Students as Consumers: Advertisers Postering Schoolhouse 'Walls'
Little by little, the images of national advertising, from toothpaste to cosmetics to candy bars, are establishing a beachhead on high-school and elementary-school campuses.
National advertisers are discovering there a "captive audience" of young but sophisticated consumers--pre-teenagers and teenagers who not only have large amounts of discretionary income to spend on themselves, but who also exert great influence on family purchases and are establishing buying patterns that may last well into adulthood.
The new vehicles being devised by advertisers and marketers to reach this huge market augment their traditional avenues of teen magazines and television by creating a presence in the schools themselves.
Most prominent among the new approaches is the wall poster, or "wall media," as advertisers say. Three companies are now involved in placing wall media in secondary and elementary schools.
The pioneer in the field is a Knoxville, Tenn., firm called Whittle Communications, which perfected the "wall magazine" at college campuses, doctors' offices, pet stores, and other locations where a segmented audience could be the target for a billboard featuring short, inviting stories and graphics--and, of course, advertisements. They began appearing in high schools in 1984 and in elementary schools last year.
Beginning this school year, two new companies have challenged Whittle with similar wall media for high schools.
But Whittle remains the leader in the field, with its "Connections" posters appearing in 5,000 high schools and "The Big Picture" in 4,000 elementary schools, said David Jarrard, a company spokesman.
New "Connections" posters are sent out every two weeks, with editorial material on topics such as the Presidential election, careers, substance abuse, and how to handle stress.
A recent "issue" about voting featured hip, mtv-style graphics with one story headlined, "Party Animals: Are you a donkey or an elephant?" A voter's guide to basic beliefs of the Republican and Democratic parties followed.
The Big Picture's back-to-school issue featured Tony O'Dell, a young star of the television program "Head of the Class," with material about what elementary-school students can do after school. It included after-school safety tips dramatized in cartoon drawings.
Each issue of the approximately 4' by 6' poster is sent out in multiple copies offering several variations on the same theme; the copies are intended to be placed in several spots in a school. Each poster includes three panels at the bottom for national advertising.
Ads on the recent "Connections" poster were for Coke, Vidal Sassoon hair products, and Crest toothpaste; Crest's tagline read: "Pimples Go Away. Cavities Don't."
Bill Gubbins, the editor of "Connections" and "The Big Picture", said an advisory board of educators screens the editorial material.
"We think we are very exciting editorially," he said. "We hope to speak in a language that talks to the students, not at them."
The Chicago-based American Passage Media Corporation has come up with a similar wall-media vehicle, but has decided to place it in high-school locker rooms, instead of the hallways and cafeterias where "Connections" might be found.
"Ninety-four percent of all high-school students take gym, so they are in the locker room a lot," said Stuart Hochwert, vice president and general manager of American Passage.
The company's "GymBoards" began appearing in schools last spring. It now has 2,500 units in 1,000 schools, with the expectation of reaching 3,000 schools before the school year is out. Many schools agree to take one each for the boys' and girls' locker rooms, Mr. Hochwert said.
The GymBoard is a three-panel unit, with one panel carrying advertising, one a chalkboard for coaches, and the third carrying American Passage's biweekly wall magazine, "GymShorts."
"We wanted a property that would break through the clutter" of ads aimed at teens, Mr. Hochwert said. "In the first 20 pages of Seventeen magazine, there are five or six different cosmetic ads. There is really nothing that reaches just boys in the high-school market."
GymBoards sometimes features separate editorial material for boys and girls, and advertising can be segmented to one gender, such as a feminine-products ad in the girls' locker room and shaving cream in the boys'.
Sports and Education Enterprises of Sauk Rapids, Minn., did not set out to get into advertising to students when it came up with its "Campus Communication Center." The wall unit, designed for school lobbies or cafeterias, includes an led moving message display and a calendar for posting notices of campus activities, said Wayne Fiester, vice president of marketing.
The company tried to sell the 7' by 4' units directly to schools, but after limited success, hit on the idea of carrying national ads, which cover the cost of placing the units in high-school lobbies without charge.
The communications centers will include six spaces for national ads, Mr. Fiester said. The company has signed up 1,600 schools, and it hopes to have 2,000 by Jan. 1.
One significant difference between the Campus Communication Centers and the other wall media is that schools will share in the advertising revenue after the first year.
Whittle and American Passage do not share ad revenue with the schools. A high school could net roughly $500 a year from the Campus Communications Center, Mr. Fiester said.
Some school officials see the wall media as beneficial, offering information to students at no cost to the school other than exposure to a few small ads.
But others see a blatantly commercial assault on the sanctity of the educational environment.
"Each month, there is a positive message for young people," said John Holliday, assistant principal of Rosemount High School in Rosemount, Minn., which has displayed Whittle's "Connections" for the past two years. "Usually, you see something that is relevant to young people, and the advertising is pretty small."
But at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn., Principal Larry Hartman has rejected the wall media and other similar marketing ventures.
"The messages that most of them give are excellent, but the problem is they carry a commercial line," Mr. Hartman said. "We feel very strongly that we cannot be used as a commercial vehicle to disseminate information for economic gain."
"You have a captive audience here," he added. "They should not be used for commercial purposes."
School officials have long had to contend with companies viewing students as an easy market.
Firms offering class rings, photographs, educational travel, and other products see students as their natural market. Meanwhile, candy and novelty companies seek profit-sharing arrangements with student groups who need to raise funds.
In recent years, Madison Avenue has also become increasingly aware of the potential of the youth market, citing such evidence as:
Total spending by U.S. teenagers reached a new high of $53.7 billion last year, according to the Rand Youth Poll of New York City.
Boys ages 16 to 19 have $62.90 in weekly income, of which they save 18 percent but spend the rest, according to the Rand poll. Girls in that age category have a weekly income of $65.85, of which they save only 16 percent, spending the rest on cosmetics, gasoline, and other discretionary purchases.
Sixty percent of youths polled by the Nickelodeon/Yankelovich Youth Monitor say they influence the brand of cereal their parents buy; 54 percent the brand of ice cream; and 26 percent the brand of toothpaste.
But for many years, the presence of national advertising on campuses has been limited to the ubiquitous Coca-Cola logos on the football scoreboard.
Now, Madison Avenue is going where the youthful buyers are: the schools. "Their buying power is tremendous," said Dale Wallenius, publisher of The Marketing to Kids Report, a newsletter.
Marketers look upon them as a three-in-one opportunity, he said. The first is what they buy on their own; the second is the influence they exert on their parents' decisions; the third is their potential as future adult consumers.
"These youngsters are tomorrow's adults," Mr. Wallenius said. "Brand awareness will stay with them."
The "influence" market is hottest among advertisers right now, he said. "The youngsters are being referred to as the third parent. They are responsible for planning menus, buying groceries. That responsibility carries over to larger pruchases, such as VCR's, TV's. Their opinion is being considered more than ever before."
Wall media are a relatively marginal portion of the advertising aimed at the nation's youth, experts say. The most accepted forms are television and magazines.
"The wall media is fairly attractive stuff," said Leo E. Scullin, a media expert and senior vice president of Young and Rubicam, a large New York advertising agency. "The creativity demanded by that media is to be visually arresting. But many contend that the best way to reach any market is through television. And for teens, particularly through mtv."
But magazine publishers also compete for the mass youth audience. There are racks of publications aimed at teenage girls, from circulation leader Seventeen to brash upstart Sassy, whose controversial topics have led some to call it the Cosmopolitan of the youth set.
Most such publications are sold on newsstands or by subscription, and their only official presence on the school campus is in the library. But a number of publishers seek to distribute their publications through the schools.
Among the established publishers doing this are the Scholastic Network of New York, which has several school publications, and Field Publications of Middletown, Conn., which publishes My Weekly Reader.
At least three other national publishers distribute magazines in the schools, said Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi journalism professor who tracks new magazines.
Whittle Communication's GO!, or Girls Only!, is an example of a publication targeted to a specific segment of the youth market. It is distributed through school health and physical-education teachers to 1.2 million girls ages 12 to 14.
"There was no publication that talked directly to that age group of girls," said Ed Winter, division president of Whittle. "We only talk to that age group."
GO! is published three times a year, with stories about "Turning 13," "Life with the 'In' Crowd," and "Adventures in Babysitting." (An accompanying story is titled, "Now the Gross Part," about changing diapers: "Peel off the tape on the diaper and prepare for the worst. Think, I will not faint.")
GO! is sponsored exclusively by a division of Johnson & Johnson, which advertises feminine-hygiene products in its pages.
One of the nation's most prominent magazine publishers, Time Inc., is about to jump into the youth market with a magazine expected to appeal to boys, Sports Illustrated for Kids.
The target audience is 8- to 13-year-old boys and girls, with the 84-page magazine expected to have about 30 pages of advertising, said Ann S. Moore, publisher of the youth version and associate publisher of Sports Illustrated.
The company plans to award 250,000 free copies to "underfunded" schools, while other schools can purchase subscriptions at $10.95 each. In addition, school organizations, such as parent-teacher groups, can sell home subscriptions for $15.95, keeping a $5 commission on each.
"I want every kid in America to read," said Ms. Moore. "In the long run, yes, I'm grooming future Sports Illustrated readers."
Among the advertisers, who are also underwriting the free subscriptions to some schools, are American Airlines, A.T.&T., Converse, Reebok, Sears, and Xerox.
Officials of national education groups say it is generally up to local officials to decide the appropriateness of advertising and marketing efforts in the schools.
A spokesman for the National School Boards Association said the organization has no policy on advertising in the schools.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals has opposed commercial ventures such as student-recognition publications and opposes releasing lists of student names for solicitation by companies.
It also has a council for standards on international educational travel. But it has not addressed the newer marketing efforts, said William Clay Parrish, associate director of research.