SCHOOL RULES FOR MARKETERS

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Commercial ties between marketers and schools around the nation are growing, as was reported in last week's Advertising Age. Yet marketer access to kids in their schoolrooms is a fragile business relationship. Critics have yet to ignite broad public opposition, but uneasiness about school/business ties could in a heartbeat evolve into government interventions to protect student -- and parent -- interests. And all it will take is a thoughtless marketer or two.

That suggests to us that any school-based marketing project needs to be weighed with utmost care by marketers, middleman companies that broker deals and school officials. Schools are not shopping malls, high-potential venues for place-based marketing or convenient centers for commercial focus-group research. No matter how much money such activities might generate for school boards, too many schools have enough problems just meeting basic educational objectives to allow commercial ventures that don't somehow further school goals.

There is plenty of room for marketers to support programs popular with school administrators and teachers. Primedia's Channel One in-school TV news service now reaches almost half the nation's high schools -- providing TV equipment free to schools for other uses. The new, sponsored Internet-based ZapMe! service, which supplies school libraries with free computers and access to thousands of educational Web sites, seems to be gaining growing acceptance. Exclusive soft-drink deals also are generating significant new funds for educational projects.

But school-based, for-profit marketing research projects and overt commercial involvement in educational materials -- such as textbooks -- must raise warning flags. In research, in particular, parental and student permission and privacy protection is essential. Marketing panels should never interfere with the school day, and any compensation that would normally be paid to participants for their time and information should be paid to students or their parents.

Marketers and marketing are guests in this environment. If they respect and work to further school goals, they may be tolerated. If not, it's only a matter of

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