Back to school with PepsiCo stealth marketing?

by: 

Michele Simon

I recently blogged about questions regarding how PepsiCo's voluntary beverage guidelines, announced in March, would be implemented in schools given that contracts are made at the local level. Now with back-to-school in full swing, I have even more questions about how PepsiCo may be using stealth marketing techniques to gain access to that coveted captive K-12 audience.

Today, the company announced a new program it calls Score for Your School. From the press release:

PepsiCo's Frito-Lay North America business unit kicks-off high school  football season with the "Score for Your School" program for Texans  only that invites fans to help schools win up to a $10,000 donation for  their sports programs. Beginning today, Texas fans can visit www.scoreforyourschool.com,  enter the 9-digit product code from ANY Frito-Lay product (chips, dips,  salsa and more) and then select the Texas high school of their choice. 

So in order to even vote for your school, you have to purchase a product. How nice of Frito-Lay to "invite" fans to buy Fritos, Doritos, Tostitos, Cheetos, Lays, etc. But it's "ANY" product, so generous! Why just Texas schools? The company's marketing guy explains: "Frito-Lay snacks and high school football are a Texas tradition,"  said Michael Del Pozzo, director, marketing, Frito-Lay North America.

Frito-Lay snacks are a Texas tradition? I will let the words of someone who replied to me on Twitter today speak to that: "Being that TX has a high obesity rate, this sure crushes any efforts being made 2 teach kids about eating healthy!!!" In other words, that's one tradition Texas can do without. Frito-Lay's Del Pozzo continues:

As high school sports programs face many challenges, we thought this  promotion would be an easy and fun way for fans to help. Now, each  single purchase can add up for a chance to win up to $10,000 for their  school when they go online and 'Score for their School'.

How thoughtful of Frito-Lay to create a fun and easy way for fans to help sports programs. Couldn't have anything to do with how many more chips would get sold would it? Because if the company really cared, how about just sending a check to each Texas high school football team instead? This program, which runs through December 31, is capped at $90,000 in donations, a drop in the bucket for the nation's largest salty snack purveyor.

But this marketing-disguised-as-philanthropy is by now old territory for PepsiCo. For the past year, the company has been gaining much positive PR with its ubiquitous Pepsi Refresh donation program. If you're like me, you've been annoyed by friends and colleagues begging you to vote for their nonprofit or other worthy cause, like a high school popularity contest.

Last week, a parochial elementary school in Alton, Illinois held a "thank you assembly" for Pepsi employees after the school won a Refresh Everything grant of $25,000 to purchase computers. The article describing the event is worth checking out for the image of little 6-year old Matthew Dixon holding a "thank-you Pepsi" sign; yes 6. The reporter explains how the youngsters showed Pepsi employees their gratitude:

The entire school signed a large, thank-you poster, and the younger  students made individual thank-you drawings in red, white and blue, the  soda brand's colors. [my emphasis] Teachers wore turquoise shirts that read, "Every  Pepsi Refreshes the World," and the children pinned on Pepsi buttons....

The highlight of the 15-minute assembly in the gymnasium came when  Father Delix Michel riled up the youngsters with a T-shirt toss. Similar  to professional baseball games - but minus the slingshot - Michel  showed a good pitching arm as he deftly threw Pepsi shirts to all areas  where students were sitting, including landing one shirt in the back  row. Some of the shirts landed in the students' laps.

A priest handing out Pepsi T-shirts, it doesn't get any better than that for positive PR. Now it's great that PepsiCo wants to give back to the community, but there is only one word for this and it's not philanthropy, it's branding. It's sad that schools feel they must participate and don't see through it.

The Pepsi Refresh website has an entire section devoted to education. Please let us know if your school is involved in either of these stealth marketing campaigns. Pepsi does not belong in schools, whether it's soda vending machines or voting contests.

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