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Kai Ryssdal: There's a huge branding conference happening in London today. All about how companies can better market their products to students. The Web site doesn't say exactly which students, though. College or maybe high school, we'd figure. But Marketplace's Sean Cole tells us companies are getting their brands in front of students who are a lot younger in the classroom.
SEAN COLE: There's this guy I know at member station WBUR here in Boston.
STEVE BROWN: I'm an anchor-reporter here.
Steve Brown. He's on the air a lot. And one night recently he came home to find a note that his 11-year-old daughter had brought home from school. It said all of the fifth-graders would be taking a puberty education class called "Always Changing."
BROWN: And then I get to the paragraph saying, "and this is funded by Old Spice deodorant and Always feminine products."
Turns out the curriculum is provided free of charge by Procter & Gamble, which makes Always pads and Old Spice and Secret deodorants. It's a one- to two-hour class covering personal hygiene and menstruation. It was developed in 1984 and now reaches 85 percent of America's fifth-graders.
BROWN: And I thought schools were sort of an advertising-free zone.
I called the school to ask if I could sit in on the class. They said, "No." But...
COLE: All right, we have a package here.
Procter & Gamble sent me the curriculum. It comes with a sample pack that's handed out to the girls called . . .
COLE: "Your Happy Kit."
With the Always logo on the front. It's got pads and panty-liners in it. There are also pamphlets and coupons.
COLE: And a little thing of Secret! "Invisible Solid." Kuku Coco Butter is the scent.
The boys get a little thing of Old Spice. So is this education or is it marketing?
Susan Linn, who heads up the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in Boston, says it's marketing.
SUSAN LINN: Companies love to market in schools and one of the ways that they do that is by creating what are called sponsored education materials, SEMs.
COLE: There's like an acronym for it?
LINN: Yes. And there's a wide variety of them.
From the American Coal Foundation, and McDonald's, and Clorox. And no for-profit enterprise, says Linn, can possibly provide unbiased information about its field.
I showed her part of the video that comes with the Procter & Gamble curriculum. The scene is little Megan's sleep-over, and little Allison wanders away to the bathroom. She stands there, staring blankly. Enter Megan's mom.
MRS. JORDAN: Hey Allison, is there something you need?
ALLISON: I don't know. I just started my period.
MRS. JORDAN: Oh...
Her first period. Dutifully, Megan's mom fishes out a package of Always brand pads and grabs a pair of clean undies from a laundry basket.
MRS. JORDAN: It's really easy. They stick right on your underwear.
The Always package is clearly visible throughout this shot.
LINN: And that's the whole purpose of this video, really. If it wasn't the purpose of the video, they wouldn't have product placement in it.
LELA COFFEY: Honestly, in this company, as cheesy as it can sound sometimes, we go beyond the products that we sell to really understanding how to help the consumer behind the products.
Lela Coffey is an associate marketing director for Always. But she says marketing is 100 percent not the intent of the curriculum. Puberty is scary and P&G wants to help. And sure there might be some corporate benefit.
COFFEY: And it would be disingenuous of me to say that we don't believe that that benefit is there, but if we were choosing to directly market at these girls, I think the program would look a lot different than it does.
The branding would be more blatant, she says. But Susan Linn isn't convinced. And, Linn says, in this economy, underfunded schools might make room for more sponsored materials.
LINN: You know, I hear from teachers a lot. "These materials come in, they're free, they're colorful, they're engaging. You know, what am I supposed to do?"
Question is, intentional or not, do they work as marketing? Will Steve Brown's daughters grow up to use Always and Secret?
BROWN: My wife has trained them well. They will use what's on sale.
In Boston, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.
This story was brought to you by the makers of candles, broccoli and finger paint.