may be doing more harm than good
Over the past 20 years, educatorshave increasingly turned to corporations to raise money by participating in avariety of activities. Some of the projects are laudable, but many are not. Oneof the most disturbing trends is schools attempting to raise money by engagingin activities that undermine their curricular message and, in some instances,promote unhealthy student lifestyles.
Shortly after the 1998 school yearbegan, a district administrator in Colorado Springs, Colorado, sent a memo toall principals in the district. The subject: how to encourage students to drinkmore Coca-Cola. If that sounds like an unusual priority, consider that theadministrator was responsible for the district's signing an exclusive contractwith Coca-Cola.
The administrator's memo, whichattracted the attention of the Denver Post, Harper's Magazine, TheWashington Post, and The New York Times, pointed out that, under theterms of the contract, in which the district agreed to allow only the sale ofCoca-Cola products in its schools, students would need to consume 70,000 casesof those products for the district to receive the full benefit of the agreement.
The memo urged principals to"allow students to purchase and consume vended products throughout theday," and to "locate machines where they are accessible to thestudents all day." The administrator even offered to provide schools withadditional electrical outlets if necessary. Enclosed with the memo was a listof Coca-Cola products and a calendar of events intended to help promote them.
The exclusive contract withCoca-Cola is representative of one of the fastest growing areas of schoolhouse commercialism.According to the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, in April 1998there were 46 exclusive agreements between school districts and soft- drinkbottlers in 16 states. By July 1999, a little over a year later, there were 150such agreements with school districts in 29 states—and the numbers continue torise.
These contracts can producesituations like that which occurred two years ago at Greenbrier High School inEvans, Georgia, when Principal Gloria Hamilton made international headlines bysuspending senior Mike Cameron. He was with a group of 1,200 classmates wholined up in the school parking lot to spell out the word "Coke." Itwas to be the highlight of Greenbrier's "Coke in Education Day,"during which about 20 Coca-Cola executives were on hand to lecture oneconomics, assist home economics students in baking a "Coke cake,"and help chemistry students analyze the sugar content of Coca-Cola.Photographers using a crane were prepared to capture the defining moment on film—whenCameron exposed a shirt that boldly spelled out "Pepsi."
According to Cameron, he not onlyreceived a dressing down from the principal in her office, but was told that hewas being suspended for disrespect—and for possibly costing the school $10,000in prize money offered by Coke to the winning high school in a nationalmarketing campaign.
Newspaper reports of the incidentwere hardly flattering. Under the headline, "Student's Act of ColaDefiance Was Refreshing," the Norfolk, Virginia, Virginian-Piloteditorialized, "Enlightened, responsible corporate investment of time andmoney can be of significant help to hard-strapped schools everywhere; but tomake the boosting of a business a part of the day's curriculum iscounterproductive."
Close kin to exclusive marketingdeals are marketing incentive programs that enlist schools to steer studentsand their families to certain brands. These programs have long been a staple ofcorporate marketing efforts in schools. For example, Campbell's Soup's Labelsfor Education program, launched in 1973, now reaches 50 million schoolchildren,while Pizza Hut's Book It! reading incentive program, launched in 1984, is in53,000 schools. The popularity of these and other incentive programs, such asGeneral Mills' Box Tops for Education, Giant Foods' Apples for the Students,and AT&T's Learning Points has led to a number of variations. In 1996,Blockbuster video stores launched a program in Hawaii called Viewing CanReward. In this program, districts received video cassette recorders when theirstudents or family members turned in punch cards showing that a combined totalof 5,000 movies or video games had been rented. Also in 1996, Pepsi-Colainitiated a School Caps program in 110 schools. Students were asked to collectblue bottle caps from select Pepsi products and turn them into their school,which then received five cents for each cap.
But while schools may receive somemoney from such programs, it is the marketers who reap the lion's share of thefinancial rewards. In 1997 the Boston Globe reported that General Millshad "... managed to switch thousands of Special K eaters over tomarshmallow-laced Lucky Charms by giving cash to students." The story wenton to explain that students at one elementary school had collected 27,000General Mills box tops (117 per student) as a result of a General Millspromotion that paid 15 cents per box to the school.
Incentive programs are at bestconsidered by some a type of "cause-related" marketing; by purchasinga product or service, customers can promote a worthy cause. For example, PizzaHut's Book It! program rewards schoolchildren who meet reading goals with PizzaHut products. The idea is to associate the company's pizza with the desirablesocial goal of literacy—and at the same time promote its consumption.
Seven Categories of Schoolhouse Commercialism
The Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education has identified seven sometimes-overlapping categories of commercial activity in schools:
1. Sponsorship of Programs and Activities. Corporations pay for or subsidize school events and/or one-time activities in return for the right to associate their names with these activities.
2. Exclusive Agreements. Schools agree to give corporations exclusive rights to sell and promote their goods and/or their services in a school or district. In return, the school or district receives a percentage of the profits derived from the arrangement. Exclusive agreements may also entail granting a corporation the right to be a sole supplier of a product or service.
3. Incentive Programs. These are corporate programs that provide money, goods, or services to a school or district when students, parents, or staff engage in a specified activity, such as collecting product labels or cash register receipts.
4. Appropriation of Space. Corporations pay for the right to place corporate logos and/or advertising messages on school scoreboards, rooftops, bulletin boards, walls, and book covers.
5. Sponsored Educational Materials. These are instructional materials supplied to schools by corporations and/or trade associations.
6. Electronic Marketing. Corporations provide electronic programming and/or equipment in return for the right to advertise online to students, families, or community members.
7. Privatization. The management of schools or school programs by private for-profit corporations or other non-public organizations.
Despite their appeal, incentiveprograms have a social and economic downside, as General Mills found out whenthe Catholic Diocese of Gary, Indiana, ordered Box Tops for Education out ofits schools because the General Mills Foundation had awarded a grant to PlannedParenthood of Minnesota. (In response, the foundation "phased out"the grant.)
Exclusive agreements also carry aheavy price. Health experts have become increasingly concerned about the risingamounts of soft drinks young people consume, and the consequent harm done totheir health. In a period of slightly less than 30 years, the annual consumptionper capita of soda more than doubled, from 22.4 gallons in 1970 to 56.1 gallonsin 1998. The Center for Science in the Public Interest found that a quarter ofthe teenage boys who drink soda consume more than two 12-ounce cans per day,and that 5 percent drink more than 5 cans. Girls, although they drink about athird less soda than boys, face potentially more serious health consequences.With soda pushing milk out of their diets, an increasing number of girls may beearly candidates for osteoporosis.
Richard Troiano, a National CancerInstitute senior scientist, says that data on soda consumption suggests a linkwith childhood obesity. According to Troiano, overweight children tend to take inmore calories from soda than those who are not overweight. With childhoodobesity rates soaring up to 100 percent in 20 years, William Dietz, director ofthe nutrition division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,suggests, "If the schools must have vending machines, they shouldconcentrate on healthy choices, like bottled water."
Rather than promoting healthychoices, though, it appears that exclusive agreements put pressure on schooldistricts to increase the number of vending machines in schools in order toincrease sales of soft drinks. Colorado Springs is just one example. Last year,Daniel Michaud, business administrator for the Edison, New Jersey, publicschools, told The Washington Post that, prior to signing an exclusivecontract with Coca-Cola, few of the district's schools had vending machines.After signing the contract, most district high schools had four machines,middle schools had three, and elementary schools one.
As a student at a Rhode Islandhigh school with an exclusive contract commented, "There's really nothingelse to drink."
A High-Stakes Game
It is unlikely that the trendtoward exclusive agreements with soft-drink bottlers will abate in the nearfuture. According to G. David Van Houten, Jr., Coca-Cola Enterprises seniorvice president: "Schools...are important to everyone, and it has recentlybecome a high-stakes game for that very reason. How much is that [school]business worth? I doubt we'll ever be able to answer that question fully. Butwe're going to continue to be very aggressive and proactive in getting ourshare of the school business."
The American people are poorlyserved when our public schools become educational flea markets open to anyonewho has the money to set up a table. But that is precisely what the relentlessassault on funding for public education and repeated calls for"cooperation" with the business community are pushing schools to do.
The effort to integrate theschoolhouse into corporate marketing plans by securing control of school-basedadvertising media may well be the trend to watch over the next decade. If so,we can expect schools to serve as launchpads for marketing campaigns withmultiple tie-ins for a variety of products and services aimed at children andtheir families. Yet, despite the pervasiveness and rapid growth of schoolhousecommercialism, educators and the education press have been largely silent aboutor, worse, cheerleaders for this fundraising approach.
The failure of the educationcommunity to critically assess the impact of commercial activities on thecharacter and quality of schools and their programs reveals an ethicalblindness not worthy of a profession that seeks to serve the best interests ofchildren.
For More Information
The Center for the Analysis of Commercialismin Education will release its 1999-2000 report on commercializing trends inmid-September. Visit the center's Web site at www.schoolcommercialism.org.