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Education Reporter

Marketing to Students
Corporations launch assault on schools

Channel One broke new ground in 1989 by offering schools free television equipment in exchange for airing 12 minutes of programming in class per day, including two minutes of commercial advertising. Classroom doors were opened to companies willing to pay prime-time advertising rates (about $200,000 per 30-second spot) for the opportunity to peddle their wares to captive student audiences.

In October, the embattled company celebrated its 10th anniversary steeped in controversy, accused of funding its own pressure campaign in Alabama in order to create an appearance of conservative support. Channel One faced a storm of protest from some widely different sources on both the left and the right, such as Alabama pro-family organization Obligation Inc. and consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Obligation Inc.'s Jim Metrock points out that although no money is changing hands, taxpayers are actually subsidizing Channel One. "If [students] watch Channel One for 90% of the school days, it adds up to 31 hours a year," he told the New York Times (Dec. 5, 1999). "That school time was purchased by taxpayers. If the cost of educating a child in Alabama is 6 cents a minute, in a class of 23 students, that's $2,600 per year for the rental of that TV set."

Since Channel One opened the commercial door to the schoolhouse, big corporations have found they can deal directly with school districts on in-school marketing programs. As the New York Times noted: "By far the clearest legacy of Channel One is that it has bonded public education with corporate America in ways that could hardly be imagined a decade ago."

Companies including Coke, Pepsi, Burger King, Nike, Kellogg's and others are paying schools to sell their products on-site and/or to place their ads in hallways, gymnasiums, cafeterias, and on school buses and book covers. Product logos and brand names are showing up in textbooks and other curriculum materials. (See Education Reporter, "Education Briefs," October 1999.) In an attempt to follow Channel One's advertising lead, one company provides schools with free computers that are programmed to run ads in a corner of the monitor screens.

Other examples of corporate marketing efforts, as described in the Sept. 17 issue of The Nation magazine, include:

  • An exercise book that purports to teach 3rd graders math by having them count Tootsie Rolls.
  • A classroom business course that shows students how McDonald's restaurants are run.
  • Multimillion-dollar contracts that have turned some schools into virtual sales agents for Coke and Pepsi.
  • The Nation described a 10-year, $8.4 million contract signed in 1997 with Coca-Cola by School District 11 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which requires the district to sell 70,000 cases of Coke products per year. The article quoted a letter written by a top District 11 official to school administrators, urging them to increase sales of Coke in their schools to meet sales goals. The letter "instructed principals to allow students virtually unlimited access to Coke machines and to move the machines to where they would be 'accessible to students all day.' " The letter further encouraged principals to support allowing students to "drink Coke in the classroom," or at least to "consider allowing [other Coke-bottled products including] juices, water, and teas." The letter was signed "The Coke Dude."

    Critics of in-school advertising are panicking over what they view as "blatant commercialism." One Colorado parent quoted by The Nation said of District 11's Coke deal: "It really angers me that the school is actively promoting and pushing a product that's not good for kids. What's next? Will kids be required to wear Nikes before they are allowed to go to school?"

    District 11 cites crumbling school buildings and the failure of tax increases for education among the reasons for its commercial activities. The school district has some 50 corporate partners, and estimates its advertising packages to be worth about $100,000 a year. School officials receive calls daily from other districts seeking to duplicate its success.

    According to The Nation, Jefferson County, Colorado "got Pepsi to kick in $1.5 million to help build a new sports stadium, and some county schools tested a new science course, developed in part by Pepsi, titled 'The Carbonated Beverage Company,' in which students taste-test colas, analyze cola samples, take a video tour of a Pepsi bottling plant and visit a local Pepsi plant."

    In some areas, however, parents, students and teachers are resisting the efforts of corporations to forge contracts with their school districts. Berkeley, California sophomore Sarah Church organized student opposition to lucrative deals with Pepsi and Nike at her high school, and is trying to start "a national student movement against in-school advertising." In Seattle, a group called the Citizens' Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools (CCC) sponsored public meetings in an effort to defeat a corporate partnership program proposed by the Seattle School Board. The group even managed to garner the support of organized labor, though the teacher unions declined to take a position on the issue. The school board ended up scrapping the proposal and instead appointed CCC members to a task force to place restrictions on further commercial initiatives.

    Despite these successes, most educators and parents concede that corporate sponsorship programs appear to have the momentum along with a significant amount of support. Many teachers and principals, for example, are willing to turn a blind eye to the ads on Channel One because they like the "news" reports. A New Jersey principal called Channel One "the best student-oriented news program available." Some educators, however, have complained about the lack of control over the program's content, and question whether it is appropriate to air programming that has not been approved as part of the school's curriculum (as are textbooks and other educational materials).

    Last April, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) held hearings in Washington, DC to explore the wide range of concerns about Channel One. Obligation Inc. spearheaded a movement to convene the hearings, which included testimony by Phyllis Schlafly, Ralph Nader, the Family Research Council, the Association of Black Psychologists, and others. Channel One launched a costly lobbying campaign to counteract the negative testimony, and the hearings were ultimately labeled "inconclusive."

    In the meantime, Channel One is developing an interactive computer program that, in the words of Tom Rogers, the new chief executive of parent company Primedia, "is the logical next step." Rogers told the New York Times: "The revenue, the cash flow seem to have been growing. You have a school population that is loyal and seems to want it. Where do we take it from here?"

    Teacher John Hawk, a 25-year veteran of Colorado Springs schools, summed up the issue of in-school advertising in The Nation magazine: "Schools used to be the one safe haven where kids weren't exposed to a constant barrage of advertising. Now even that's gone."

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