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Who's Kidding Who?

To this parent, enlisting kindergartners as fund-raising salespeople is going beyond the pale.

March 02, 2000|BOB WHITBY | SALON.COM

My daughter brought home a lot of stuff during her first week in kindergarten. Most of it was benign. But mixed in among the pleadings to join the PTA, entreaties to check the family pillows for head lice and a laughably unsavvy bit of propaganda about the nutritional hazards of soft drinks was something quite shocking.

It was a little package from Sally Foster, who is not the matronly school librarian but, rather, a division of Entertainment Publications Inc., a supplier of fund-raising materials that is itself a subsidiary of Cendant Publishing. In the package was a catalog of candy and assorted nuts, gift wrapping, picture frames, baubles, trinkets, doodads and other stuff for sale.

Sally wasn't trying to sell me anything, at least not directly. She had recruited my daughter to peddle her goods to others. As in door-to-door, in-your-face direct marketing. Mom, Dad, meet the newest member of EPI's corporate sales team: your offspring.

Fresh off the turnip truck and my little girl had been enlisted by her school administrators to get out there and sell, sell, sell for the team. The money would be split, half going to buy the school new computers and half going into Sally's corporate-size apron pocket.

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I almost cried at the thought of my sweet little 5-year-old making a sales pitch. Most of my professional life has been spent studiously avoiding having to sell. This aversion stems from a singularly unpleasant day in college when, desperate for money, I took a job peddling Kirby vacuum cleaners to taciturn rural Minnesota farm families who needed a $1,000 appliance about as much as they needed a five-year drought.

I've passed up many an opportunity since then to make two or three times my salary because I didn't want to sell. "The money's in sales," my uncle used to tell me. Maybe so, but I've got to live with myself.

And it's my job as a parent to impose all my own biases directly on my sweet, innocent girl. If, at the end of this vale of tears, my daughter turns out to be one of those people with a "Don't Even Think About Soliciting Here" sign on her front door, my job is done.

Sally is savvy to the potential PR problem caused by packs of bright-eyed kindergartners roaming unfamiliar neighborhoods.

"At Sally Foster, safety comes first," reads the 1999 Chocolate Order Form. "Please, only sell to people you, your parent or guardian know. Never sell to strangers!"

This is actually disingenuous in the extreme. Like bad parents everywhere, Sally offers a reward for performance. Any kid who sells even one item receives a worthless and silly poster of a space robot, a carrot so skimpy even my kindergartner could see it for what it was--a ploy to get her further down the rewards list. That's where the good stuff is.

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Sell five items and you get a set of four glow-in-the-dark planets, estimated retail value: 29 cents. Twenty items and your lucky little saleschild gets to choose from a glowing wind-up twister top, recyclables fun book or six clip-on animal buddies. Seventy items get you a radio that looks like a cell phone, and 100 nets a CD player with headphones.

Maybe I'm a pariah, but I doubt I could come up with 70 to 100 people for my daughter to hit up. Which means, for me at least, that Sally is talking out of both sides of her mouth. She implores my daughter to be safe, to sell only to people she knows and trusts, yet she offers rewards that can only be obtained by going well beyond the circle of people she knows and trusts.

Yes, this effort is supposed to be for the good of the school. But so are my not-inconsiderable tax dollars. If the school is that strapped, why not hit up homeowners for an extra mil or two on the old ad valorems? Is it really so politically unpalatable to talk of tax increases in America that we have to send our children into the streets to raise money for educational materials?

Not to mention the issue of compensation. At the average price of $9.80 per product, any kid who sells 100 items will gross $980. Split 50-50, that's $490 for the school, $490 for Sally. The kid gets a portable CD player worth, let's say $35. If the effort took 10 hours, a conservative estimate, the kid is making $3.50 per hour. Last I checked, the federal minimum wage was $5.15. Of course, that doesn't apply if your work force consists of 5-year-olds.

All in all, a pretty cheap, effective way to market your goods. I hear the school raised $34,000 with Sally's help.

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