Children increasingly are exposed to TV, video, CD-ROMs and online computer services in their classrooms-as early as preschool.
According to a recent study by Simmons Market Research Bureau, 52% of kids ages 2 to 12 use a personal computer at school. At the same time, school districts, desperate to make up budget shortfalls, are more likely to welcome advertisers bearing educational gifts.
"Marketing to kids through schools, you're going into a sacred place," says Richard Tobaccowala, VP-director of interactive marketing at Leo Burnett Co., Chicago. "Increasingly, computer-assisted education will play a larger role, and technology's expensive. Schools are going to require a way to underwrite all of this."
But linking advertising and elementary school students makes longtime experts queasy.
"There's no question that corporations want to reach out to kids through the school environment, it's a perfect setting," notes Richard Delano, director of the Education Marketing Group of publisher Scholastic Inc. "The problem is when teachers and parents perceive that the materials are half-baked, that the educational part of the package is lacking, and that the advertising message is too overt," he says.
"Subtle" is the watchword for a third-grade nutrition education program created by Dole Food Co. and the Society for Nutrition Education pegged to the federal government's "5 a Day for Better Health" program.
Dole, which to date has made the program available free to 13,000 elementary schools nationwide, has put together a curriculum that centers on a Dole-created and sponsored CD-ROM, anchored by 30 animated fruits and vegetables with names such as Bobby Banana, Pamela Pineapple and Lucy Lettuce.
In-class teaching materials distributed for take-home use include a refrigerator chart with the animated Dole character stickers and more than $5 in cents-off coupons for Dole products.
A kids' cookbook, also featuring the animated Dole characters, is offered separately. And supermarket produce managers are encouraged to contact their local schools to arrange special tours and activities tied to the nutrition program.
So far, 750,000 elementary school students have participated in in-store produce tours.
"If they're eating Dole brand fruits and vegetables, that's great. But that's not the point of this program," says Dr. Lorelei DiSogra, Dole director of nutrition and health. "We can't directly measure the impact of this program on sales... but we hope long term to make a difference."
Industry observers credit the Dole program with being on the leading edge of marketing to elementary-school kids.
"It has to be a learning tool; it has to make the learning process fun and challenging; and it has to look professional," notes Jeff Dunitz, senior VP-director of media planning, Griffin Bacal, New York, an agency specializing in youth marketing.
With the production costs of CD-ROM programs falling from more than $1 million three years ago, when Dole set out to produce its initial CD-ROM, to less than $50,000 today, "we're finding more top-level marketing executives interested in interactivity and CD-ROMs," says Erica Gruen, senior VP-strategic media resources, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York.
Even Scholastic, which includes advertising only in materials distributed to middle- and high-school age children, is exploring bringing opportunities in elementary school classrooms.
One likely vehicle is the company's TV program tied to its Super Science Red, a magazine aimed at first-through-third-grade science classes.
The state of Georgia is the test site, with some 6,000 students now viewing the satellite-distributed, 20-minute program as part of their regular science curriculum, says Mr. Delano.
As long as the marketing aspects are understated, the educational goals clearly stated and desired, and the materials of high-quality, it's increasingly likely parents and teachers of elementary-school age children will accept limited advertising messages along with the CD-ROMs.
But be forewarned, experts say. "If it's not completely clean, if you go overboard, you're in trouble," says Mr. Tobaccowala. "This is where the brand sell is in no way nearly as important as the educational content."