corporate involvement with kids: how much is too much?

Two recent news stories have highlighted the issue of corporate involvement with children on environmental and nutritional subjects. These incidents included advertising as well as education, and I think they illustrate clearly the importance of corporate responsibility – something we clearly lack.

In Ohio, the oil and gas industry under the auspices of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program created a program sponsored by Radio Disney called “Rocking in Ohio” to teach kids ostensibly about the importance of oil and gas. (I say ‘auspices’ because that group is funded by only oil and gas industry companies.) The group’s spokesperson was quoted as saying that “our country can’t survive without oil and gas” and that “kids are the best way to spread the message.”

I don’t think anyone can argue that it’s not important to teach science to kids – for them to understand what oil and gas are, how they are extracted, and what impacts they have on the economy and environment – both positive and negative. Science is awesome. And to be fair, the program did not educate children specifically about fracking, which is the most controversial issue in the oil and gas industry today (particularly in Ohio, where this program was based.) But is the best way to teach them to give an industry front group center stage and allow that presentation to be sponsored by Radio Disney? Why do children’s educational programs need to be “sponsored” at all? It’s a serious crisis if this nation needs to rely on corporate OR activist interests to educate its children. We need to give them facts and allow them to use their developing reasoning and analytical skills to draw conclusions. You know, like a scientist would.

Even more disturbing is the second of the two recent stories – Gatorade’s award-winning video game promotion in which water is made out to make your athletic performance suffer. Just the idea is even absurd – because anyone who has done anything remotely athletic in his/her life knows that water is essential to athletic performance. But Gatorade (owned by Pepsi Co.) specifically requested that ad agency OMD create a game for them to reinforce the message that Gatorade is superior to water. OMD specifically said that the goal was to convince kids that “water is the enemy of performance.”

In the game, Usain Bolt (the Olympic champion sprinter) runs through a course where kids try to collect Gatorade, which makes him run faster, and avoid water, which slows him down. Ok, really?

Even as a runner, I am not a fan of Gatorade for a multitude of reasons (read my post on it here). But the biggest issue is that there are few kids who are active enough that they even need to fuel with Gatorade or electrolyte replacements instead of water. Only kids who are heavily involved in sports and vigorous athletic activity even need to consider electrolyte replacement. For kids who just go to gym class? Water is fine. They don’t need the added sugar, and it’s flat out LYING to tell them that Gatorade improves athletic performance. What they should be doing is encouraging kids to get active.

Advertising to kids is a slippery slope, since their reasoning skills are still developing and their ability to discern between reality and advertisements is spotty, at best. (I’ve talked about this before too.) Putting a famous athlete on a Gatorade ad makes kids think they should drink it too – but the likelihood of a kid working out like a pro athlete? Slim to none. Even though Pepsi Co. owns its own bottled water brand – Aquafina – they push Gatorade for athletic performance. Aquafina is supposedly even a partner with the First Lady’s Drink Up campaign, to try to get kids to drink more water. It’s ludicrous to even try to claim corporate responsibility for children’s health and then turn around and tell them water is the enemy of athletic performance.

These two examples show how even programs with seemingly good intentions or benefits can have profit-driven corporate interests behind them. It’s important to understand where the messaging you are hearing is coming from and to discern facts from advertisements.