I’m so tired of questionable business practices being passed off as corporate benevolence that I’m going to rant a little. Despite my local perspective, I’ll bet this is a universal issue  – so try and stick with it to the end.

Last week, our seven-year-old daughter came home from school with a bright green nylon bag that had drawstrings for shoulder straps and the Geico gecko screen printed in blue on the front. She’d attended her class’s annual end-of-school picnic at a nearby park where the children enjoy a few hours away from school amidst nature. And yet somehow, someone was there giving away these green bags. Inside of the bag were other Geico branded goodies like a sports cup and even a hand fan with a caveman’s face on it. There were other brands represented at the picnic as well. The local pet superstore got into the act by giving away a poop bag holder that clips onto your belt. There was even a coupon for a free appetizer at a franchise restaurant we never visit.

On Saturday, our ten-year-old daughter attended a similar celebration at a park for her Safety Patrol team, and she came home with a huge bag branded by the local franchise of a national toy store chain. Inside of that bag, even more tchotchke items emblazoned with crisp logos awash in corporate colors.

And so all of these companies were able to fraternize with our school children outside of school as a way to keep their brand in front of their target audience. For free.

Ok, maybe not totally free – I mean, they did have to buy the tchotchkes and then pay someone to deliver and distribute them to the children. But when you consider the idea of exclusivity in front of very important eyeballs, the hundred bucks or so that Geico spent on the cheap nylon backpacks was worth every penny.

When I explained to my wife what the brands were really up to, she got angry with me because I killed the buzz for her.

But the truth is, it’s all buzz. And spin. There’s just no way that Geico really cares about a 2nd grade picnic on a blistering hot day in an obscure park in Charlotte, North Carolina. Does you think Geico thinks that our seven-year-old is going to order insurance? No, what they care about are the eyeballs of decision makers – parents. It’s genius. And it’s evil.

Imagine the staff meeting.

Sales Manager: “What do we have in terms of ideas for increasing brand presence in Market X?”

Hotshot Intern: “Well sir, we have insider access to specific school functions within Market X’s school system and…”

SM: “That’s one of those cash-strapped school districts, isn’t it?  We can’t get involved with their budget shortfalls. There are too many political hurdles involved.”

HI: “But sir, this strategy avoids all the hurdles. We just show up at their events with some junk – I mean, with some value items that have our brand identity on them. Plus, it’s a low cost high reward tactic.”

SM (scratching chin): “Well, upsell from children to parents is a powerful sales mechanism. And you say it won’t cost us much, hey?”

HI: Nodding.

SM (slapping desk): “Brilliant. Let’s do it. Get our junk, er, our tchotchke  manufacturer in China on the line, pronto! We’re gonna make a ton.”

As consumers, it’s easy to be fooled by such tactics. After all, who can’t use a cupboard full of plastic sports cups?And as parents we think that at least someone is doing something, so it’s ok. Besides, you could really use a break on your bill at the restaurant down the street – and cheaper car insurance. Only, that’s exactly what they hope you’ll to do as the result of them shoving their logo down your throat. It’s advertising. And it’s good business. Except when it’s aimed at school children. That’s when it crosses into the shadows.

In Charlotte, our school system is faced with something like a 100 million dollar budget shortfall for 2011-2012. Blame whomever you want, but this is not an unsolvable problem. In fact, back in January I proposed a way to let big brands help out – but that radical idea never got off the ground. And why would it when brands can pump their logos into our educational systems for free?

I’m not saying that giving free crap away isn’t good advertising. In most cases, it is. Just don’t be so naive to accept branded tchotchkes as anything like corporate benevolence. Brands like Geico have pockets deep enough to sponsor naming rights at every school stadium in the district. A sponsorship that could actually help overcome budget shortfalls. But instead, we get covert ops at school picnics that we don’t charge the brands for.

Advertising isn’t free. Brands know this. So it’s not right that my home was invaded by Geico and other companies when I didn’t invite them in. At least make them pay something for the privilege of seeking out and handing our children their crap.


Jim Mitchem


Chasing Feathers
Killing Satellite Radio

Jim Mitchem

Writer. Father to daughters. Husband. Ad man. Raised by wolves. @jmitchem on twitter. First novel, Minor King, out now.