The Consumer Ombudsman’s guidelines for companies on marketing and commercial activities in schools, educational institutions and early childhood education and care

Published in English on 9 April 2021

In recent years, the cooperation between, on one hand, businesses and, on the other hand, early childhood education, schools and educational institutions has deepened. At the same time, it has become more complicated to interpret marketing situations. The Finnish Consumer Ombudsman’s guidelines describe how businesses can collaborate with teaching and early childhood education and care within the framework set by the Consumer Protection Act. For example, teaching materials produced by companies must not contain any commercial persuasion.

Today, it is easier for businesses to produce material for the use of education and teaching than before. For example, many learners may welcome games, electronic learning platforms and social media as means of learning new things. Although cooperation between companies and schools has intensified, it is still not allowed to use teaching and education as a channel for commercial persuasion.

The Consumer Ombudsman’s guideline Marketing and commercial activities in schools, educational institutions and early childhood education and care (in Finnish) provides clear examples of what kind of cooperation between businesses and the school world is allowed and what is prohibited. Among the allowed forms of cooperation are company visits: Children and young people may visit companies or companies may visit teaching facilities and early childhood education and care facilities for the purpose of achieving various learning objectives, but marketing must not be targeted directly to the learners.

However, it is prohibited, for example, to harness teaching materials for commercial uses. The material produced by companies for educational use must not contain direct or indirect commercial persuasion.

Advertising must be identifiable as advertising

According to the Consumer Protection Act, marketing must clearly show its commercial purpose and on whose behalf marketing is implemented. When targeted to children and young people, advertisements must be easily identifiable as marketing regardless of the presentation.

“The identifiability of advertising becomes blurred, for example, if an advertisement is dressed in the guise of an article, task, competition, story or comic book,” says Consumer Ombudsman Katri Väänänen to demonstrate the difficulty of interpreting marketing situations from a child’s perspective.

Furthermore, commercial messages must not be hidden within other communications, and subliminal advertising is not permitted under any circumstances. Furthermore, marketing must be in accordance with good practice.

Children in a special position under the Consumer Protection Act

Children are in a special position under the Consumer Protection Act, as they are more prone to the effects of advertising than other people. Parents have the right to decide what kind of marketing their children are exposed to.

The rules related to marketing are interpreted more strictly than usual in the case of minors. In addition, the Act contains provisions applied specifically to minors.

“For example, children may not be given direct invitations to purchase in any connection. The younger the children are, the more rigorous the assessment of inappropriate or unfair practices is,” says Väänänen.

The guidelines were created as a joint effort

Earlier, the Consumer Ombudsman and the Finnish National Agency for Education jointly prepared a guideline Cooperation, marketing and sponsorship between schools and educational institutions and companies and communities. The guideline published now replaces the previous guideline insofar as the questions addressed in the old guideline fall within the competence of the Consumer Ombudsman. The Finnish National Agency for Education website provides a guideline for education and training providers.

“Cooperation with various administrative branches, communities, organisations, companies and other actors in the surrounding area increases the versatility of learning environments and supports the school’s educational task. The providers of early childhood education and care, education and training can utilise the expertise of different stakeholders and deepen the learners’ perceptions of society and on how to operate in civil society. The targeted guidelines issued by the Consumer Ombudsman and the Finnish National Agency for Education provide background support for cooperation,” says Olli-Pekka Heinonen, Director General of the Finnish National Agency for Education.

“We consider it important that all businesses cooperating with day-care centres, schools and educational institutions, etc., are familiar with the principles of the guideline,” says Väänänen.

The basics of what kind of cooperation is prohibited or allowed have remained unchanged. To take account of the everyday situations in which commercial activities occur in schools, educational institutions and early childhood education and care in the guideline in the best way possible, in autumn 2019, the Consumer Ombudsman and the Finnish National Agency for Education conducted a survey which examined what kind of experiences professionals in teaching and education have of business cooperation.

The draft guideline was also open to comments online from 22 July to 18 September 2020.