Branded for life?
By the time they hit first grade, most US children are aware of some 200 logos many dangled by firms out to secure their long-term loyalty.
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The field trip is organized by the Field Trip Factory, a Chicago-based company paid to bring schoolchildren, 4H members, and Boys and Girls Club groups into stores. In addition to Petco, clients include Dominick's and Giant Eagle grocery stores, LaSalle Bank, Pearle Vision, and the Sports Authority athletic-supply store.Skip to next paragraph
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The company's service is unique. And many educators see it as a positive one, pointing to money-strapped school districts that cannot afford quality field trips. But others look askance at commercial messages becoming part of their children's school day. They contend that school should be free of the marketing messages that pervade nearly all other aspects of childhood culture.
"Perhaps there is something educationally appropriate about learning to care for a pet, but this is essentially an organized way to create brand loyalty to a captive audience of kids," says Andrew Hagelshaw, executive director of the Center for Commercial Free Public Education in Oakland, Calif.
The trip begins with reptiles. One group of 12 converges around Dustin, an imperturbable Petco employee, as he plucks lizards from their tanks and turns them every which way. The children scream as an African skink evades Dustin's grip and scampers across the floor. Dustin manages to communicate a few essential facts: "They like a humid tropical environment," he says, bending to pick up the lizard. The children absorb the information, and even ask detailed questions.
But the commercial environment clearly influences them. "That one just ran like a dinosaur. I want to buy one of those," says Austin, a first-grader who stands five inches taller than the others. On their way to the next station, the children pick up Ping Pong balls on display, embossed with the Petco insignia.
Employees make no overt efforts to "recruit" customers. In the bird room, though, manager Dennis Trimpop asks one girl: "Are you going to have one someday?"
"It's up to her," says 6-year-old Caitlin, pointing to her mother, Kara, who is along for the trip.
Animals are an important focus of Ms. Gasper's class. She and the children care for five mice and one leopard gecko, a type of lizard. These and other animals are subjects for writing exercises, storytelling, and science projects. Recent field trips have included Boston's aquarium and Museum of Science.
The school notified each parent about the trip to Petco and received no complaints. "Most field trips, you have to exit through the gift shop anyway," says Kelly, a mother of three first-graders at the Saltonstall School.
Principal Kevin Fahey says the school chooses field trips based on content, not affordability, because most of the trips are subsidized. Yet many school districts are unable to find funding for more than a few rudimentary trips, according to The Field Trip Factory's president Susan Singer.
Some schools defer to another company, The Mad Science Group, to sponsor and teach science-related lessons both in class and after school. The company uses commercial products in its demonstrations. Cosmetics-maker L'Oreal, for example, sponsored a lesson on the science of skin care, which included the use of its Ombrelle sunscreen for kids.
Other partners include Oral-B, Toys "R" Us, and branded Harry Potter toys. The Montreal-based company reaches 5 million children each year, according to account manager Neil Berger.
Some critics say the presence of such commercialism in education dwarfs schools' budgetary woes.
Mr. Hagelshaw likens The Field Trip Factory and The Mad Science Group to marketing firms that promote soda contracts among schools. "In both cases, there's an implied endorsement of this company by the school in the minds of the children."
According to some family advocates, parents are becoming increasingly aware of marketers' efforts to reach their children wherever they go. Consumption, they realize, is defining the context of childhood.
"No matter their intentions, the underlying message of this program has to be: Be a good shopper," says Enola Aird, director of The Motherhood Project at The Institute for American Values, a New York-based group.
On the way to the store, Gasper explained to the children that Petco was different from their past trips. Part of their reason for coming is to use money from a fundraiser to pay for pet supplies. Each child is given a plastic bag with $10 and a short shopping list. With a parent's supervision, they hunt for food and toys.
After checking out, each child is given a Petco bag to take home. It includes stickers, a coloring book, a "tattoo," and some educational material, all displaying the Petco insignia.
"There are lots of pet owners of the future here," says Joyce Levenson, mother of one of the 7-year-olds on the trip.