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Education Reporter

Study Says Commercialism Rampant in Public Schools
WASHINGTON, DC - A government report released in September shows commercialism in public schools to be "widespread and on the rise." In a first-ever comprehensive congressional investigation of commercial activities in the classroom, Congressman George Miller (D-CA), a member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), requested the report from the General Accounting Office (GAO). The report shows a proliferation of advertising (1) on school buses, (2) in the classroom, (3) through exclusive soft drink contracts, and (4) through the in-class TV program Channel One (which includes two minutes of commercials per 12-minute broadcast).

"This report indicates that many schools and parents are not prepared for the onslaught of marketers trying to reach the lucrative youth market through the classroom," Miller said. "Parents, school officials and policymakers should take a close look at school policies on commercialism and make informed decisions about what they want children exposed to at school. If schools are going to encourage students to drink soda at 9:00 in the morning, for example, parents might want to be made aware of that fact."

Miller accused companies of "seeking to exploit the educational platform of our schools to launch the sale of their products." He referenced a Sept. 11 Federal Trade Commission report which notes that inappropriate movies and records with explicit lyrics were promoted in school settings with no indication that parents were aware of it. "Ultimately," said Miller, "commercialism in schools is yet another way in which the parent-child relationship is interfered with by corporate interests."

Marketing Violent Entertainment 
In a news release dated Sept. 8, Birmingham, AL-based child advocacy and media watchdog group Obligation Inc. accused Channel One of routinely airing commercials for violent entertainment over the past four years. Channel One ads promoted "Supernova" (a film containing nudity, profanity and violence), "The Quest," "Bats," "The World Is Not Enough" (the most recent and some say the most violent of the James Bond movies), and the TV show "New York Undercover."

Obligation's Education Director Pat Ellis noted that although her organization reviews less than 30% of all Channel One programming, what they have seen is very disturbing. "Last year, a few weeks after the Columbine shootings, Channel One ran a terrifying commercial for a very violent movie called 'The Mummy,' " Ellis recalled. "It was filled with gun violence, gruesome deaths and a graphic hanging scene. Schools should be a marketplace for ideas, not products, and especially not violent movies."

Commercialism in all 50 States  
The GAO report analyzed laws and policies dealing with commercialism in all 50 states and found them "uneven and inadequate." Only 19 states currently have statutes or regulations that address school-related commercial activities and they vary widely. For example, Michigan law fails to address commercial activities at all, while New Mexico specifically allows advertising on school buses. California, New York, Florida, Illinois and Maine have policies expressly permitting or prohibiting three or more types of commercial activities. New York generally prohibits commercial activities on school premises. In California, school boards must hold hearings before approving many types of commercial contracts.

The GAO raised concerns that school district policies have not yet adapted to changes in commercial technologies, noting that "none are targeted towards newer forms of media-based advertising, such as those delivered by Channel One and ZapMe." (See related story below.) Miller said it would be a mistake to suggest that commercial contracts can make up the whole difference caused by financial constraints without having additional ramifications. "Children are distracted enough as it is," he observed, "without being further enticed by computer pop-up ads for jeans and sneakers, or campus billboards boasting soft drinks and candy."

Miller and Dodd have introduced legislation to protect student privacy from market researchers. Their bill, the Student Privacy Protection Act, would require parental consent before children can participate in commercial market research in school, including opinion surveys and monitoring of web browsing habits.

Commercialism in Action 
Miller and Dodd requested the GAO report after hearing of numerous examples of commercialism in schools: 

  • A Colorado school district administrator sent a letter urging principals to allow students virtually unlimited access to Coke machines and to consider allowing drinks in classrooms to increase sales and therefore profits for the school. (See Education Reporter, January 2000). 
  • A student was suspended in Georgia for wearing a Pepsi shirt on a school-sponsored "Coke Day." 
  • The roof of a Texas school is painted with a Dr. Pepper logo to be seen by passing planes. 
  • 40% of middle and high school students view two minutes of commercials every day on Channel One. 
  • School buses in a Colorado district are covered with Old Navy and 7-Up logos. 
  • A math textbook teaches students about fractions by having them calculate how many kids prefer the Sony Play Station to Sega Saturn.

Brand Name Children's Books  
The New York Times (9-22-00) described the "sudden proliferation of children's books starring brand-name candies and snacks like Froot Loops, Cheerios, M&M's, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Reese's Pieces, Skittles, Hershey's chocolates, Sun-Maid raisins and Oreo cookies." A pre-school teacher launched the concept in 1994 when her M&M's Brand Counting Book was finally published by Charlesbridge after being turned down by 35 other publishers. It quickly became the publishing house's biggest seller. Cheerios

The trend caught fire with some pre-school and kindergarten teachers and parents. Commenting on The Cheerios Play Book, which has sold 1.2 million copies during the past two years, one kindergarten teacher told the New York Times: "We love it! You hate to always use food, but it is such a hit with the kids, because they can count them and then it is so rewarding for them to eat them." More recently, brand-name books have been geared toward elementary schoolchildren, including Reese's Pieces: Count by Fives; the Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bar Fractions Book; and Skittles Math Riddles.

Not everyone approves of the concept. Some specialty children's bookstores have refused to stock many of the books, and some teachers have described them as "an abuse." Parents, pediatricians and educators have objected that the books "will engrave snack food brands in toddlers' impressionable minds, hook them on junk food, and lead to eating problems later in life."

Though brand name snack books have collectively sold millions of copies and have been published by such heavyweights as Simon and Schuster and Scholastic, some publishers disapprove of the trend. Kate Klimo, publisher of Random House's children's division, called the books "advertising and P.R. for the food manufacturers, and as such, vaguely reprehensible."

Miriam Baron, MD, a professor of pediatrics at Chicago's Loyola University, who is also chairman of the public education committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, put it more strongly in the New York Times: "I think the whole thing is revolting, to be targeting these little kids with that kind of marketing," she said. "You want to use food for nutrition - you don't want food to seem more powerful than it is."

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