Last week, Angela S. was shopping with her six-year-old son when he started excitedly lobbying her to buy SunnyD. Angela was surprised – it wasn’t a product she had ever purchased for him. Moreover, “he sounded like a commercial,” yet Angela’s family doesn’t even own a television, so she was pretty sure a TV ad wasn’t the source of his newfound enthusiasm for SunnyD. And then, as her son excitedly told her that if she bought SunnyD his class would get free books, it dawned on her why he was lobbying her: his teacher had told him to.
Her suspicions were confirmed when she got home and looked at the latest handouts that her son had brought home from school and saw a letter from his teacher promoting the “SunnyD Book Spree.” The letter, prewritten by SunnyD and festooned with the company’s logos, began:
Dear parents and guardians,
I’m very excited to tell you about a program our class is participating in that will bring free books to your child’s classroom. It’s called the SunnyD Book Spree, and the program will donate 20 books when our class sends in 20 SunnyD UPC labels. The program will also award hundreds of books to the ten schools that collect the most labels. Please help us get our free books!
How do you get teachers to shill for SunnyD? One way is by partnering with Scholastic, which isn’t shy about using its unique access to educators to promote products and brands in classrooms. Scholastic’s reputation as an educational company lends its clients’ in-school marketing activities a veneer of respectability, even – as in this case – when the product being marketed isn’t good for kids.
When I shared Angela’s concerns about the program with Scholastic’s Vice President of Corporate Communications, she emailed me, “The Sunny D program is a promotion in Parent & Child Magazine that is strictly for parents and teachers… not children.” But the SunnyD Book Spree website tells a different story. The “Tips for Teachers” include the following:
- Have a class party to "raise labels" for books—ask parents to send kids in with SunnyD.
- Keep fun cut-outs or colorful charts in the classroom, showing how many labels have been collected.
Sounds like SunnyD hopes and expects that kids will be actively involved in their classroom promotion. And that Angela’s experience with her son wasn’t an anomaly – it’s how the program was conceived.
So in exchange for twenty books, schools are being asked to:
- Exploit a captive audience of students by making exposure to SunnyD ads compulsory.
- Commercialize their classrooms by decorating their rooms with SunnyD ads and holding SunnyD events.
- Encourage consumption of a product of really poor nutritional quality. When I asked my nutritionist friends about Sunny D, the phrase I heard most often was “sugar water.” An 8-oz serving of Sunny D has 27 grams of sugar; the same size serving of Coca-Cola has 26.
- Encourage students to nag their parents for SunnyD, a product that a lot of parents would probably prefer not to buy for their kids.
- Teach their young students that supporting your school means drinking – and proselytizing to others about – SunnyD. Think about how confusing it must have been for Angela’s son. He was doing what his teacher had asked. He was trying to help his school get books. And his mother was saying no because she doesn’t want him drinking beverages loaded with high-fructose corn syrup?! (Remember, he’s six years old.) Now think about another six year old, who because her parents are not keen on her drinking “sugar water,” is excluded from her class’s SunnyD party.
I hear so often, in these dark economic times, how schools need to “think outside the box” and “partner” with corporations. But marketing in schools isn’t a partnership. It’s exploitation. There’s a lot that kids should learn in school, but how to become a brand ambassador for a lousy beverage isn’t one of them.
Shame on SunnyD and Scholastic.