The Littlest Skeptics At one Atlanta school, fourth-graders get even harder to reach.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – As if the advertising industry didn't have enough trouble already, a new development is catching on in schools: programs to "ad-proof" children.
Judy Aspes, an early-learning psychologist, conducts one such media literacy effort at the private Galloway School in Atlanta. This year she had fourth-graders study the advertising and nutritional value of their favorite foods. They were shocked to learn that manufacturers don't always have their best interests at heart. "When I saw how angry they were, I thought, 'There has to be something they can do,' " Aspes says. So she had them write the companies.
"I love your food ... but I am very disappointed," Jenica Ghorashi, 10, wrote Burger King's CEO, Brad Blum. "Your mouthwatering small milkshake, which I thought was healthy, is 620 calories and 32 grams of fat. Since you aim so many commercials at children, I believed you cared about our health." Burger King says it recently halved the butterfat in a small chocolate shake--it now has 410 calories and 13 grams of fat.
"I love the taste of Coke, but I was wondering if you could add some calcium and vitamins to your drink," wrote Andrew Harton, 10, to Steve Heyer, then Coca-Cola's president and COO.
Altogether, the kids sent 35 letters to a dozen companies. They got two impressive personalized responses from Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy, who told Danny Kreus, 9, that he was test-marketing a fruit cup, and Alex Kitchen, 11, that a whole-wheat bun is a "wonderful idea" he hopes to one day adopt. The class got a pair of matching form letters from McDonald's and the same from Pizza Hut, although, mysteriously, Pizza Hut sent a $10 coupon to Kyle Edson, 10, and only a $5 coupon to Hannah Holst, 10. (Some classmates suspect that's because she's a girl.)
On the whole, it has not done much to repair the image of advertisers in the kids' eyes. Sitting on the floor of Aspes's office, Jenica explains that she's learned "that looks and taste can be deceiving." Fast-food ads, says Aubrey Stone, 10, often depict "these perfectly made burgers. They must spend hours on how they slice that tomato. Then they rotate the camera so you can see all sides of it." In real life, her classmates agree, that burger looks as if a car ran over it. David Leaderman, 10, still can't get over his misconception about McDonald's McFlurry. "I thought it was made out of yogurt," he says. Now he's so disillusioned that he thinks it's just a bunch of chemicals: "It's like Windex." (Actually, a McFlurry is mostly milk, sugar, and cream, with candy thrown in.)
These now-savvy consumers disapprove of relentless beer advertising during sporting events (which studies indicate creates positive attitudes toward drinking in young children). "We're getting to the age where we watch a lot of sports, you know," says Andrew Harton seriously. They are quick to sniff out hypocrisy. "My dad and I always wonder why McDonald's sponsors the Olympics," says Chris Burke. "Which Olympic athletes eat at McDonald's?"
Aspes says she isn't trying to make the kids jaded. "But we work so long and so hard on teaching the children good decision-making. They need to have the facts before they can make good choices. They need to look with a critical eye. It's easy for any of us to be blindsided by advertising." --Betsy Morris