide get cards mailed to them promoting the program, and must return them before any materials are sent. Neither the teachers nor the schools receive compensation. "We don't force it on anybody. Not every student is given it, I don't think. It's if they're interested in taking it."
Mr. Ruskin, whose group tends to track such programs closely, had never heard of the Clearasil program. But he sees it as part of a trend he finds disturbing.
Of 11 advertisers on Primedia's Channel One in-school TV network for middle schools cited in a study published earlier this year in the journal Pediatrics, five were personal-care marketers: Clearasil, Blistex's Stridex, Chattem's Phisoderm, Procter & Gamble Co.'s Old Spice and Johnson & Johnson's Acuvue. Gaming brands, along with McDonald's, Wrigley's Juicy Fruit and PepsiCo's Gatorade, rounded out the group.
Personal care hasn't been enough to make up for faltering sales at Channel One, which Primedia Chairman-CEO Dean Nelson said on a Nov. 7 earnings call "has faced a serious revenue shortfall in the fall school year."