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This report was produced by GMV Conseil for DG Health and Consumer Protection and represents GMV Conseil views on the "Study on commercial practices in schools conducted at the request of the European Commission". These views have not been adopted or in any way approved by the Commission and should not be relied upon as a statement of the Commission’s or DG Health and Consumer Protection’s views.

The European Commission does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this report, nor does it accept responsibility for any use made thereof.

Summary of the study on commercial practices in schools conducted at the request of the European Commission ( Marketing in schools, GMV Conseil, October 1998)

- PDF Download the entire report in PDF format (4660 KB) (French version) (French version)

I. Justification, aims and methodology of the study

Children are an increasingly important target group for advertisers, which is not in the least surprising when you consider that two thirds of the products that people use when they are children they continue to use when they become adults, and that children increasingly decide what their parents will buy. Consequently, schools are seen by some as the ideal place for spreading advertising messages targeted at children, since that is where they are gathered together and the place itself tends to guarantee the interest and quality of the messages that circulate there.

At the same time, these practices have been denounced in certain quarters, and codes of conduct have been introduced in an attempt to prevent undesirable developments.

Since this question is a subject of debate and there are clear links with consumer policy, Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General wanted an external consultant to study this matter in order to

  1. assess the impact of advertising and direct marketing in primary and secondary schools;

  2. list and analyse the laws and rules in each country;

  3. issue recommendations for improving the situation, where necessary.

The company GMV Conseil, based in Paris, made the successful bid in the invitation to tender for this study. It submitted its report to Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General in October 1998.

Having defined the remit of the study (a definition of commercial practices in schools) and identified the main players concerned, GMV Conseil, with the assistance of its partners, Euclid (United Kingdom) and Europool (Belgium), analysed articles on this subject in the press and various publications; conducted over 100 interviews with persons concerned, both at European level and in Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom; drew up a list of the legal frameworks applicable to commercial practices in schools in the various countries of the European Union; noted examples of specific measures; drew conclusions and made recommendations.

II. Background

The consultants defined the scope of the study as all activities of businesses or organisations (such as humanitarian organisations) in schools, whatever the nature of these activities and the profile of their originators.

They identified the main reasons for this penetration of external bodies into schools: on the one hand, the difficulty for schools in finding the necessary funding in order to offer pupils interesting activities using modern and attractive teaching materials, especially for subjects not generally considered to be essential by education ministries, such as ... consumer education, for example, and, on the other hand, the attraction for businesses or organisations interested in communicating with children of a place in which so many of them are gathered together.

III. Panorama of the current situation

III. 1. Nature of the commercial practices employed in schools

These may take the form of:

  • "educational" measures involving the distribution of materials, such as books, CD-ROMs, videos, brochures, maps, posters, etc., which are often presented in kits in boxes or cases of various kinds, or the provision of equipment such as computers, printers, television sets, video recorders, etc. In general, this equipment or these materials is/are distributed or provided free of charge or for a token sum;

  • "sponsoring" measures, involving helping schools to take pupils to the theatre, cinema or museum, or on school outings, or to organise events such as class competitions, sports competitions or end-of-year parties;

  • "commercial" or "advertising" measures, involving the distribution to pupils of samples, reduction vouchers or gifts containing advertising (e.g. diaries);

  • "patronage" measures, involving paying for the construction or maintenance of all or part of a school or providing schools with equipment for use by the administration rather than the pupils.

III. 2. Source of the regulations

There is no European legislation in this area.

Furthermore, the bodies responsible for regulating advertising take the view that there is no reason for them to apply specific rules to schools, since they are responsible only for the content of the advertising message, irrespective of the way in which it is transmitted.

Consequently, codes of good conduct have been adopted at the initiative of organisations such as consumers', parents' or teachers' associations.

Where rules exist, they are the responsibility of the Ministries of Education of the countries concerned. Generally speaking, such rules tend to ban all "commercial practices" in schools. This may seem simple but in fact it is not, because there is no clear, precise definition of what constitutes a commercial practice. Do sponsoring, patronage or the distribution of educational materials constitute commercial practices? Some believe that they do, but others disagree. It is therefore not surprising that this ban is very easy to circumvent, all the more so since the educational authorities are increasingly acknowledging the need for schools to have contacts with business. Does this mean that the ban, which is of little more than formal significance, should be lifted, naturally while retaining a certain number of safeguards?

III. 3. Examples of measures encountered in the various European countries

III. 3. a. "Educational" measures

Educational materials deal most often with the following topics: nutrition and diet, energy, water, health and hygiene, road safety, the duties of citizens, home economics and means of transport. It therefore comes as no surprise that Colgate and Signal have conducted measures on the cleaning of teeth, and Tampax on girls' first period.

In the area of equipment, technology firms have naturally been the most active, for example AOL, which has given certain UK schools free Internet connections.

III. 3. b. "Sponsoring" measures

Sponsorship is provided for:

  • class competitions for an educational project (organisation by Gaz de France of a poster competition on the subject of the transportation of natural gas, organisation by La Libre Belgique and RTL-TVI of a spelling competition, organisation by Kellogg's of a competition on nutrition, organisation by Bayer of a scientific competition, etc.);

  • sports teams in schools;

  • events of various kinds ( Lu and exhibitions on art works, Kellogg's and "The breakfast day", Nike or Levi's and end-of-year school parties, etc.);

  • and even for teacher training (seminars for teachers organised by banks in Germany).

III. 3. c. "Commercial" or "advertising" measures

Advertising messages are appearing in certain school textbooks (are not Nestlé, JVC, Swatch and Air Inter present in a book published by Hachette for 10-year-old primary school pupils in France?) and in diaries or even in brochures or leaflets published for an event (school party, for example).

Available space on the walls of schools, including inside, is used for advertising posters (this form of advertising is used in Germany, Austria and France).

Product samples or leaflets are distributed to pupils, either on the school premises or immediately outside the school.

In addition, contrary to the generally accepted view, products such as magazines, class photos, drinks, confectionery, etc. have long been on sale in schools.

Lastly, items are sold outside the school system, but with its approval. One example is the system by which, when people buy certain products, they receive vouchers that they can give to their child's school to enable it to obtain computer or sports equipment free of charge or at a reduced price.

III. 3. d. "Patronage" measures

Schools are offered assistance to improve their infrastructure or are provided, generally free of charge, with equipment which is not directly linked to their educational activities but which they need in order to operate properly.

For example, in Sweden canteens are equipped with curtains bearing the logo of the milk producer, Arla.

III. 4. The American downward spiral

There is unanimous condemnation in Europe for practices such as Campbell including a poster in an educational kit explaining why its Prego sauce is thicker than its competitor Ragu; General Mills suggesting that teachers should put a Gusher sweet into their pupils' mouths (these sweets make a "PSSSSSSHHHHHHT" sound when they come into contact with the tongue) in order to explain to them the phenomenon of geothermal sources (!); software for learning how to read, which teaches children to read the sentence "I like eating at MacDonald's" or "I like drinking Pepsi"; or the "educational commercial" channel [sic!] Channel One 1. In Europe, these practices are seen as nothing more than commercial gimmicks in the classroom.

III. 5. Recapitulation

Advertising in schools is authorised (or benefits from a legal vacuum) in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

In theory, it is banned in Belgium, France, Germany 2, Greece, Luxembourg and Portugal.

In fact, it exists everywhere.

IV. The players and their basic positions

Most of the people interviewed took the view that schools must educate children in a neutral and objective way, teach them to respect others and develop their discernment. Those who are staunchly opposed to business involvement in schools justify their view by their fear that these principles, in particular the neutrality of the system, will be undermined.

The teachers interviewed said that they were concerned to see schools remain free of commercial influences.

The businesses (or organisations) that seek to gain a foothold in schools may be pursuing three objectives: improving their image, developing customer loyalty for the future or influencing social behaviour.

How could advertisers resist the threefold attraction of peer pressure in the playground, children's ability to influence the purchases made by their parents (even those that do not concern them directly) and the studies which show that two thirds of the products that people use in their childhood they will continue to use when they are adults?

Lastly, all the advertising regulation bodies, be they at international, European or national level, have drawn up codes of conduct on advertising that is targeted at children. However - and this is a matter of principle for these bodies - these provisions apply to the content of the messages and do not refer to the places in which they are disseminated, which means that they have nothing to say about the specific question of marketing in schools.

V. How do the principles stand up to reality?

While all teachers say that they would like to protect their pupils from the most harmful commercial influences, many recognise that their pupils cannot, or even should not, be cocooned.

Moreover, most of the activities conducted by enterprises in schools are not (or are no longer) crude advertising but have a definite educational content.

Consequently, the majority of those interviewed believe that the blanket ban on advertising in schools - in the countries in which such a ban still exists - is no longer the right approach, and propose making the system more flexible and more realistic on the basis of the following principles: a refusal of purely commercial measures and an acceptance of educational and good-quality measures.

The problem now is to define what is meant by good quality.

Everyone, be they consumers' organisations, ombudsmen, governments, or even communication firms commissioned by businesses to produce materials targeted at schools, agrees that the quality of these materials should be gauged against the following criteria:

  • they must not be distributed to pupils directly but through head teachers and teachers;

  • they must be provided free of charge or for a very small token payment;

  • they must have been developed by specialists in the topic concerned, in cooperation with education experts;

  • they must have been tested on pupils;

  • they must make it easier to gain certain knowledge (ideally, they must dovetail well with the school curriculum);

  • the content must be presented objectively without stereotypes or prejudices;

  • the content and presentation must be adapted to the local culture;

  • the branding must not be hidden (the sponsor's identity must appear clearly) but must remain discreet;

  • there must be no slogans or direct incitement to buy (or to strongly recommend) a brand or a product.

VI. Conclusions

If there are no safeguards, the penetration of marketing into schools risks blunting pupils' discernment, making them frustrated, giving them an impoverished view of society and fostering stereotyped attitudes in them.

However, with safeguards, these traps can be avoided, and advantages will appear: advantages in terms of resources, of course, for school systems with a chronic lack of resources, but also in educational terms because the penetration of marketing into schools opens them up to the world of business and to the realities of life and society and provides opportunities to educate children about consumer affairs in general and advertising techniques in particular.

VII. Recommendations

In order to make it possible for schools to derive maximum financial and educational benefit from marketing measures in schools and to prevent an "American-type downward spiral", the study recommends:

  • keeping up the pressure on businesses to continue to produce good-quality materials on the basis of the criteria set out above;

  • urging the national education authorities to update the texts on "commercial practices" in the light of the increase in the number of new media. These texts should now recognise that certain "good" practices that are already in widespread use are legitimate, which would make the texts that much more credible in banning less reputable practices;

  • promoting the circulation of information and points of view and the exchange of experience between those concerned in the various countries;

  • setting up regulatory bodies to be responsible for deciding who may and who may not enter schools and for imposing penalties for failure to comply with the rules;

  • training teachers in the use of the materials provided by businesses, in particular so that they can decipher the intentions to advertise and then explain them to the pupils;

  • encouraging self-discipline on the part of businesses, along the lines of the situation in traditional advertising, where self-regulation co-exists with the law.

These recommendations do not all apply, by any means, to measures which the European Commission would be in a position to carry out. Some of them are addressed to the national authorities, others to enterprises, others to teachers and yet others to public opinion. What is more, the report clearly states that it is not the responsibility of the European Union to legislate on this matter because the control of advertising content is the responsibility of the European Body Alliance européenne pour l'éthique en matière de publicité (European alliance for ethical advertising) 3, and the control of the "medium used", in other words schools, is the responsibility of the national education authorities.


1            Channel One offers to equip American schools with audiovisual equipment (satellite aerials, television sets and video recorders). In return, teachers must show its programmes to their pupils every day, and these programmes are of course interspersed with advertisements.

2            Except in certain Länder.

3            At least as far as the content of the individual advertising messages is concerned, because the general framework has been established by law.


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