Monday, October 30, 2006

Encouraging children to read

We're in the Sunday paper again.

'Now Nestlé - are you sitting comfortably?' reads the top article in the Pendennis section of The Observer (see,,1934190,00.html).

I guess the journalist, Oliver Marre, like me, remembers Jackanory, a programme on BBC television until 1996. Popular actors and childrens presenters read stories from books for 5 minutes before the news. They always began: "Now children - are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin."

The article is about a prize for the best new children's book. It is organised by the Book Trust and is currently sponsored by Nestlé. The article recalls the Nestlé Perrier Award for Comedy, which Nestlé pulled out of earlier this year following protests from performers and the public. A new sponsor was found and the Award goes on under a new name.

There was a bit of a stink over the book prize a few years ago. It had been known as the Nestlé Smarties Prize and was attracting the attention of boycott supporters. In 2002 one of the winners, Richard Platt, was embarrassed to find his prize was sponsored by Nestlé and donated an equivalent amount to Baby Milk Action (we had a poll of supporters over whether it was right to accept this - see donation dilemma).

Then a whole host of authors signed a letter composed by Melvin Burgess saying they would not accept a proposed teenage book prize if it was sponsored by Nestlé. This was picked up by the book industry and national press. Plans were suspended and the Booktrust Director was quoted as saying: "...a Nestlé Teenage Prize cannot take place if it doesn't have the support of writers." The teenage book prize did go ahead, but without any sign of Nestlé involvement. It is instead promoted by the Reading Agency.

The books up for the Nestlé children's book prize have just been shortlisted and a selection of schools will be invited to have their students vote for their favourites. A great idea, if it weren't for the Nestlé link. As The Observer quotes Baby Milk Action: "It is highly questionable why the Book Trust, which presumably cares about the interests of children, is bringing in a company known, apart from the baby food issue, for its unhealthy foods, targeting of children and contribution to child obesity."

We already have a box-top campaign pack, used by children and parents who oppose the Nestlé box-tops for education scheme. In that scheme Nestlé recruits teachers to promote its cereals to children - the majority of which are criticised as being unhealthy. For each box top the school receives 10 pence. As a result of opposition many schools have written to parents explaining why they are not supporting the scheme, some have agreed to be listed on our website.

Nestlé tries similar strategies in other countries. I've recently had an email from a boycott supporter and blog reader in the US who is opposing a Nestlé scheme promoting bottled water with an offer of sports equipment. It is a phenomena in recent years that companies which market unhealthy foods are giving sports equipment to kids, usually as part of a promotion to increase sales. If they are not challenged, the company wins both ways.

Sponsorship by dodgy companies strikes me as being a bit like carbon-offsetting. In carbon-offsetting you counter balance the harm to the environment caused by taking a plane by buying a tree that will absorb the carbon. I think I'll call the companies' strategy 'bad image offsetting'. The companies try to counter balance a bad image from their unethical practices in one area by doing something that looks good somewhere else to absorb it.

The more bad image produced, the more offsetting necessary. In 1999 the UK Advertising Standards Authority upheld all of Baby Milk Action's complaints against a Nestlé anti-boycott advertisement. In response Nestlé announced a million pounds of sponsorship to four charities, to absorb the bad image. (It did go a little bit wrong for Nestlé, but that's another story).

So back to the book award. If your school is asked to join in then let us know.

If you would like materials to spread awareness of the boycott, we can provide these.

If your school is refusing to get involved, we can add you to a list.

If you are an author who would refuse the prize, please tell us.

If you want, you could contact the Book Trust and suggest they choose a different sponsor. Please be polite if you do make contact or it will be counter productive. We hope the Book Trust will follow the example of the Perrier Award organisers and find another sponsor.

What is sad to see is organisations taking Nestlé money and then actively helping it with the bad image offsetting. The Book Trust press release announcing the short list says:

"The Nestlé Children's Book Prize is sponsored by Nestlé UK Ltd, one of the UK's largest food and beverage manufacturers, and a major supporter of charities helping children and teenagers."

It is unsurpising that the press release does not want to draw attention to the Nestlé's human rights abuses and other malpractice. But why promote Nestlé as a supporter of other children's charities? Was it a condition of the funding?

How much bad image can Nestlé expect to be absorbed by its strategy? Surely nowhere near enough when so much bad image is produced: by Nestlé's aggressive marketing of baby foods, targeting of children with unhealthy foods, failing to act over child slavery in its cocoa supply chain and all the other things that harm children.

Will the promotion in schools convince children that Nestlé cares about them as people, not just consumers? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

It is our hope that this year the Nestlé Children's Book Prize will result in a lot more reading - of the evidence against Nestlé.

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