Impact of Playground Communication on Environmental Friendliness: an Exploratory Study

ABSTRACT - In several countries playground marketing is extensively practiced, but research on the effectiveness of such practices is scarce. The objective of the current study is to investigate the impact of an in-school environmental friendly programme that had been running for one year in some but not in other schools. The results of the study show that the green school project did not have any effect on the environmental friendly opinions, attitudes, intentions, behaviour and knowledge of pupils aged between 15 and 18. Possible explanations for this result may be that 1. Teachers do not have any impact anymore on this age group, 2. The information provided by the project did not contain any elements to be cool or in, or 3. The opinion leaders of the schools were not affected by the project and as a consequence, none of the other pupils wanted to support it.


Wim Janssens, Maggie Geuens, and Patrick De Pelsmacker (2002) ,"Impact of Playground Communication on Environmental Friendliness: an Exploratory Study", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Ramizwick and Tu Ping, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 400-405.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2002      Pages 400-405


Wim Janssens, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Maggie Geuens, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, Ghent University, Belgium

Patrick De Pelsmacker, Universiteit Antwerpen Management School, Ghent University, Belgium


In several countries playground marketing is extensively practiced, but research on the effectiveness of such practices is scarce. The objective of the current study is to investigate the impact of an in-school environmental friendly programme that had been running for one year in some but not in other schools. The results of the study show that the green school project did not have any effect on the environmental friendly opinions, attitudes, intentions, behaviour and knowledge of pupils aged between 15 and 18. Possible explanations for this result may be that 1. Teachers do not have any impact anymore on this age group, 2. The information provided by the project did not contain any elements to be cool or in, or 3. The opinion leaders of the schools were not affected by the project and as a consequence, none of the other pupils wanted to support it.


Playground or school marketing can be defined as developing marketing activities towards kids at school. These activities can be initiated by the government or by private companies. In several countries playground marketing is already extensively practiced, although the situation is very different for different countries. In a UK study, for example, 90% of the companies interviewed mention to have been involved in marketing activities aimed at children in schools (Atherton and Wells 1998). In Finland playground marketing is even more extensively practiced than in the UK. Also in the Netherlands and France commercially sponsored materials are produced and distributed inside the school. Contrary to the previous examples, commercially sponsored materials and commercial activities in schools are completely prohibited in Denmark (Atherton and Wells 1998). Although nothing much can be found on governmental playground activities, it is assumed that these are even more wide- spread. And of course, as opposed to societal criticism of schools being sold to commercial businesses (Molnar 1996), far less people are against governmental playground activities. Obviously, the latter are not concerned with making profits but aim at societal welfare (such as campaigns to prevent aids, not to drink when driving, environmental consciousness, etc.). Indeed, a Belgian study tapping into school directors' attitudes and intentions towards playground marketing learns that the latter hold quite a positive attitude and intention towards many marketing activities, but especially towards activities dealing with healthy or environmental friendly products and activities initiated by the government (Geuens, De Pelsmacker and Mast, 2001).

To conclude, both not-for-profit (such as the government) and profit organisations are eager to engage into playground marketing activities. One of the reasons for the latter is that due to, amongst other, advertising clutter, traditional mass media communications are becoming less effective.

Opponents of playground marketing claim it is an unethical practice because pupils are exposed to marketing activities in an environment where attendance is required and where they cannot walk away. As a consequence youngsters are more likely to be influenced. However, proponents of playground marketing may also be right when they argue,-Does it really matter, in an era when children themselves are walking billboards of ads and slogans?" (Schwartz 1998). However, up till now, the impact of playground activities on youngsters has not been investigated yet. In order to shed some light on this ongoing debate, the objective of the current study is to investigate whether or not a governmental in-school education project that was initiated in Belgian schools a year ago, obtained a positive effect.

Before addressing the research method and research results, indications of why youngsters are an important target group will be presented, as well as a brief review of the literature on marketing to youngsters. Since nothing much is known yet about the effectiveness of school marketing, we start with a marketing tool that is most frequently used and for which plentiful research results are abound: advertising. Next, the importance of the school as a socialising agent and opportunities of school marketing will be discussed. We conclude with a presentation and discussion of the results and suggestions for further research.


American children aged between four and twelve spend about 24 billion $ directly and about 188 billion $ indirectly by exerting an influence on family purchases (McNeal 1998). Children in Germany spend about 4 billion DM on a yearly basis (Villwock 1997), and Belgian children and teenagers (9- 18 years old) dispose of a weekly allowance of 7.9 Euro (De Pelsmacker, Van den Bergh, and Verhaegen 1998). Moreover, expenses of teenagers seem to grow every year (Stoneman 1998). All this makes the kids and teens market a very interesting consumer segment. Importantly, youngsters not only constitute a primary market, but also a secondary market. Indeed, not only are they today's consumers, they are also important influencers of their parents and are considered to be trendsetters and opinion leaders for several groups in society. Children not only co-decide on products for themselves, but also on where to go on holiday, which restaurant to visit and which car to buy (Valkenburg 1999). On average, children ask their parents for about 17 products per month (Ward, Robertson, Klees and Gatignon 1985), a practice labeled "pester power" (Zollo 1995). Furthermore, they are the consumers of the future, and research points out that brand preference built in early years often remains in adult years (McNeal 1992; Zollo 1995).


Reviewing the literature concerning marketing and communications efforts, it becomes obvious that marketing campaigns easily influences children. John (1999) made an extensive study on consumer socialization of children. One of the conclusions from this work is that from the age of eight years onwards children are able to recognize that ads are often biased and contain deception in order to sell the products. However, although this knowledge increases scepticism towards advertising (Boush, Friestad and Rose 1994), it does not translate into more critical evaluations of advertised products or impact brand preference. On the contrary, from preschool years onwards children prefer familiar branded items above generic items and this preference even increases with elementary school years (John 1999). The more children watch TV, the more they ask for products such as corn flakes, candy and toys (Isler, Popper and Ward, 1997). As is the case for adults, the importance of ad likeability should not be underestimated since the attitude towards the ad (Aad) seems to significantly impact brand attitudes (Ab) (Derbaix and Bree 1997). Although the influence of Aad on Ab is tempered when adults have brand usage experience, this holds to a much lesser extent in children for whom the impact of Aad remains considerable (Moore and Lutz 2000). Furthermore, besides increasing brand preference, ads also seem to be valued as a tool for social interaction and as a topic of conversations with peers (Ritson and Elliott 1999), while branded products are used for prestige and fitting in (Jamison, 1996). So, there is no doubt that advertising works with children. This is especially the case when it provides information on topics they consider relevant for what is in and what is out, and that can help them gain admiration and popularity in peer groups (Hansen, Melzer-Lena, Blum and Dammier 1997). Opponents of marketing to children are also well aware of this, and therefore it is not surprising that ads directly targeting kids are under fire. In Sweden it is already prohibited to advertise directly to the younger audience, and a law bill to institutionalise it throughout Europe is ready (Stanbrook 1997). In view of this threatening ban, one can expect that alternative marketing tools, such as school or playground marketing, may even become more important in the future than they are today.


It is generally acknowledged that a child's consumer development is influenced by different sources. Besides family, media, and point of sales, peers and schools play an important role in this process (Mascarenhas 1993; Sha and Mittal 1997).

Peers become more and more important starting from the age of seven to nine (McNeal 1992; Acuff 1997). This is confirmed in several studies. One study investigated children's relationships with adults and peers and found that middle school children, as compared to elementary school children, held more positive perceptions of their relationships with peers and less positive perceptions of their relationships with their parents and teachers (Lynch and Cicchetti 1997). Another study investigating with whom teenagers talk about problems, showed the following rank order: friends (55%), mother (44%), girl- or boyfriend (23%), father (20%), sister (10%), brother (7%), and teacher (4%) (Zollo 1995). Concerning the choice of products, kindergartners rely mostly on in-store information, while third and sixth graders also mention to use mass media advertising and interpersonal sources. Evidently, friends are the most important source for products where peer acceptance is an important issue, such as fashion, music, language, etc. (Kohnstamm 1997; John 1999). It has to be mentioned that, although peers are the most important information source for teenagers as far as regular purchases are concerned, parents remain important for special purchases (products that are not often bought or expensive products) (Mascarenhas 1993).

The importance of the school as the major extra-familial environment, in which children operate, should not be underestimated (Minuchin and Shapiro 1983). On the one hand, the school is a place where children meet important socializing agents, i.e. teachers and peers. On the other hand, it is a place where they can learn and gather information. Since social acceptance by peers (being part of a group, impressing friends) and feeling intellectually clever (knowing things parents do not, etc.) are two of the basic, enduring motivations of children, schools indeed can play an important role in a child's life (Mathews 1997). It's a fact, for example, that children talk a lot about products and services on the playground (Gunter and Furnham 1998), and that by having frequent contacts, doing common activities, and sharing a sense of connectedness peer groups exert a strong socializing impact in the classroom (Kindermarm 1993). Moreover, communicating to kids in schools usually implies that they spend more attention to the message since they are in an environment in which they are used to paying attention and learning (MacIndoe 1999). Therefore, interaction with a company's product, brand, or societal ideas in a learning setting where at the same time peers and teachers are present, may be very valuable to profit and not-for-profit organisations, and may even have a similar impact on brand image and brand preference than advertising. However, the importance of teachers, as is the case for the importance of parents, diminishes in favour of peers, as the child grows older.

Besides the presence of peers and the stimulating environment for learning, playground marketing possesses several other potential opportunities. Playground marketing or communication may also constitute an effective and efficient targeting means since the different age segments can be approached with an adapted message. Instead of targeting kids, also parents can be targeted by marketing the products to their children. Children seem to tell their parents about the products they hear from at school and ask for the products their peers and teachers talk favourably about (Gunter and Furnham, 1998). About 12% of the UK companies communicating to and through schools admit that their sole purpose is to exploit "pester power" by targeting parents through communicating to their kids (O'Sullivan 1997).

However, playground marketing or communication may also be perceived less appropriate. If not done in an ethical, responsible and educational manner, it can harm an organisation's image as the company can be considered exploiting a helpless target group. Moreover, if an organisation does not succeed in convincing the opinion leaders of the schools, chances are high that the campaign is disadvantageous rather than advantageous. Indeed, negative word-of-mouth of the opinion leaders should not be underestimated since it can produce harmful effects in the whole target group. Other potential disadvantages of playground marketing are the budget needed to address the schools effectively, and the problem of assessing the effectiveness of actions such as sponsoring of material and external activities (O'Sullivan 1997; Gardyn 2000).

Although it could be argued that the majority of these findings relate to mature products, in the Belgian context the same goes for the idea of environmental friendliness. Given the governmental support for this idea, it can be considered a 'mature idea' too, and as a result, the examples given may be considered appropriate.


Although many profit and not-for-profit organisations assume that playground marketing holds several advantages and positively affects attitudes and intentions of youngsters, the impact of an in school communication programme has not been investigated yet. Therefore, the objective of the current study is to infer the effectiveness of playground communication from an in-school experiment in which some schools are and others are not exposed to a communication programme. The programme that will serve as a case study is the "green school project" that was launched in Belgian schools a year ago. The green school project is an educational project that aims to give pupils and students insight into environmental care, as well as to prevent and control environmental damage. Schools participating in the project give pupils information on environmental care, integrate relevant green issues in their classes and organise green activities in the school.

The study is exploratory in nature. However, considering the persuasive impact advertising has on youngsters, we hypothesize a significantly positive influence of the project. More specifically, we assume that pupils of schools participating in the green school project, as compared to pupils not having been exposed to the green school project:

1. Are more environmental conscious and show a more environmental-friendly attitude

2. Are more knowledgeable concerning the subject

3. Perceive more opportunities to do something about it

4. Have more environmental friendly behavioural intentions

5. And pose more environmental friendly consumer behaviour




Of the 900 secondary schools providing education in Belgium 400 participate in the green school project. After one year of participation the participating schools are evaluated on 5 criteria:

1. Active participation: are pupils/students really actively involved in the project?

2. Planning approach: is a step-wise approach followed to reach the goals?

3. Structural integration: is the project integrated in courses, school themes and school activities?

4. Communication: are the project and the different activities communicated internally as well as externally?

5. Result-orientation: did the school achieve a progress in nature and environmental care (e.g. less waste, reduced energy use)

Schools that fulfil these criteria obtain a "green logo" as a token of an effective implementation of the green school project. At the time the study was carried out 110 schools had already obtained the green logo. As a consequence, three different types of schools can be distinguished:

1. Schools not participating in the project (N=500)

2. Schools participating but not having a logo (N=290)

3. Schools participating and carrying the green school logo (N=110)


The current study is concentrated on teens and teenagers, therefore only secondary schools were studied. Besides a classification of the schools in not participating, participating but no logo and participating with logo, a difference was made between schools providing general, technical or vocational education. This resulted in a three (participation level) by three (type of education) between subjects experimental design. Of each of the nine possible types of schools one school was randomly selected and of each school two classes-a second grade (15-16 year old pupils) and a third grade class (17-18 year old) were interviewed. School location and school size were taken into account to prevent these factors from biasing the results. In the chosen classes written questionnaires were distributed and collected as soon as the pupils finished filling them in. In total 344 valid answers were obtained (see Table 1).


The questionnaire consisted of different scales pertaining to environmental friendliness of which each item was rated on a 7-point Likert type scale going from 1=totally disagree to 7=totally agree. In the process of developing the scales, an extensive review of the literature concerning environmental friendly consumer behaviour was conducted. All the scales used were tested and validated in a representative sample of the Belgian population (n=1267) prior to this study. [The scales can be obtained from the authors.] This resulted in the following set of scales:

Environmental consciousness and attitudes towards environmental friendliness is measured by means of three scales: 1. General environmental consciousness consisting of items such as 'the government should pose higher taxes on environmental unfriendly products', 'all consumers should be aware of the environmental consequences of their purchases', etc., 2. Involvement with environmental problems composed of items such as 'the condition of the environment forms a threat for my health', 'the recess of the environment has consequences for my own life', etc., and 3. Underestimation of the environmental problems measured by items such as 'the statement that the current pollution changes the climate on earth is exaggerated', 'the government should have people decide for themselves how to take care of the environment, even if this means that people do not always do the right thing', etc.

The perceived opportunity to do something about environmental problems was measured using a four-item scale consisting of items such as 'the government provides sufficient information to do something against environmental pollution', 'product packaging sufficiently indicates to what extent the product is harmful for the environment', etc.



The intention or willingness to do something against environmental problems was assessed by means of a 10-item scale. Following items may serve as an example: 'I am prepared to use less water, electricity and fuel', 'I am willing to buy environmental friendly products even if these are more expensive', etc.

Behavioural aspects were probed using a five-item scale ('in our family no environmental unfriendly products are bought', 'we only buy meat with a bio-warranty', etc.).

Finally, 16 statements pertaining to environmental knowledge were included. Examples are: 'Prevention means taking garbage to the container park', 'By eating biologically grown food I prevent water pollution'. Each statement was rated in one of four categories (not true, probably not true, probably true, true). Correct "true" and "untrue" answers were coded as 1; correct "probably not true" and "probably true" answers were coded as.5. Next, a knowledge score was calculated by averaging the scores on the 16 statements. Finally, the score obtained was multiplied by seven in order to obtain a seven-point scale, as is the case for the other measures.


To test the hypotheses, two-way ANOVA's were carried out with the green school project (not participating, participating but no logo, and participating with logo) and the type of education (vocational, technical and general) as independent variables and general environmental consciousness, involvement with and underestimation of environmental problems, perceived opportunity and intention to do something about it, behaviour and knowledge as dependent variables. The results in Table 2 show that the green school project does not seem to have resulted in any effect. Indeed, none of the main effects of the degree of participation in the green school project is significant, nor are the interaction effects between degree of participation in the green school project and the type of education. The latter was studied since it was not inconceivable that pupils following a general education, as opposed to students attending vocational or technical education, paid more attention to it, recalled it better and as a consequence were influenced to a larger extent by it. The only significant effects were obtained by calculating the main effect of type of education. In general, the more advanced the level of education, the more positive environmental friendly consumer behaviour characteristics were found. Indeed, pupils attending general education were most environmental conscious, had the highest behavioural intention, posed the most environmental friendly behaviour and possessed the best environmental knowledge. Surprisingly, the same group of pupils also underestimated the environmental problems most and perceived the least opportunities to do something about it.


Although playground marketing received quite a lot of attention lately, the results of this study indicate that in-school communication may not always result in a significant impact on attitudes and intentions of youngsters. Respondents in the current study were aged between 15 and 18 years. Three potential reasons can be advanced for the lack of impact encountered here. First of ail, for this age group the importance of peers increases at the expense of the influence of teachers and parents. Since the school and the teachers mainly carry the green school project, pupils may have felt more resistance and unwillingness to learn from it. The project would perhaps have had more chances in a primary school environment since teachers are considered to be very important socialising agents at that age. This is an area for further study. Secondly, Hansen et al. (1997) indicated that the impact of media depends on the relevance of the message for youngsters. An impact is predicted when the teenagers feel that they can use the information to be in, to be cool or to impress their peers. The green school project does not answer this criterion: a teenager will not be considered to be more cool or to be in when he or she uses less energy, does not litter etc. Thirdly, opinion leaders may have considered it an 'uncool, project or have spread negative or no word-of-mouth for it. Indeed, if the project did not receive any support of the opinion leaders, the rest may not have been interested in it either.

The foregoing leads to several managerial implications. First of all, making the project cooler or trying to find a way to appeal to opinion leaders may improve the effectiveness of playground communication to a great extent. Secondly, it may be a good idea to start with a project (such as the green school project) in primary instead of secondary schools. At this age, pupils experience more influences of teachers and may be more sensitive to what they talk about on how they should behave in order to be environmental friendly. Furthermore, the results of the current study show that still a lot needs to be done concerning the improvement of environmental consciousness. attitudes, intentions, behaviour and knowledge, and that this especially holds for youngsters with a lower education. Providing them with facts of the current situation, future consequences of current behaviour etc. may increase their involvement with and attitude towards environmental problems. The latter is then believed to have an impact on their intentions to do something about it and to really act according to their beliefs. Moreover, it is surprising that students with a higher education do not really believe they can do something about environmental problems. For this group of students it may also be a good idea to offer more information on possible consequences for the environment of our current behaviour, but more importantly they should be taught what individual consumers can do about these problems. A strong belief that they can make a difference may elicit more environmental friendly behaviour.

Suggestions for further research amongst other pertain to the possible explanations above -mentioned. A first suggestion is to compare the results of a school education project for primary and secondary school kids and teens. Secondly, the current study focused on a case study dealing with a governmental educational program concerning environmental friendliness. It would be interesting to find out whether similar results are obtained for educational programmes on other subjects. Related to the latter, one could consider evaluating the effectiveness of a project that offers youngsters information to be in or cool versus a project that does not offer this kind of information. Fourthly, the difference of the impact of a project that is supported by the opinion leaders of a school versus a project that is not deemed to be cool or interesting by the opinion leaders could be investigated. Finally, several other forms of playground marketing are abound such as sponsoring sports or other activities, sampling, posting billboards, having someone of a company or the government to come over to talk about a subject, etc. It may be interesting to undertake research into each of these marketing activities in order to find out what could work for the government in what situation.


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Wim Janssens, University of Antwerp, Belgium
Maggie Geuens, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, Ghent University, Belgium
Patrick De Pelsmacker, Universiteit Antwerpen Management School, Ghent University, Belgium


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