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Procter & Gamble Takes Tampax Into the Classroom

By Jenny Holland

Brandweek - August 11, 2006

NEW YORK -- In recent months, the harsh light of scrutiny has swung in the direction of marketing to children and teens. It has cast its beam on how companies sell to kids, whether its sugary drinks from Coke or sexually suggestive dolls from Hasbro.

Yet one promotional program for the Tampax brand from consumer packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble has been running in schools across the country for years, seemingly with little objection from parents or educators.

In an age when companies routinely refer to the promotion of their products as “education,” it has become almost routine for companies to approach their youngest customers where they spend the most time, in school.

But when it comes to the delicate topic of talking about puberty and hygiene to girls, is it okay for companies that make feminine care products to step in?

“On general principle, marketing directly to children is not a good idea,” said Joe Kelly, president of Duluth, Minn.-based Dads and Daughters, an advocacy group that promotes gender equality.
“But if there are exceptions, where are they and what are they?
I wish it were a tougher question for marketers.”

A recent incident at a Brooklyn, N.Y. middle school illustrates the potential pitfalls of mixing marketing and class time.

In June, a P&G representative was invited by a parent coordinator to the public school as part of a Tampax-sponsored national program for middle school girls called “Feeling Good: More about you.”

A group of about 120 seventh grade girls sat in the auditorium at Sunset Park Prep and listened to a P&G rep talk about puberty and periods. At the end of it, the girls were given gift bags that included samples of Tampax tampons and Always sanitary pads, according to the company and teachers who were present.

For P&G, the visit was just one part of a nationwide brand-promotion strategy for seventh graders that the company has been running since buying the Tampax brand in the late 1990s. The program reached 400,000 girls last year, the company said.

Iris Prager, national manager for “Feeling Good” said the school’s reaction was “extremely positive.”

The New York City Department of Education, however, was caught unaware about the company visit. And it was not happy.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” Marge Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Dept. of Education, said on Monday. According to the city charter, she said, “you cannot promote a particular product or service, and we cannot be in a position where we endorse a particular product or service.”

When first asked whether or not a rep for the Cincinnati, Ohio-based company had been to the school, both the principal of Sunset Park Prep, also known as Middle School 821, and the local superintendent denied it, Feinberg said.

When asked how exactly the company rep came to be in the school, Feinberg said, “We are going to get to the bottom of this. We are taking it very seriously.”

In response, the company said, “we are always invited in at the school’s invitation and we clearly would not enter any school without permission. The schools opt in on an individual basis,” said Michelle Vaeth, rep for P&G, on Friday.

The startled reaction of the Dept. of Education is an indication of how delicate, even controversial, a matter this is to schools and organizations that monitor marketing to children.

To marketers themselves, however, it is an opportunity that benefits the girls as much as the company’s profits.

“We’re looking at girls as they’re entering the market,” said Jessica Hansman, marketing manager for P&G’s Always brand. “They’re craving information. We have an opportunity to provide them with information.”

The Tampax school program is the only one of its kind among makers of feminine hygiene products, said Samantha Skey, svp- strategic marketing at Alloy, a New York-based marketing firm that focuses on teens. “It’s something that a lot of brands have thought about. The girls’ locker room is considered to be a smart place to brand yourself in fem care.”

Hansman stressed that the P&G schools program was permission-based marketing.

“The girls are coming to us for information, versus us pushing something on them. They can receive our message the way they want, these girls are so marketing-savvy.”

Some childhood experts disagree. Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a member of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, said that schools should be advertising-free zones.

“If it’s done in schools, it’s as if the school is endorsing that product,” said Dr. Poussaint, a psychiatrist at Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston and Harvard Medical School. “It makes the marketing message that much stronger.”

Poussaint added that, with a topic like puberty, a company is not in a position to give a full context to the issues, and that as a result, the quality of information given out by companies to kids can be sub-par.

“What about all the other questions that come up for adolescents around reproduction, like sexuality and STD’s?” he said. “It’s an incomplete, limited way of dealing with subject matter that’s mainly focused on marketing their products.”

According to a science teacher at Sunset Park Prep, the representative sent by P&G in June did not have full command of the facts.

“[The lecture] wasn’t clear,” said the teacher, who asked not to be identified.

For example, she said, the lecturer referred to “internal organisms” instead of “internal organs,” and at one point advised the girls that “it’s important not to disrupt your menstrual cycle by engaging in at-risk behavior.”

She added, “if I had been a sixth or seventh grade girl, I would not have known what she was talking about.”

In response, Prager said, “All our lecturers are trained; this particular woman works in the city schools giving presentations on health. The evaluation that was sent back, done by parent coordinator, was positive.”

Overall, the teacher said her feelings on the lecture were mixed.

“In general, I don’t think it’s appropriate to have health taught by a company as opposed to a health-care professional.”

But some point out that companies are merely stepping into a void left by parents and educators who want to avoid what is considered to be an embarrassing topic.

“It’s clearly in P&G’s self interest to do that,” said Joe Kelly of Dads and Daughters. “But too many other institutions have failed to take responsibility.”

That refrain is echoed by Prager, who has run Tampax programs in schools since 1985, before the brand was bought by P&G.

“There’s less and less money in school budgets for specialists, and in some districts there may not be a nurse or certified health teacher,” she said. “So there’s always a need for someone with expertise to come in and talk to the girls.”

P&G also has a separate program for fifth graders that is conducted by classroom teachers. P&G sends pamphlets that explain puberty to both boys and girls and samples of Always pads, and Old Spice and Secret deodorants.

That program has been running since 1984 and reaches between 80% and 90% of kids in the U.S., said Gay Piller, external relations manager for the Always and Tampax brands . The company also runs similar school programs in 30 other countries including Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Israel, Japan and the U.K.

Hansman, marketing manager for Always, said that the company is merely stepping in at a difficult time in a girl’s life.

“They come to know us as brands they trust and love,” she said. “A lot of girls don’t feel prepared. If we give them information they’re looking for, we can help them have a great experience.”

Yet skeptics say companies could help kids without trying to sell to them.

“The ideal situation is for corporations to make contributions but not market their product,” Dr. Poussaint said. “They would still benefit, because the young people would know what to do.”

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