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Class, Pay Attention To This Message From Our Sponsor

Brigid Bergin
CrainsNewYork.com
October 18, 2008


Every year, Colgate-Palmolive sends toothbrushes and samples of its toothpaste to 4 million schoolchildren. In its annual report to shareholders, the company calls the effort a “consumption-building program.”

When the Bright Smiles, Bright Futures program is marketed to schools, it becomes a literacy tool that also happens to use Colgate branding to teach students about oral health.

The force behind that transformtion is JMH Education Marketing, a communications firm that specializes in getting companies and nonprofits' messages into classrooms. For nearly 30 years, JMH has navigated the controversy surrounding advertising to schoolchildren by choosing its clients carefully and hiring former teachers to design programs.

“We know the fine line,” says Chief Executive Janice Hamilton. “It's obvious that a corporation like Colgate or Nestlé is bringing that information to them, but it's not blatant.”

The growing emphasis on corporate social responsibility and the ubiquity of advertising have combined to make branded educational content more appealing and prevalent.

Because kids' current and future purchasing power makes them a prized market, schools are a valued marketing venue, according to a report, At Sea in a Marketing-Saturated World, from Arizona State University.

But companies' efforts are meeting with growing opposition.

High-quality materials

“It's important for children to brush their teeth,” says Susan Linn, director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “But do they need to do it with Colgate toothpaste? Once a brand is involved, it stops being education.”

JMH overcomes the objections by making sure that its materials are top-notch and receive the imprimatur of teachers.

After receiving a client's proposal, JMH looks at the needs of teachers, then considers how a client's message might correspond with a specific discipline, such as literacy, language arts or geography. When materials are ready, JMH lets instructors know they're available by request.

“We look at where the fit is, then we partner with an education association—quite frequently, that's in the curricular area,” Ms. Hamilton says. “It helps a teacher do what she's doing better.”

For instance, JMH sought input from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics for a financial literacy program, called Feed the Pig, introduced in September. Aimed at grades four through six, it instructs kids on how to set financial goals and helps teachers cover lessons in decimals, fractions and multiplication.

Robust program

“We ended up with a really robust math program,” says Abigail Ramos, education program manager at JMH and a former teacher.

The American Institute for Certified Public Accountants and the Ad Council co-sponsor the program. Their logos appear on the materials and accompanying Web site. There's no overt sales pitch, but teaching fiscal responsibility to consumers when they're young increases the likelihood that they will need an accountant later on.

JMH's finely tuned approach means that the firm is selective about the business it accepts. For example, a cigarette company asked Ms. Hamilton about doing a communications project, but she turned it down.

For Ms. Hamilton, the proof of JMH's value is evident in cities like San Francisco, which has banned all advertising from classrooms but has allowed the Colgate campaign because of its overall educational benefit.

Harmony Philo, now 7, a student at Lake Pleasant Central School in upstate New York, participated in the Bright Smiles program as a kindergartener. She recalls getting a free toothbrush and toothpaste, but not the brand.

What she took away was the lesson about brushing technique, she says: “You have to get the top and the bottom. And when you're done, you close your mouth and do them all together.”

AT A GLANCE
JMH EDUCATION MARKETING

FOUNDER Janice M. Hamilton
STARTED 1980
REVENUES $5 million
EMPLOYEES 14
 

 

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