Last week's current events quiz at a Moreno Valley elementary school asked students to name actor Eddie Murphy's new movie.
It wasn't a random question. To promote "Dr. Dolittle," an upcoming film starring Murphy, 20th Century Fox has turned to the classroom.
Splashy ads for the film appear on material provided free to schools to help teach current events. A photo of Murphy in a white lab coat anchors a colorful poster that also lists newsy tidbits of interest to students. Along with the posters, teachers get prepared questions they can use to test children about the news items--and the ads.
Students in teacher Carol Fus' fifth-grade class at Bear Valley Elementary School easily recalled the "Dr. Dolittle" ad.
"I'm going to go see it," spouted Tanelle Johnson, 10. "Anything with Eddie Murphy is funny."
The Los Angeles company that creates the posters says they fill a need. Cash-strapped schools get free teaching aids while advertisers reach a captive audience of young consumers. Besides Fox, Vans sneakers, Paramount Pictures and Miramax and ABC, both units of Walt Disney Co., have advertised on the posters, distributed to more than 8,000 high and elementary schools nationwide each month.
In the case of "Dr. Dolittle," poster company Planet Report also supplied elementary schools with bookmarks bearing Murphy's picture to give to students as prizes or rewards.
"It is an interesting match," said Planet Report founder Jeff Lederman. "Teachers get something they can use and a marketing purpose is served."
Not everyone applauds the relationship. Karen McNulty of Consumers Union said ads don't belong in classrooms, where they can distract students from their studies.
"Is that what we want kids to pay attention to when they go to school--ads?" McNulty asked.
Some teachers have mixed feelings about the poster, which besides ads has about 60 facts on science, politics and culture. Venice High School social studies teacher Paul McDermitt said that although he has a poster in his classroom, he is uncomfortable with it.
"It is sort of commercial," he said. "The ads are pretty large. I don't think it will make kids buy products, but it gets them into the commercial culture.
"On the other hand," McDermitt said, "they see so many ads on TV, maybe it doesn't make a difference."
The poster is the latest example of how advertising is creeping into schools. Advertisers give away thousands of colorful book covers and bookmarks promoting movies, TV shows and products aimed at kids. A Los Angeles company prepares ad-supported custom lunch menus for 8,000 schools around the country.
The pitches are becoming increasingly sophisticated. The April menu from School Marketing Partners touted Warner Bros.' animated feature "Quest for Camelot." Besides ads for the movie, the menu had a detachable bookmark and a game based on the film. It listed a "Quest for Camelot" lunch that included a Devon hero sandwich, Sir Lionel peach cup and Kayley orange juice--foods named for characters in the movie. Students checking their school lunch menu on School Marketing Partners' Web site encountered more pitches for the movie.
Marketers are turning to schools because children are a tough audience to reach. Mass media is mostly ineffective with schoolchildren, who generally don't read newspapers or many magazines and don't listen to the radio. Next to television, which is expensive, schools offer one of the surest ways for advertisers to reach kids.
"For that demographic in general, schools are an important market for us to use," said Kris Coontz, vice president of advertising and media planning for ABC. The network used the Planet Report poster last fall to promote its lineup of family-oriented shows.
The poster is attractive to marketers because teachers using it are likely to leave it on display for an entire month, until the next poster arrives. By supplying a quiz, Planet Report nudges teachers to use the poster for a lesson, further ensuring that the ads get noticed. And Lederman surveys teachers and students, offering them T-shirts as incentives, to verify that schools are using the posters.
Teachers who use the poster say they do so to encourage reading among students. "The poster is big, and the reading level is not too high," said Esther Poole, a history teacher at Lakewood High School.
Poole says students often congregate near the poster in her classroom to read it. "Whatever we can get that encourages voluntary reading is a plus," Poole said.
Lederman edits the posters, which are compiled without attribution from newspapers, magazines and other information sources by an employee. He prepares two versions--one for high school students and another for students in elementary and middle schools. Except for the ads and the Planet Report logo, the posters are mostly black and white.
Trivia items are chosen carefully, Lederman said. Among the blurbs on last month's grade-school report was news that a bad-tempered elephant was transferred to a zoo in Seattle from one in Portland.
"I don't like to be negative," Lederman said. "Oklahoma [bombing trial], drugs--I don't cover things like that."
Lederman says he is also choosy about the ads he accepts, though some parents may be chagrined to learn that a number of films advertised on the posters are rated for older viewers. High school versions of Planet Report have had ads for the R-rated films "Senseless" and "Ride," both produced by a unit of Disney. "Dr. Dolittle" is rated PG-13.
Representatives of Disney unit Dimension Films and Fox couldn't be reached for comment.
But Jack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which represents the studios, said ratings are meant to guide parents about movie content, not to curb advertising.
"How a movie is marketed--that is not within the rating system," Valenti said. Besides, he added, "how can you monitor every piece of advertising that goes out? You can't monitor every marketing program."
If the reaction at Bear Valley Elementary is any indication, the ads grab students' attention.
"The skateboard picture is cool," said fifth-grader Bryan Embry, 11, referring to an ad for Vans sneakers on the same poster with the "Dr. Dolittle" ad.
Classmate Michael Silva, 11, was also impressed with the Vans ad, which shows an airborne skateboarder. "I'm looking for that kind of shoe," he said.
"The ads are powerful," said Bear Valley fourth-grade teacher Dustin Strauch, who uses the poster in his room. Students seldom miss the quiz questions about the ads, he said. "The kids remember them, where they forget some of the other information."
But what students remember might upset some advertisers. Fus' fifth-graders incorrectly said the Eddie Murphy film was called "The Doctor Is In"--the slogan that appears in large, red letters.
"They got the name wrong," said Fus. "So I'm not sure the ads are really selling them."