PM's Youth Prevention Anti-Smoking Campaign is one of 32 marketing messages entering the nation's classrooms through a division of Primedia, owner of in-classroom TV network Channel One. Primedia's Cover Concepts Marketing Services distributes free book covers emblazoned with marketers' messages to 43,000 schools nationwide; this year it will pass out 125 million free covers to kids in grades K-12.
The PM cover advertises its anti-smoking effort with the line "Reflect confidence -- think don't smoke." The company name appears in small type on the cover.
Despite the message, anti-tobacco activists criticized the cover. "It's one more attempt by Philip Morris to get to kids when they say they're not trying to reach kids," said Kathryn Kahler-Vose, VP-communications and marketing at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Matt Myers, the group's president, said PM is acting like a "wolf in sheep's clothing."
According to Missy Godfrey, publisher of Cover Concepts and sibling company Youth Entertainment Group -- which includes such tween titles as Tiger Beat, 16 and Bop -- "The Philip Morris cover has actually been fairly well-received by school districts. It's true that their participation might be viewed negatively, but schools have the right to refuse any particular cover. Each member school signs an agreement to accept free book covers, and we only ship materials to authorized schools. . . . We've really made an effort to be a partner with the schools, rather than just shoving advertising and products into the educational arena."
While some schools agree to accept mailings from companies such as Cover Concepts, principal Michael Simmons of Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick, N.Y., does not. "We try not to be involved, because we don't want to be seen as endorsing anything. Clearly, we're skeptical of anything that Philip Morris does. But to be honest, I don't think that the covers will have much of an effect one way or another."
Representatives for PM declined comment.
NO SCHOOLS REFUSED
The participation of other Cover Concepts advertisers, including Procter & Gamble Co., Ralph Lauren Kids and Estee Lauder's Clinique, are generally viewed in a more positive light. Schools, for the most part, welcome advertisers who are willing to provide necessary services.
In fact, among the schools that participate, none have refused any book cover, claimed Ms. Godfrey.
From the number of schools accepting the covers it's obvious many don't mind this form of marketing.
Julie Bockstiegel, media director at Hasbro and a Cover Concepts advertiser, said, "Certainly we're very sensitive to the issue of trying not to overwhelm kids in schools. One of the reasons we like Cover Concepts is because it's more of a fun thing for kids."
Among the other brands looking to hit the books via Cover Concepts this fall are Walt Disney Co., Hershey Foods Co.'s Jolly Rancher and Twizzlers brands, Cartoon Network, Kellogg's Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops and Procter & Gamble's Secret and Sunny Delight.
According to Cover Concepts, 85% of public schools require students to cover textbooks in order to make books last longer. Advertisers with Cover Concepts fund the printing and distribution of the covers; the cost is 14.5› per cover, though some advertisers earn volume discounts. Books stay covered for about 4 1/2 months, according to Simmons Market Research.
"There are marketers who realize that if they build meaningful brand relationships with kids, they can grow them into relationships with teens and adults," said Paul Kurnit, president of Griffin Bacal, New York.
Book cover advertisers can customize creative for specific demographic groups. "Gatorade's our biggest advertiser, and they have the flexibility to target different markets because we have such an extensive database of statistics from 109,000 schools, overlaid with census data," Ms. Godfrey said. "Right now, they're targeting the Hispanic market. . . . We can fine-tune a mailing to meet any specifications, to spotlight tech-savvy, ethnic or volunteer-oriented populations."
Other marketing programs run by Cover Concepts include "Seventeen Pak," a multisponsor mailing targeting 15-to-17-year-old girls, including products such as Gillette razors and a Seventeen minimag-azine. Its "Tooned-In School Menu" program allows advertisers to sponsor monthly school lunch menus, which typically include puzzles and games for students and coupons for parents. Recent sponsors include Softsoap antibacterial soap and Welch's grape jelly.
Started 10 years ago as a regional company based in Boston, Cover Concepts was purchased in 1998 by Primedia, parent company of Channel One, Youth Entertainment Group and Seventeen. According to Cover Concepts, the combination of those Primedia properties reaches 76% of the youth market in America.