Back to School: Using Branding as a Media Literacy Lesson

August 20, 2015 Update: More Back to School branding boondoggles…

Remember when the G-force Gatorade tribe was caught  red-handed with their marketing machinations of hawking sugar hydration to students over regular water?

Well, they’re at it again, this time sneaking their sports drinks message into schools as ‘hydration education’ which is perhaps one of the biggest shilling shenanigans of sugar I’ve seen a corporation have the audacity to trot out under the guise of health. (gah!) Thank you for the spin-spotting Bettina Elias Siegel. Heavy sigh. 

Sept. 4, 2013 Ah, back to school marketing…from kitsch collegiate team logos on fast food buns in 2013 to crass versions of same back in 2010, marketers are improving their outreach (or at least their taste).

Usually I focus on media literacy for younger children, instilling a rebel yell at the crossroads of consumption junction to deflect some of the $70 billion spent on back to school marketing in food marketing, fashion, classroom tools, sponsors, and education supplies…Because parents need to start seeding critical thinking skill sets and weeding the fresh crop of tactics used to plant products front and center that root themselves in mindshare early on.

I distinctly remember the upending of our ‘family values’ seguing from Pre-K to kindergarten as I watched my child turn up her nose at healthy bento box lunches in favor of the power whine for pouches and tube food to be ‘like all the other kids’ with peer driven junk food allure and the subversive ‘fight fire with fire’ tactics I had to use to turn that tanker around.

But since Common Sense Media just posted a basic parenting primer to prep on pester power and back to school boundaries, today I’m shifting focus toward older teens, especially those leaving home for the first time, because everyone thinks they’ve ‘got this’ by now.

Truth is, some do, some don’t. And the stakes are higher, especially with financial literacy.

As colleges struggle to self-brand and stay relevant in today’s shifting priorities and proliferation of a MOOC marketplace (massive open online courses) of higher learning, it’s been an education itself to watch the marketing morph to a higher level.

Here’s an excellent Forbes article on how the higher education landscape is changing and how schools themselves are responding with branding of their own to differentiate.

As the parent of an incoming college freshman who makes comments like:

“Gee, maybe they could keep tuition costs down if they’d quit sending me ‘name- personalized’ four-color brochures I don’t read,”

…It’s heartening to see teens with early media literacy embedded USE their skills to cherry-pick the messages, evaluate the rot, look for toxicity, and leave the pits.

We’ve already had ‘the talk’ about credit cards, identity theft, bank and student loan pitches with bait-n-hook tactics, and cheap air travel to exotic holidays that blur the lines between what’s REALLY a legit ‘student discount’ and what’s a velvet shackle of soft sell sign on the dotted line enslavement…

But I’m amping up my teen’s armament for a first-strike in financial literacy further, because marketers are getting more sophisticated in their outreach and FREE is a student’s favorite word. With a clear media literacy lens, free can be a win-win…

Far from tchotchkes and free pens, I’ve seen some brilliant marketing maneuvers that have ratcheted up the level of ‘engagement’ with students at the collegiate level already, branding smart and deep by companies making themselves useful and establishing good will early on…

Whether it’s “free bicycles for 100 incoming freshman”  encouraging students to forego bringing cars to university to help offset carbon emissions…

…Free curbside ‘help’ with tee-wearing toters eager to unpack students in their new dorms…

…Or social enterprises seeding green goods in a creative flip of the ‘Freshman 15’

…The strategic outreach is clearly intelligent, appealing to a generation that studies show are nonplussed by brands on social media and ‘meh’ on ‘engagement’ since teens have been commodified on multiple channels their entire lives.

But make no mistake, the more subtle the branding, the more calculator crunching and critical thinking needs to come into play with evaluation of offers and cost benefit analysis of what’s a ‘real deal’ and what’s a headline grabber.

For parents like me who have clearly reached their pain point of exorbitant tuition costs and are eager to find ‘deals’ for teens but unable and unwilling to deal with any add-on surprises, critical thinking and media literacy has vaulted to the number one 21st century life skill to plop in the backpack before heading out of home, and out of state.

Older kids are usually aware of the usual tools and tactics deployed to snag their data and leverage location, privacy, and preferences…And despite what Disney’s CEO implied in past gaffes, youth DO care about their privacy and sense of agency. A lot.

“58% of American teens have downloaded an app to a cell phone or tablet. More than half of teen apps users have avoided an app due to concerns about sharing their personal information and girls are especially likely to take steps to protect their location data” –Teens & Mobile Apps Privacy, Pew Internet

This should give parents an exhale on the campus safety front and bring some balance into the ‘what to know before you go’ conversation. (And I’d add the Circle of Six campus safety app and ‘consent’ criteria of discerning communication messages with substantial underlines and a bonus infographic for clarity!)

How can you instill “back to school media literacy” with teens who may be convinced they’re unswayable?

How is it that some youth purport to have zero vulnerability to marketing ploys while wearing brands like a human billboard? This “think red” model from the Think Watson site is about as basic as it comes…Though I’d say the ‘go to the source/lift and reveal’ approach we use at Shaping Youth is even easier:

Get kids in on the “show and tell” game early and often by peeking behind the curtain of Oz guided by tactics provided by marketers themselves.

From the halo effect of cause-marketing (which can span from legitimate efforts to greenwashing, pinkwashing and goodwashing) to participation ploys to “engage,” teens should know exactly how “free” those freebies are, and be able to get beyond the ‘swag’ to assess the more subtle storytelling.

Brand infiltration on college campuses is EVERYwhere:

Pouring rights, peer ambassadors, global licensing, preferred vendors funneled into food courts, bookstores and tech gear…it’s up to students to decipher what’s to their advantage.

From car-sharing and bike-swapping to discounts and deals, you not only HAVE an ‘opportunity’…to marketers you ARE one.

My favorite campus guide as we toured Oregon State University framed features with full transparency instead of the gloss and glam college hard sell,

“This is the recreation center where you have free access to…” (pause)

…“Well…not exactly free, but free as in ‘it’s included in the tuition”…

My teen turned to me and said, “Sounds like they’ve been talking to you, mom…”

Yep, I think she’ll do just fine there.


Kids’ Financial Literacy, By Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth

Holy Budget Balance Batman! Gotham Gazette Game

Crisis of Credit Visualized: A Kid Vid Teaching Tool

Money Mgmt, Allowances, Digital Nagging (Part TWO/PAYjr)

Shaping Youth Interviews PAYjr CEO David Jones, Part ONE: Visa Buxx

Shaping Youth: A Humorous Approach to Student Debt: Credit Cartoons

Shaping Youth: Kids Take Lessons From Financial Debt Binge

Shaping Youth: Virtual Chore Chart Boosts Kids Financially Savvy

Shaping Youth: A Vision of Students Today– Digital Ethnography

Shaping Youth: Web 2.0 Fun Forward, The Machine Is Us/ing Us!

Interactive Games/Virtual Worlds and Financial Literacy for Kids (and updates)

The Hub Premieres Millionaires Club (special on 10-23-11) also, new launch: 9-9-2011 Cartoon Network: Cha-Ching Asia (press release) and 4-23-2010 Cash Savvy Kids

Coming soon? Newcomers Piggbackr and Tykoon entering the fiscal fitness kids’ community space…(last updated 11-28-11)

Budget Hero: American Public Media (story to come tmrw on S.Y.)

Default Student Debt Documentary (interview in March)

Minyanland: Bulls/Bears and virtual critters teach money tips (w/NCEE)

iThryv: Newly launched online banking site: Ages 5-24 Virtual Family bank; w/your rules, values & teachable moments, plus a blog w/allowance & finance tips etc. (love the post from the 8 yr old “don’t let the dog eat your money”)

My Reward Board ages 5-12; interactive customizable chore & finance tracking tool National Financial Coalition; Reality Check for Kids

Global Stock Market: Free, realistic game simulation

Moneyopolis: Online game; probono effort by Ernst & Young for middle schoolers National Consumers League/high schoolers

Independent Means website & products by Joline Godfrey, including Raising Financially Fit Kids, No More Frogs to Kiss: 9 Ways to Give Economic Power to Girls etc.

Financial Smarts for Students: The JumpStart Coalition

Lemonade Stand Economics: Book/site about entrepreneurial ventures; debt free college by Geof White

New Moon Money: Book written by girls for girls, from New Moon Publishing

Save for America: School savings curriculum w/online integration

Moon Jar: Award-winning financial literacy toolkit, book, products

Hot Company: “The money game with attitude”

Prosperity4Kids: Financial training products, programs & tools with resource links

Kids.Gov: Official Kids Portal for the U.S. Government on all things ‘money’

Sense & Dollars Online game; middle/high schoolers

Wall Street Urban youth programs, from summer camps to school year financial literacy

Kiplinger’s Money Smart Kids (article compilation)

Financial Literacy for Kids: Money Lessons Start Young (Parenthood)

Girls Inc: Economic Literacy (for adults too!)

Girls Lead Now (formerly Girls Economic Power Day)

Creative Wealth International (formerly The Money Camp)

Cash Savvy Kids (launching via network  April 2010)

Case Studies/Life Skills for Youth via



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