PTAs and Commercialism in Schools

The following is a speech given by Charlotte Baecherof Consumers Union in February 1999 to approximately 150 PTA representatives inNew York State.

 Thank you for your interest in and concernabout the critical issue of commercialism in our schools. As advocates foreducation in your communities you are in a position to do something about theproblem. The problem is serious and growing because commercialism in schoolsisnít getting the resistance it should from those who are running our schools.

In the 80s, Cracked magazine spoofedadvertising in schools. Ads placed in popular areas (like by the clock)commanded top dollar. Report cards were brought to you by Bayer. And a kid withthe audacity to study a textbook while TV commercials were being shown in classwas severely punished. What seemed like a hilarious spoof a decade ago hasbecome a disturbing reality today.

An Ominous Direction

In order to be able to take action, we need tounderstand first, why kids are so attractive to marketers; and second, howin-school advertising has changed and taken an ominous direction in the 90s.

Children are three markets in one: they buy andspend; they have an enormous influence on what their parents buy; and theyíre afuture market, so instilling brand loyalty today while theyíre young andimpressionable can pay off for years and years to come.

But kids are very hard for marketers to reach. Thatíswhy the schools are so attractive as an ad vehicle: they deliver hugeconcentrations of the target audience (kids, with the implicit endorsement ofthe school, and without competition).

Promotional materials in schools were documenteddecades ago, with Sheila Hartyís Hucksters in the Classroom. Buttempting individual teachers with free sponsored materials and debating whetherthey were educational or promotional (which was considered "bad")kept commercial intrusions "under the rug."

All that changed in 1989, when Channel One legitimizedadvertising as a way of financing public education. Channel One is a 12-minuteprogram broadcast to schools via satellite each day. The program features tenminutes of news, sports, and entertainment information, and two minutes ofcommercials for athletic wear, candy, movies, soft drinks, and other productsaimed at a youth market. In its standard contract with schools, Channel Oneoffers the use of a television for each classroom, a satellite dish that willonly pick up the Channel One signal, and a couple of VCRs with which schoolstaff record the program each morning and pipe it to the classrooms. Inexchange, Channel One requires a captive audience: 80% of classes must watchthe program 90% of the time.

By entering into deals with Boards of Education,obtaining agreements to require students to watch commercials, and"paying" schools in the form of "free" equipment, ChannelOne meant school officials were now saying advertising was OK if it resulted insome sort of financial gain for the schools. Despite a huge outcry (some ofwhich attacked teachersí loss of control over the curriculum more than thepresence of advertising), Channel One has continued for years. And oneindication of its value to marketers is what they pay: $200,000 for a 30-secondcommercial, compared to less than $10,000 for the same commercial on a hotSaturday morning cartoon.

With ineffectual school resistance to Channel One,were more blatant advertising deals, like exclusive pouring rights contractswith soft drink companies, far behind? No. These deals went a step further,offering cash instead of educational hardware, and linking studentsíconsumption levels to schoolsí revenue. Marketers keep pushing the envelopefarther and farther, and when they donít meet resistance, they go fartherstill. Iím afraid we havenít seen anywhere near the worst yet. But we have gotto work together to get our schools to stand up and say, "NO!" loudand clear, or have students suffer the consequences.

Another disturbing indicator of the growth of dealswhere marketers are buying students is this brochure for the "In-SchoolMarketing í99" conference. Whereas in the past marketers were careful tohide their commercial motivations for going into schools, today they have"gone public" and are even holding national conferences to showothers how to do the same. "Hear from these influential and powerfulcorporate giants as they present case studies and help you develop a road mapthat will lead the way to prosperous in-school marketing programs," thebrochure claims. School administrators are invited, as well as all sorts of kidmarketers. But nowhere on the agenda is there any workshop on "protectingthe integrity of education" or "establishing guidelines for ethicalschool-business relationships." We have administrators focused on thefinancing they need so badly; marketers focused on access to the advertisingaudience they want so badly. Concern for the integrity of education and thewelfare of students isnít yet competing with these overpowering priorities.

Protecting the Integrity of Education

An ex-principal at one of my workshops said,"When I was principal, I was so desperate to find financial solutions thatI never wanted to even listen to objections to school commercialism." Butwe have to force education officials to listen, especially if they are courtingcorporate dollars.

The fact is that advertisingís goal is to persuade óto influence oneís interests, wants, desires, values, and feelings, as well asoneís conscious thoughts about a product or company. Once that enters theschool, it conflicts with genuine educational content, which aims to inform,prepare, and empower individuals to think, feel, and choose independently. Withthe former, the marketerís agenda is primary. With the latter, the studentíswell-being is primary. In the classroom, advertising ó persuasion in any form óbecomes propaganda. Thatís what administrators have to be made keenly aware of,and what they need to develop policies and guidelines to protect against,especially if they are being courted by marketers.

A cautionary example of what can happen ifadministrators arenít aware is the incident last year at Greenbrier High Schoolin Georgia, where a student was suspended for wearing a Pepsi shirt on"Coke in Education Day." The day featured about 20 Coca-Colaexecutives giving a lecture on economics, baking a Coke cake in home economicsclass, and helping chemistry students analyze Cokeís sugar content. Thehighlight of the day was a photo opportunity: 1,200 Greenbrier High studentslined up in the school parking lot to spell the word COKE with their bodies.The line of seniors formed the letter "C," the juniors "O,"and so on. While the photographer took pictures from a crane, student MikeCameron pulled off his outer shirt to reveal a Pepsi shirt underneath. Mike wassuspended.

Although the school received no money for holding"Coke in Education Day," Greenbrier High was in the running for a$500 prize from a local Coca-Cola bottler. The prize was being offered for beststudent marketing idea for the soft-drink giantís discount card, a promotionaleffort that targeted junior and senior high school students by offering themdiscounts on snack foods, movie tickets, and similar products. The school alsohad a shot at a $10,000 national prize from Coke headquarters. Not only was anentire day of potential learning wasted on Coke, and not only was the schoolgiving an enormous endorsement to a questionable product, but the principal ofthe school lost sight of educational values in the chase for corporate dollars.

What PTAs Can Do

There are many steps parent/teacher organizations cantake to help protect schools from commercialism:

  1. Advocate for adequate public funding for schools, rather than reverting to fundraising to shore up insufficient public funds.
  2. Enlighten school officials about the problem. Advocate for your local schools to develop non-commercial guidelines to help guide the choices administrators and teachers make, including decisions regarding the use of sponsored materials and evaluating school-business partnerships. To read the guidelines developed by other organizations, please click on the following link to visit CACEís Resources webpage:
  3. Help schools find non-commercial alternatives to product- or advertising-based programs.
  4. Support curricula that prepare kids to handle commercialism themselves.

Charlotte Baecher is Director of the ZillionsEducation Center of Consumers Union. Consumers Union provides partial fundingfor the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education. To visitConsumers Unionís Zillions Education Center, which includes their publicationson commercialismís impact on children, click on the following link:

This speech was posted on the CACE website on 17March 1999.