Marketing School to Jaded Kids

In most places kids may not be overjoyed to attend school, but they tolerate it. It's a stepping stone, their parents remind them over and over, to better things, like college, an interesting, well-paying job and a stable family life. In other places, especially poor neighborhoods, though, kids don't regard school as a necessary evil but rather as a burden. For a lot of kids in poor neighborhoods, school is definitely not cool.

"It's no secret," says New York City schools chief Joel Klein. "All you have to do is ask kids in these areas and they'll tell you: school is not their thing. They don't want to be identified as being good at it. Studying is not something they want to be seen doing," he says.

So Klein is setting out to sell school achievement to schoolchildren—much in the same way that kids are sold soda, breakfast cereal or pop music. With the help of an as yet unnamed advertising agency, he's launching a slick multimedia campaign complete with celebrity pitchmen, viral marketing schemes, free videos and give-away prizes aimed at "rebranding" academics.

Here's the plan: in January about 15,000 middle-schoolers from high-poverty neighborhoods will be given free cell phones. Through those phones kids will then receive taped—and perhaps even personal—messages from entertainment and sports celebrities reminding them to try their best in class. They'll be able to download "interviews" with well-to-do men and women who work as dentists, technicians, scientists and accountants and who will discuss the way they parlayed school success into financial security. Teachers will also use the phones to remind pupils about upcoming tests or an overdue homework assignment. When individuals or groups of kids improve their attendance, up their grades or display good citizenship in school, they'll be rewarded with free minutes on their phones and tickets to shows and sporting events. Kids who get phones will also be assigned mentors.

New York City isn't the first school district to sell itself. About six months ago officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) hired a team of corporate communication pros to cook up a campaign aimed at getting dropouts back on track to graduate. Their goal? Lower the dropout rate from 25 percent to 20 percent by the end of the 2007-8 school year.

"The school district already had a lot of good resources and programs in place, but we needed to increase the awareness of those programs," says Naomi Goldman, senior vice president at the Rogers Group, who worked on the campaign. To get the word out, LAUSD unveiled a revamped Web site where dropouts and chronic truants can get information and access the services they need to re-enroll and get a diploma. The district also launched a campaign that uses radio commercials on hip-hop stations, text messaging ("Did u know high school graduates earn an average of $175 more per week than high school dropouts? Get your diploma"), YouTube videos and MySpace pages to drive dropouts to the information site. The campaign builds on an even larger program launched last year that is using federal funds to hire "diploma-project advisers" or guidance counselors to work with the students most in danger of dropping out.

The advertising programs aren't costly. LAUSD spent about $200,000 to come up with its campaign. In New York former NAACP president Bruce S. Gordon, who chairs the advisory board on the project, says he expects most of the phones, services and rewards to be donated by celebrities and corporations. But both the New York and the L.A. program require extensive effort and coordination at a time when many school administrators and teachers are already overburdened with No Child Left Behind accountability requirements. Could these programs distract school administrators and teachers from their core mission? Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who is working on the New York project, says he understands the resistance. "We could sit back on our hands and say, 'They should learn for the value of learning'," says Fryer. "But you know what? That's not working. And we're losing a lot of kids."

Will it work? Bob Liodice, president and CEO of the Association of National Advertisers, says yes. "Marketing and advertising are powerful forces that influence the behavior of adults and of kids. Think of public service advertising, which has done so much to raise awareness on issues like using seatbelts, drunk driving or the dangers of illegal drug use." Or think of the millions spent on advertising commercial products to young people; corporate America wouldn't be spending that money if it didn't work. The key, says Liodice, "is making sure the campaign delivers the pro-school message to kids frequently over a long period of time."

Other experts aren't so sure. They say the personal touch—the mentors and advisers—may work better than YouTube videos and text messaging. "When it comes to young people, marketing can only do so much," says Rick Boyko, former chief creative officer for advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather and now a Virginia Commonwealth University communications professor. "These are people who have been marketed to since they day they were born. They are very sophisticated consumers. They'll know that a prerecorded message is just that: prerecorded. That it is not sincere. And it will take them about three seconds to belittle it. Kids don't need commercials. They need dialogue. They need contact. They need good information from people they can trust."

Proponents of the plan agree that one-on-one support is ideal. But in a system that is failing so many kids, coming up with innovative ways to foster positive attitudes toward learning— in the classroom or on YouTube—is an experiment worth trying.