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Captive Kids: A Report on Commercial Pressures on Kids at Schools (PART ONE)

This guide was prepared for ZILLIONS: For Kids From Consumer Reports
We would like to thank our advisors for their thoughtful and insightful contributions to this report:

  • Diane Berreth, Deputy Executive Director, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), Alexandria, VA
  • Arnold Fege, Director of Governmental Relations, The National PTA, Washington, D.C.
  • Lamar Haynes, National Education Association (NEA), Washington, D.C.
  • June Millions, Director of Public Information, National Association of Elementary School Prinicipals )NAESP), Alexandria, VA
  • Alex Molnar, Professor of Education, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI
  • Robin Templeton, Campaign Coordinator, UNPLUG, Oakland, CA

In 1990 the editors of ZILLIONS: for Kids from Consumer Reports commissioned Selling America’s Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids of the 90’s. Prepared by Consumers Union’s Education Services Department, it surveyed trends in marketing to kids and pointed to problems that should be addressed by parents, schools, and the government. One area of greatest concern was the increasing trend of marketers to place their messages in schools. This follow-up report looks at the growing stream of commercial messages reaching today’s kids at school.
It’s a typical school day in America.
7:00 a.m. America’s School Kid rolls out of bed, rubs her eyes, and gets ready for school. After grabbing a bite, she’s ready to go. But while she’s walking out the door, she remembers that she left her algebra book on the table. She runs back and grabs it, remembering it’s the one with the bright Reebok cover that her school issued her.
8:00 a.m. A yellow school bus picks up America’s School Kid at the corner. It’s top and sides are painted with large signs advertising 7-Up––”the uncola.”
8:30 a.m. The yellow bus pulls up to school, and America’s School Kid rushes through its doors, makes her way past a bulletin board beckoning her to visit Jan’s Beauty Shop, and ducks into the homeroom class where her teacher is writing today’s announcements on a class calendar sporting an insurance-company logo.
As our kid settles down to do her homework, today’s 12-minute, ad-financed Channel One news broadcast for students begins to air. Four minutes into the program she looks up to see a hip-looking teen-ager downing a Pepsi on screen –in the same ad currently being shown on MTV.
Book covers, billboards in school corridors, calendars, and broadcasts –these are some of the places corporate America places ads for kids to see in school. Commercial messages also reach kids in the classroom through ad-bearing and corporate- sponsored educational materials.
If we tracked our school kid through the rest of the day, we might find her learning about solid waste from worksheets provided free by Procter & Gamble, the makers of Tide detergent, Pampers, Luvs, and other products. The worksheets would guide her through a “product life cycle analysis” and a discussion of how disposable diapers can actually be more “green” than cloth ones. Later, she might see other materials on solid waste from Browning-Ferris and the Polystyrene Packaging Council.
In health class America’s kid might use a learning kit compliments of McDonald’s or Kellogg’s to help her learn about good nutrition. She’d have no trouble identifying the sponsor because its logo would be prominent on all components –poster, worksheets, and video. But she might have trouble recognizing that much of the information has a corporate slant. And if she expected to see something identifying it as the company’s opinion, she’d find none.
Textbooks and other classroom materials produced by educational publishers and/or teachers used to be the fare from which students learned their lessons. But this is changing. As funds for classroom materials dwindle, schools are increasingly looking to corporate America to fill the void.
In this report we’ll look at the many ways commercial messages come into schools, what some of those messages are, who’s giving them, why, and what the ramifications of all this commercialism is.
Those of us at Consumers Union who are directly involved with education –and with teaching children to be informed consumers– believe that commercialism in U.S. elementary and secondary schools poses a significant and growing threat to the integrity of education in America. We see disturbing trends, such as:

  • Teachers using educational materials and programs in classrooms that are produced by commercial interests and contain biased, self-serving, and promotional information.
  • Pressure on school administrators, teachers, and students to form partnerships with business that turn students into a captive audience for commercial messages, often in exchange for some needed resource.
  • The introduction to the classroom, cafeteria, hallway, or restroom of branded products, licensed brand goods, coupons, sweepstakes and contests, or outright advertisements.

A number of forces are converging that put pressure on teachers and administrators to accept ads and other promotional materials in school:

  • Chronic school budgetary problems;
  • The ever-growing presence of commercialism in all sectors of society;
  • The growing competition among corporations for the burgeoning “youth” market.

This report offers a snapshot of the problem as it exists in 1995, mid-way between our last study, published in 1990, and the symbolically significant millennial year, 2000.
Captive Kids first identifies some of the different forms that in-school commercialism takes –from outright advertising in school hallways to sponsored educational materials that don’t necessarily contain ads but often contain brand-name plugs and biased messages.
It examines the reasons why corporations and other commercial organizations are interested in marketing to kids in the classroom, and how they do so. Most significant among these reasons is the corporate interest in capturing the attention and loyalty of today’s growing population of youngsters, who are not reachable at home during school hours.
Second, Captive Kids explores the problems that in-school commercialism can create, the arguments for and against allowing such commercialism into schools, and the efforts to control it.
It evaluates and rates a wide selection of sponsored educational materials, in-school contests, and incentive programs that have achieved access to children at school. And it describes numerous other forms of ad-bearing materials that are entering the schools, including sponsored television and radio, ad-bearing publications, and fund-raising programs.
Finally it offers Consumers Unions’ recommendations on how the corporate sector, the education community, parents, and government can and should work together to make schools ad-free zones where young people can learn without commercial influences and pressures.
Captive Kids is a follow-up to our earlier report, Selling America’s Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids of the 90’s [1].
In preparing that study Consumers Union found that America’s children are targeted by corporations and other organizations with more than 30,000 commercial messages per year.
We found that thousands of corporations were targeting school children or their teachers with marketing activities ranging from teaching videos, guidebooks, and posters to contests, product giveaways, and coupons.
We also found that many of these programs had self-serving objectives, or contained misleading, incomplete, or incorrect information.
We became convinced then that a focused study of commercialism in the schools was needed. We therefore began this project in late 1993.
We believe that requiring kids to view paid commercials on classroom TV or in classroom magazines; to fill the classroom with teaching aids that sport corporate logos or self-serving information; to expose kids to radio commercials or billboards or vending machines that push fat- and sugar-laden brand-name products; or to enlist whole student bodies in contests that promise a reward in exchange for brand-name recognition violates the integrity of education.
In-school commercialism is at its worst, we believe, when it masquerades as educational materials or programs and offers half-truths or misstatements that favor the sponsor of the materials. It may be difficult if not impossible for most teachers to correctly judge the objectivity and accuracy of such materials. In Captive Kids we describe many examples of this.
The more blatant forms of in-school commercialism add to the growing din of advertising aimed at kids in the home, on the bus, and in the malls. We do not believe that any advertisements, coupons, and sweepstakes have a rightful place in our institutions of learning.
Wide variations in resources among our nation’s school districts put many schools in a position of need, with little negotiating power when it comes to the content of commercial materials. When sorely needed equipment or teaching materials come only with an agreement to promote the donor’s products to kids and their parents, it may be hard to say no.
Unfortunately, a teacher’s use of a sponsor’s materials or products implies an endorsement, and any benefits of such use may come at the cost of teaching children to scrutinize marketing messages objectively.
We believe the impact that commercialism can have on the education of our young citizens and consumers in training should be a matter of great concern to all who cherish children. It is a matter of immediate concern to school administrators, teachers, parents, educational overseers, and the private corporations who will rely on today’s youth to populate tomorrow’s government and industry.
We believe that parents and educators must unite to make schools ad-free zones, where young people can pursue learning free of commercial influences and pressures. We applaud corporations that recognize that it is in their own long-range interest to provide relevant work experience to school kids and to donate basic equipment and financial resources to schools –but that attempts to peddle merchandise, services, or self-serving ideas are inappropriate.
Protecting school children from in-school commercialism requires that schools and school districts treat sponsored materials the same way they treat other curriculum materials: subject them to committee reviews and adopt and enforce guidelines insuring their objectivity and freedom from commercialism. Suggested guidelines are included in the section of this report called Recommendations.

“The kids we’re reaching are consumers in training.”
–Joseph Fenton of Donnelly Marketing [2]

Business and education have a long and sometimes troubling relationship. Schools have had a chronic need of funding for programs and equipment. And local businesses have long played a role in supporting schools with contributions in cash, time, expertise, or even equipment. In exchange for such handouts businesses often get commercial plugs in school yearbooks, newspapers, and events programming or on school uniforms and playing fields. Such arrangements, though self-serving on the part of businesses, have been widely tolerated.
But today, corporate involvement in schools often goes beyond self-serving philanthropy to become commercial opportunism. Limited local boosterism is overshadowed by national marketing or advocacy efforts from major companies that often put corporate logos, brand names, and other messages before school kids. Oil and utility companies, food companies and health providers, banks and credit card companies are among those who look for ways to get their messages to kids while those kids are a “captive audience” in school.
If you are a parent yourself, or if you work in education, you may have witnessed first-hand the rising tide of commercial messages aimed at school children. Many school kids see promotional messages throughout the school day, even when in class.
Businesses have found many ways of putting their messages before America’s captive kids. These are the main forms of in-school commercialism:
In-School Ads
The most apparent form of commercialism in schools is advertising that is displayed in the school itself or on property closely related to the school. Such advertising has become ubiquitous. It’s on school buses and scoreboards and on billboards and wallboards in corridors and lavatories. It’s on telephone kiosks and book covers. It’s on radio programs piped into school corridors and lunchrooms. In addition, hundreds of thousands of product coupons and samples are distributed through schools each year. The list goes on and on.
Ads in Classroom Materials and Programs
Commercialism also takes the form of advertisements in classroom magazines and television programs. Most controversial in this category is the daily classroom news program, Channel One. Each 12-minute news program contains 2 minutes of catchy commercials aimed at school kids.
Corporate-sponsored Educational Materials and Programs
Less obvious than outright ads and commercials are the promotional messages and plugs kids see in classroom teaching materials provided to schools by corporations or trade associations. Known as “Sponsored Educational Materials” (SEMs), these usually free or inexpensive materials may be multimedia teaching kits, videos, software, books, posters, reproducible activity sheets, workbooks, or other teaching aids.
Sponsored educational materials often are welcomed into the classroom because they help teachers augment their supply of teaching materials. Those that contain no commercial messages and offer complete, unbiased explorations of their subject matter can be worthwhile. But, unfortunately, these materials often contain outright plugs for a company or its product, or worse, biased information.
Corporate-sponsored Contests and Incentive Programs
Corporate-sponsored contests and incentive programs gain access to schools with the lure of prizes, from travel or cash to free pizzas. Whether or not they inspire students to excel, they carry brand-names and logos into classrooms.

“School is… the ideal time to influence attitudes, build long-term loyalties, introduce new products, test market, promote sampling and trial usage and –above all– to generate immediate sales.” –Lifetime Learning System ad directed at clients

America’s kids represent a large and growing market.

  • More than 43 million children attend schools. And the school population is growing. There has been a significant growth in the numbers of children born annually over the last ten years, and as the chart shows, that number is expected to increase across all age and ethnic groups through the year 2005, assuring corporate America an expanding market of youngsters well into the 21st century. [3]
  • Today’s elementary-age children have tremendous spending power –around $15-billion per year, $11-billion of which they spend on a wide variety of products from food, beverages, and clothes to toys and games. [4] In addition, they influence another $160-billion of spending controlled by their parents. [5]
  • Today’s teen-agers have even greater economic clout. They spend $57-billion of their own money yearly and $36-billion of their family’s money. [6]
  • America’s school kids spend at least 20 percent of their time in school. [7] For years, the main way for national marketers to reach kids was in the home –through comic books and television. [8] Those avenues remain. But kids are away from home and in school seven to nine hours a day, five days a week, 180-plus days of the year, making alternate marketing channels more important than ever. To reach them, more and more companies see school-based marketing as “the most compelling, memorable and cost-effective way to build share of mind and market into the 21st century.” [9]

These facts have inevitably caught the attention of marketers and have given rise to a marketing subspecialty eager to capitalize on children at school. And in the world of marketing, where establishing and maintaining brand loyalty is paramount, these “rookie consumers” [11] represent short- and long-term commercial opportunity. Marketers are looking to build brand loyalty while children are young and impressionable. The prevailing belief is articulated by this 1993 Advertising Age ad from Modern Talking Picture Service, one of the agencies that would-be kid marketers turn to for help in getting their promotional messages to kids at school.
The growing interest in school children as a commercial market comes at a time when educational budgets are strained. Financial pressure on schools may make them more dependent on corporate handouts and willing to open their doors to commercialism. A number of factors may be at play:

  • Many schools want and need more instructional equipment, programs, and materials for a variety of reasons. Some have shortages. Some have outdated materials and equipment. Some are looking for more varied or real-world or high-interest materials to enhance their lessons and better capture the attention of kids who are used to the powerful images of television and other media.
  • Many of the instructional materials schools want and need are expensive, and prices continue to rise. Textbook catalogs show prices like $36.93 for a history textbook, $10.95 for a set of language arts posters, and $99 for a computer software program for use in teaching algebra. A 28-minute environmental video costs $149. [12]
  • Many schools can’t afford the instructional materials they need and want. Despite the fact that school budgets have risen over the last decade, the gap between the cost of educational materials and the funds available for them is growing. Here are some figures:
    • Total public school expenditures rose from 1983-84 to 1993-94 by 44.8% (adjusted for inflation). Current expenditures per pupil (excludes payments for capital outlay and other expenses) rose 26.1% (adjusted for inflation). [13]
    • During 1992-93 the average school districts spent per pupil was $5,378 per student (see graph below). [14]
    • Figures on how much per pupil schools average on instructional materials are not available, but typically districts spend only 2.7 per cent of their current budgets on books and materials. [15] Based on a per pupil expenditure of $5,378, this amounts to $145 per pupil.
    • The situation in some schools is more dire. New York City currently spends an average of $7,918 per student on public education. Of this amount, $4,418 (55.8 per cent), is spent on instruction. But only $44 (.56 per cent) of this goes to instructional materials. The rest goes for teachers’ salaries and salaries of school principals, counselors, psychologists, and other personnel. [16]
  • In many schools teachers have less money now for discretionary spending than they used to. Several teachers we contacted for this study said that schools have cut way back on what they give teachers for discretionary spending. Where 10 years ago, a teacher might be allowed $400 to $500 a year to buy extra “goodies” for the classroom –special posters, photo packets, and other supplementary materials, the teacher might now get a fraction of that, or none at all. In many schools teachers make up the difference by dipping into their own pocketbooks, applying for grants, holding fund raisers, or keeping a sharp eye out for “freebies.”

Thomas Moore of U.S. News and World Report sized the situation up this way: “As the youth market has become increasingly rich over the past 20 years, schools have become relatively poor. Budgets have been squeezed between rising costs and taxpayer resistance to keeping pace. While teacher salaries generally have stayed ahead of inflation, school spending on materials and equipment has often been held down. Some districts have extended the shelf life of textbooks far beyond their time…” [17]
In addition, some of the materials schools need and want today aren’t widely available from traditional publishing sources. Most educational publishers just aren’t producing specialized and real-world career, health, and life skills materials. Corporations stand ready to fill this void –often with biased or promotional materials.

“Through these materials, your product or point of view becomes the focus of discussions in the classroom … the centerpiece in a dynamic process that generates long-term awareness and lasting attitudinal change.”
–Message to potential corporate clients from Lifetime Learning Systems

When we last studied in-school commercialism in the late 1980s, Whittle Communications had just begun testing its ad-bearing classroom news program, Channel One, sparking a national debate on the commercial exploitation of “captive kids” in the classroom. At that time, we identified some 234 of the possibly thousands of companies that were trying to get their commercial messages to schools via direct advertising or some kind of sponsorship. The number of companies marketing directly or indirectly in the schools includes Fortune 500 companies (Anheuser-Busch, Dow, DuPont, Exxon, Kellogg, Mobil, Phillips Petroleum, Polaroid, Procter & Gamble, Upjohn to name a few), smaller companies, trade associations, and corporate foundations and institutes.
Often these companies and commercial organizations have their own in-school marketing operations capable of producing materials and programs for schools. But just as often they turn to school-marketing specialists for help in reaching kids at school.
Helping Business Reach School Kids: A Business Itself
The rising interest in school-based marketing has spawned an entire industry of producers and distributors of in-school advertising and independent developers of sponsored educational materials –all ready to help business and industry get their messages to school kids.
Some of these marketing groups and developers have come into the business from the advertising agency world, offering expertise in advertising, direct mail, and media placement. Others are essentially publishers who offer businesses the option of sponsoring their publications or of having new, customized materials created to their specifications. Some are more commercial than others. Here are profiles of some players (listed in alphabetical order):
Channel One Communications (formerly named Whittle Communications Network). Sold in 1994 to K-III, the diverse media company that owns Weekly Reader Inc. and Lifetime Learning Systems, Channel One Communications offers companies an opportunity to show commercials to kids during its Channel One classroom news show. Schools are enticed to show Channel One by an equipment-for-audience offer. Branching out from its now defunct wall media (wallboards displayed in school hallways) operation, Whittle first introduced classroom television advertising in 1989. Channel One Communications also produces P.E. TV, a promotional single-sponsor television program for schools.
Channing L. Bette Company, Inc. This is a publishing company that identifies topics of potential interest to schools, businesses, community organizations, and other agencies. It then develops and publishes booklets, posters, and videos on these topics, marketing them to schools via a direct mail catalog. Materials in the catalog we examined covered health and safety, AIDS, the environment, human resources, current issues, and social studies/cultural diversity.
One of the catalog’s suggestions to schools: get local businesses to underwrite the cost of the materials in exchange for having their corporate name, logo, and message imprinted on the materials. Phillips Petroleum Company is one company that does this: its logo is on the back cover of several environment booklets we looked at. (Because its materials had no teaching guides, we did not include any of Bette’s materials in our evaluations.)
Cover Concepts Marketing Services, Inc. Public schools require schoolbooks to be covered. That creates a new medium for advertisers. They can place their message on one of Cover Concepts “free” book covers. The covers are presently distributed to 8,000 public schools. The company’s stated objective is to put its “free” paper covers (carrying ads from a variety of corporations) on all textbooks in every U.S. elementary and high school.
Cover Concepts’ promotional literature to potential advertisers emphasizes the public service messages it accepts, but most of the cover ads we saw were geared to branded products from Nike, Gitano, FootLocker, Starburst, Nestle, and Pepsi.
Cover Concepts’ promotional brochure claims that “over 6,000,000 high school, junior high school and elementary school students in our network prefer the trendy Cover Concepts book covers over the traditional ‘brown paper bag’ look. Students in this age group are responsible for over $95 billion in consumer purchases annually … Advertisers gain maximum exposure in the students’ daily environment.”
Cover Concepts also offers a “Grab Bag Sampling Program,” which actually places sponsored products into the classroom.
Enterprise for Education. A publishing and fulfillment service for utilities and energy companies, Enterprise for Education produces and distributes two to three million sponsored booklets per year on energy and environmental topics.
Enterprise develops the materials and distributes them to schools, often through the underwriting of local corporations. Says the company’s literature, “Our fulfillment service enables you [potential sponsors] to reach all the schools you want to reach in your service territory without the headaches. We do all the work! You and your staff are free to focus on other public affairs concerns.” Among its clients are Central Power and Light Company, Exxon Company U.S.A., Lower Colorado River Authority, and Northeast Utilities.
The company insists that its corporate clients do not dictate editorial content and adds this disclaimer to its publications, “Enterprise for Education is solely responsible for the content of this publication which was developed without sponsor funding. Sponsors do not necessarily agree with all statements and views expressed. In particular, sponsors do not make any warranty, express or implied, or assume any responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the information provided.”
We reviewed only one of Enterprise’s SEMs, The Greenhouse Effect and Global Warming, one of whose sponsors was Northeast Utilities. We found it not commercial, but with a bias to the fossil fuel industry.
Interactive Design & Development, Inc. Based in Blacksburg, Virginia, Interactive Design & Development, Inc. (IDD) “designs and develops computer-based, interactive, multimedia courseware and information systems.” IDD was founded in 1991 by Mary Guy Miller, a former teacher, to develop multimedia learning modules for the classroom. IDD produced 5-A-Day Adventures for Dole Foods, which we found to be unbiased and not commercial. Other clients of IDD include University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USDA Extension Service, Thomas J. Lipton, Inc., and Lufthansa German Airlines.
Learning Enrichment, Inc. This not-for-profit company was founded in 1983 by Bruce Barton and Clayton Westland, formerly of Scholastic Inc. The company produces and distributes sponsored teaching materials, including posters, discussion guides, videotapes, and computer programs. The materials are “underwritten by corporations, foundations, and governments” and are distributed free to schools.
Learning Enrichment produced two of the sponsored materials we evaluated in this report including one from Mobil Corporation and one from Procter & Gamble, both of which we found flawed.
Lifetime Learning Systems. Lifetime Learning Systems bills itself as “the nation’s recognized leader in the creation and dissemination of corporate-sponsored educational materials.” Its promotional materials boast of 1,000 educational programs created since 1978 and used by more than 63 million students every year. Lifetime Learning was purchased in 1994 by K-III Communications, which also owns Weekly Reader and Channel One Communications.
The promotional intent of the company’s service is quite evident in its own literature: “Lifetime Learning Systems can deliver your message precisely to the audience that fits your marketing needs. With our mailing lists, you can target any age group, ethnic group, geographical area or income bracket.”
Lifetime Learning Systems produced six of the SEMs we evaluated for this report, five of which we rated either commercial or highly commercial.
The Mazer Corporation. In business for 20 years, Mazer’s entire focus is the creation of sponsored educational materials. Its stated goal is “to develop and distribute educational materials that serve the communications, philanthropic, or marketing goals” of sponsors that “have a passion for assisting in the education of America’s children.” Mazer claims that it distributes materials that “… do not promote commercialized or advocacy messages” and is unwilling to work with corporations whose goals are just to promote their products. However, we found the one Mazer-produced SEM that we evaluated, Colonial Iron Kids Path to Health & Safety, highly commercial.
Media Management Services (MMS). Founded in 1977, MMS calls itself a “full-service consulting, marketing and publishing company specializing only in the education market.” According to its own promotional literature, MMS specializes in marketing supplemental materials for the science, social studies, and language arts curriculum. Formats include print, film, software, videos, laser discs, on-line information systems, and interactive teleconferences. In addition to creating sponsored educational materials, Media Management conducts market research, direct mail campaigns, special events, and contests for its clients. Its promotional literature does not emphasize in-school product promotion. Rather, its stated intent is to help organizations “develop, market and fulfill programs, products or services to the education market.” We found its Straight Talk About School developed for GTE with cooperation from National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) objective and of low-commercialism.
Media Options, Inc. Media Options, Inc. is a public relations firm based in Chicago. It has been producing educational materials for corporate clients since its founding in 1981 and has done educational kits on “fire safety, character, science, working students, and wellness” according to Jon Harris, Vice President. Its clients include “Fortune 500 companies and others.” While Harris was reluctant to name any specific clients, he did say they were predominantly in the “restaurant and insurance industries.” We reviewed four SEMs produced by Media Options, all but one of which we found to be minimally commercial; Choice, Chance and Control – That’s Life, produced for the Insurance Education Foundation, Inc., was found to be incomplete and boosterish for the insurance industry.
Modern Talking Picture Service. An old-timer in the in-school marketing business (over 50 years), Modern develops, creates, and distributes sponsored educational materials to classrooms. The company also conducts product sampling as part of a market research program. Its promotional materials claim a distribution network of more than “14,000 teachers and over two million students,” and the ability to finely segment any program to reach particular subsets of the student population –by age, sex, grade level, and subject area. Its stated goal is to build brand loyalty among young people and, by extension, their families. Modern builds its in-school distribution database by offering free video loans and teaching materials. We evaluated an SEM produced by Modern for Armor All Products and found it both commercial and flawed.
Sampling Corporation of America. Glenville, Illinois-based SCA specializes in distributing “goody bags” stuffed with product samples, money-off coupons, and educational pamphlets to school kids and their parents nationwide. According to Linda Mae Carlstone of Crain News Service, in 1994 SCA distributed 110 million samples to 76,000 schools. The president of SCA, Steve Kaplan, states that this type of marketing is successful because “there is an implied endorsement from a trusted institution. There’s a lot of credibility attached to that.” Major participants in SCA’s programs include Procter & Gamble, General Mills, and Hershey.18
The sample bags include “how-to” information packets aimed at specific grade levels or age groups. For example, packets for teens are accompanied by literature about changes that age group faces, how to deal with conflict, and where troubled teens can go for support. Information for older students centers on job seeking and includes guides to resume writing and interviewing. These materials are developed by SCA, with contributions from outside specialists for certain topics. They are then given away at school events, such as open houses, kindergarten orientations, health classes and graduations. Schools receive no payment for allowing the packets to be distributed.
Scholastic Inc. Scholastic got its start in 1920 as a publisher of classroom magazines and today calls itself “the largest youth publishing company in the U.S.” Through its Teen Network of magazines, Scholastic offers corporations the opportunity to directly target teen-agers with print advertising. Advertisers pay up to $33,000 to place a four-color, full-page ad in the five magazines in Scholastic’s Teen Network. The company’s promotional literature boasts of its ability to influence this marketplace: “Scholastic’s exciting publication pipeline spans 87 percent of all schools…Your program can reach an audience of up to 23 million kids and teens…Readership of your advertising message is virtually guaranteed, because Scholastic magazines are welcomed, purchased, and used in the classroom –your most non-competitive environment– by students and teachers.”
In addition the company publishes books, textbooks, supplementary educational materials, software, and sponsored educational materials. The company started developing sponsored-educational materials largely at the urging of companies who were advertising in its magazines. Its first sponsored materials were magazine inserts –infomercials, single-sponsor magazines, and corporate-sponsored contest announcements which got bound into the magazines and sent free to schools. Today its sponsored programs include videos, software, print materials, and licensing of Scholastic book characters.
According to Rick K. Delano, Director of Scholastic’s Education Marketing Group, the company recognizes the problems inherent in producing corporate sponsored educational materials and has established its own guidelines to make sure that any materials it produces are minimally commercial, educationally sound, and objective. We found this to be true of several but not all of the sponsored materials and programs developed by Scholastic that we reviewed. We found its least commercial effort to be its annual Arts & Writing contest sponsored by a long list of corporate entities; one of its most commercial efforts, a teaching packet developed for NK Lawn & Garden.
Most sponsored classroom materials are distributed free or made available at a nominal cost. Those that aren’t are typically less expensive than comparable non-sponsored materials. Teachers often obtain materials directly from sponsoring organizations by responding to offers advertised in educational journals, at educational conferences, or by direct mail. Sometimes, teachers receive the materials unsolicited through the mail, or bound into or polybagged with their professional journals or with bulk shipments of classroom magazines.
Some schools have established procedures for reviewing sponsored materials and weeding out those that are biased and commercial, but many haven’t. It is then up to individual teachers to decide if such materials are appropriate for the classroom and up to the standards set for other classroom materials. Leaving such evaluations up to teachers –many of whom haven’t been alerted to the potential presence of commercial bias or trained to detect– poses many problems which we address later in this report.

“The only genuinely educational use I can see for corporate propaganda in the classroom is to inoculate students against it, so that they will not swallow it uncritically without considering other sides of the question, but will make an earnest effort to find information from disinterested sources. Unfortunately, sometimes there are no truly disinterested sources.” –David Lunney, Greenville, NC, on-line conversation

Since late 1993, Consumers Union has been gathering and studying examples of all sorts of in-school commercialism. Our collection can be sorted into the four categories already identified in this report: 1) Sponsored educational materials and media programs (SEMs); 2) Contests and incentive programs; 3) Channel One and other ad-bearing media; 4) In-school advertising.
With the latter two categories –ad-bearing media and outright advertisements– the commercial content and marketing objectives are easily detected. Not so the promotional content and biases in SEMs and contests and incentive programs. Evaluating them entailed judging whether information was accurate and whether topics were covered completely and objectively, or whether they contained only information and viewpoints that favored the sponsors. We also judged them for commercialism: Was the material commercial-free or was the sponsor trying to build brand-name recognition or polish its corporate image? If the sponsor’s name or product was given, was it used as part of the lessons, or just presented to identify the source of the program? Did any “implied lessons” come across because a company sponsored a program, thereby linking its name and products with a positive environmental, nutrition, or other image?
In evaluating these programs, we used guidelines prepared by Consumers International, formerly the International Organizations of Consumers Unions (IOCU), and the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business (SOCAP). And we drew heavily on ecology and nutrition experts from Consumers Union’s testing department (a resource typical teachers don’t have).
We didn’t address the overall educational value of these sponsored materials and programs –their comprehensiveness (most are not intended to cover a subject completely), grade-level appropriateness, or whether they fit curriculum needs. Judging from the superficial approach of many of these materials, we’d guess many wouldn’t make the grade.
We collected more than 200 examples of educational materials and programs sponsored by commercial enterprises, trade organizations, or nonprofit organizations with significant corporate backing. While this represents a large sampling of sponsored materials, it doesn’t cover all –or even necessarily a majority– of available programs. We believe this to be just “the tip of the iceberg.”
The sheer magnitude of available programs made it impossible for us to include materials from organizations and interest groups with no obvious corporate backing –although such materials often “sell” ideas or viewpoints on a range of issues, and deserve evaluation and analysis.
The sponsored materials we did include ranged from simple “poster kits” (posters with print materials on the reverse side) to teaching packets of print materials to boxed multi-media kits complete with videotapes, software, and/or CD-ROMS and an array of print materials. Again, due to the huge numbers of materials available, we limited our evaluations to those materials that had a teaching guide, and therefore explicitly claimed to be curricular materials. Of the 111 programs that met this criterion, 77 were learning kits, packets, or posters, 29 were sponsored contests, and 5 were sponsored reading incentive programs.
Where we prepared actual ratings, they are provided in the charts at the end of this report.
What We Found
While SEMs rarely contain advertisements, we judged more than half of the 77 kits and packets we studied commercial or highly commercial (see page 43 for the criteria used to establish the level of commercialism). Nearly 80 percent contained biased or incomplete information, promoting a viewpoint that favors consumption of the sponsor’s product or service or a position that favors the company or its economic agenda. A few contained significant inaccuracies.
About half of the programs studied were produced for the sponsors by independent developers. Some were produced jointly with or have the endorsement of educational associations. We found that neither the involvement of an independent developer nor a co-sponsor is an indicator of objectivity and non-commercialism.
So blatantly commercial and biased was one sponsored educational packet –Decision: Earth from Procter & Gamble– that a coalition of environmentalists summoned by the cloth-diaper industry asked attorneys general in 11 states to investigate the kit’s truthfulness. Decision: Earth taught that clear-cut logging is good for the environment (“It mimics nature’s way of getting rid of trees”) and that disposable diapers are better for the environment than cloth ones. It did not mention that P & G, the country’s largest manufacturer of disposable diapers, had financed the study that produced those favorable results. P & G stopped distributing the kit in early 1994.
SEMs on the Environment
Twenty-one of the SEMs we evaluated covered environmental and other science subjects (see SEMS charts). Most of these were sponsored by companies or associations with interests in environment-related issues.
Six of the environmental programs evaluated concentrate on solid waste issues and were sponsored by companies that produce disposable products, make packaging or packaging materials, use a great deal of packaging, or are providers of recycling services. Five of these programs bypass serious discussion of reducing consumption or reusing products, and present recycling as the main solution to solid-waste disposal. Waste Wise, for example, a resource guide for teachers from the Aseptic Packaging Council, teaches that drink boxes are easily recycled, but fails to mention that few communities have recycling programs to handle them. Steel –America’s Most Recycled Material from the Steel Can Recycling Institute promotes the steel can as a superior way to package foods and other products and is essentially a running ad for the industry. The net result is a distorted picture of the problems, choices, and trade-offs inherent in the issues these materials cover.
DuPont’s Less Is More –Learning About Source Reduction, however, stresses the more important of the Three “R’s,” reduce and repair, showing that when a company wants to, it can present a non-commercial, unbiased material.
Four sponsored programs present lopsided views of energy sources and use. Power from Coal from the American Coal Foundation touts coal as the fuel of choice while Natural Gas and the Environment and Natural Gas Vehicles: The Road to Clean Air from the National Energy Foundation and the American Gas Association extol natural gas. Neither kit reviews the problems associated with its fuel or discusses alternate energy sources. The American Coal Foundation dismisses the greenhouse effect, saying that “the earth could benefit rather than be harmed from increased carbon dioxide …” The Exxon Education Foundation’s Exxon Energy Cube program doesn’t tout petroleum products but implies that fossil fuels in general pose few environmental problems and that alternative energy is unattainable and costly. Furthermore it suggests that worries about oil spills and strip mining are unfounded, since effective remedies exist for dealing with them.
On the other hand, Project Learning Tree from the American Forest Foundation is a non-commercial program on the subject of forests. Accepted as sound even by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, it has only a slight bias in favor of managed forestry.
Nutrition Lessons
Nutrition was another popular subject: all but one of the 21 nutrition materials we collected were sponsored by food companies or food-industry associations (see charts, pages 50-52). Several programs focused on “NIMF” –Not In My Food– problems. In Kids Get Going With Breakfast, Kellogg’s presents fat content as the sole thing to worry about when choosing a breakfast food. Sugar and sodium content of cereals isn’t even mentioned. Its label-reading lesson in Eat to the Beat neatly avoids the “Sucrose and other sugars” part of the label. (Both of these programs also show the Kellogg’s logo and one of its cereals.) In The Incredible Journey From Hen to Home, the American Egg Board plays word games to minimize concern about cholesterol –Eggs contain 22 percent less cholesterol than previously thought.” In Snacking Advantage, Nabisco identifies foods that have saturated fats –but neglects to mention that many cookies and baked products are high in fat, too.
Several programs got their commercial message across in pictures, not words: Delicious Decisions from the Dairy Council of Wisconsin doesn’t say eat milk products––but a disproportionate number of the “delicious choices” shown on the poster are milk products. Kellogg’s Build On Good Nutrition poster shows three Kellogg’s cereals, not to mention its logo and ad slogan. Mars’ 100% Smart Energy to Go doesn’t say candy is a quick energy snack but shows “Team SNICKERS” logos everywhere.
Two programs from McDonald’s avoided commercialism and bias for the most part by not showing its own food products, or even pushing the types of foods it sells. But perhaps the sponsor’s pay-off for this is the association of its name with a program on health and nutrition, subtly creating a positive, healthful image for itself and its food products.
Cross-curricular Lessons
Nutrition isn’t the only subject that food companies help teach. In the hands of creative curriculum developers, food can become part of hands-on science and math lessons, social studies explorations, and more. The trouble with most of the food-based cross-curriculum programs we examined was twofold: They seemed better at promoting their sponsor’s product than teaching the curriculum skill; and the learning activity itself was often superficial, pointless, and probably a waste of class time.
The lofty objective stated for Campbell’s Prego Thickness Experiment (“To help your students become aware of the many situations in which scientific thinking plays a part”) quickly degenerates into the promotional objective of the sponsor –have kids prove its ad claim that Prego is thicker than Ragu. Domino’s Pizza’s Encounter Math: Count on Domino’s promises to develop “mathematical problem-solving and critical thinking skills,” but what it really does is continually remind students of its pizza and its logo. Count Your Chips from the National Potato Board and the Snack Food Association promises to “sharpen skills in computation” but focuses on potato chips and encourages consumption of chips. The objective for What’s Buzzin’ (National Honey Board) sounds like social studies: to help students “gain an appreciation for the need to cooperate” and “learn the roles of honeybees.” Although it does teach that bees pollinate, the real lesson is all the reasons why kids should love honey.
Health and Safety Lessons
Health and safety was another popular topic. Sponsored primarily by insurance companies and energy associations, these materials covered topics from fire safety to personal growth and achievement. As a group, these tended to be more objective and less commercial than food-related and environment materials. An exception was The Eyes Have It! from Sears Optical, which laudably promotes getting eye checkups but plasters its name prominently on the student materials. (Sears Optical also sponsored The Eyes Have It! contest, which was equally commercial.)
Lessons in Economics, History, Money Management, and Communications
Many of these SEMs displayed bias in favor of the sponsors’ product, services, or viewpoints. Choice, Chance, Control: That’s Life from the Insurance Education Foundation blames risky drivers for high rates, oversimplifies issues, and explains risk in a way that justifies charging higher rates to people who are higher risks –a highly questionable practice when applied to health insurance (which is barely discussed at all). Advertising and the Economy from Procter & Gamble takes a non-critical view of advertising as “powering” the economy, creating jobs, prosperity, and economic growth. Disputable views about advertising are presented as facts, and P&G products are used as examples. Mobil Corporation’s Critical Thinking About Critical Issues, Unit 1: Freedom of the Press confuses freedom of the press with free enterprise, suggesting that the First Amendment guarantees free-market capitalism. Choices & Decisions from VISA does address the “down” side of credit cards, but makes them appealing by showing kids using them to buy a CD player, bike, and stereo and by using examples that stress low monthly payments and monthly percentage rates. Though comprehensive in explaining the history and development of telecommunications, NYNEX’s Kids In Touch kit emphasizes voice data over other means of communications, pats itself on the back for being a leader in the communications field, and where communications devices are displayed, always shows NYNEX-developed products first.
Use-Our-Product Lessons
Several sponsored materials were difficult to classify. On a superficial level they may seem to have curriculum hooks in science, language arts, or social studies, but we didn’t think they deserved to be dignified with such labels. The most accurate description (and a reflection of their educational value) is “products across the curriculum” –materials dreamed up to get their sponsor’s brand name into the classroom.
Two writing programs from BIC Corp. (Quality Comes in Writing and Getting on the Right Wavelength) are primarily promotions for BIC, with brand mentions throughout. Looking Good from Armor All, a manufacturer of car-care products, overstates the need to clean cars and equates car care with a person’s self image. Not only does it name Armor All products, but it also includes free samples for students. Photo Pals from Fuji Photo Film provides a free camera for each teacher and classroom, as well as coupons for film. In order to be part of the Photo Pals program, you have to continue to buy Fuji products.
Besides print, sponsors can get into the classroom though media such as video tapes, television broadcasts, and single-sponsor magazines. Like SEMs, these tend not to contain out-and-out ads, but are often laced with corporate names and brand names and often carry the sponsor’s bias about its product or an issue that affects it.
P.E. TV. This physical education program, launched by Whittle Communications in June 1994, is a variation on Channel One’s method of selling advertisers access to classrooms. Available to schools that have signed up for Channel One, the weekly 12-minute show is underwritten solely by Reebok, which spends about $2-million annually for the privilege. We question the efficacy of the show’s premise (to teach physical education to kids by having them sit in front of a television set), but we have no question about Reebok’s purpose in sponsoring the show. Its promotional presence is all too obvious. The Reebok name is linked not only with the phys. ed. messages, but with featured sports celebrities. The marketing emphasis was confirmed in an article in The Wall Street Journal, in which Reebok vice president David Ropes noted, “The company’s hope is that through year-round exposure we’re building a loyalty relationship with the students…Let’s face it, we’re in a catch-up position to Nike in this field.” [19]
Mobius Program. Browning-Ferris Industries sponsors an in-service training program, The Mobius Curriculum: Understanding the Waste Cycle, which is designed to help teachers teach students the importance of The 3 “R’s”: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. It also offers instructions on how to coordinate a school or community recycling program.
We found that although the program promises to teach the “New Three R’s of the solid waste disposal solution,” it gives much greater emphasis to recycling as the best solution and gives no indication that recycling itself can have a negative impact on the environment. (BFI runs recycling programs and admits that one of its reasons for sponsoring the program is to create “a competitive advantage for BFI.”)
Traditionally, magazines that carry advertising, whether classroom or trade publications, are developed and written with at least nominal independence from their advertisers. The better magazines keep what Henry Luce called a “Chinese wall” between their editorial operation and their ad-sales department.
But by definition, sponsored single-issue magazines never had a line between editorial and marketing to begin with. Our evaluations included five such magazines, all of which had as part of their agenda to promote their sponsors’ viewpoint or image:

  • Discover Card’s Extra Credit didn’t encourage credit card use but prominently displayed the Discover Card on its front cover and in full-page ads inside (positioned as a “tribute” to readers rather than as ads). Although no longer produced, it was widely distributed as an unsolicited supplement with four of Scholastic’s classroom magazines and included contest components.
  • In Wecology, McDonald’s image-building-by-association with ecological concerns isn’t enough: Two pages plug McDonald’s as “the first in the restaurant business to remove fully halogenated (CFCs) from its polystyrene packaging in the U.S.,” and brag of McDonald’s other presumably Earth-friendly activities. The magazine was published in 1990 with World Wildlife Fund and the Ronald McDonald Charities Foundation and is still distributed free to schools.
  • Canon sponsored a special photography issue of Scholastic’s Art & Man magazine, which carried three pages of Canon ads, and linked Canon’s name with photography in the minds of a “million students.”
  • Minute Maid’s Summer Fun magazine (created as part of the sponsor’s reading incentive program) names Minute Maid products in three recipes, and includes the Minute Maid logo on a removable bookmark. It was created and distributed by Scholastic Inc. and included a highly commercial contest component.
  • According to its developer, Scholastic Inc., Careers 2000’s goal is to “show 7th graders how relevant science and math are to their future lives by presenting career options which are exciting, attainable, and achievable.” In the main, the career options and job skills highlighted in the most recent issue are those of importance to its charter sponsors –the Air Force, The Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health, which makes it a bit self-serving although not commercial.

Four of these magazines, it should be noted, were distributed by Scholastic, Inc., which uses its circulation of traditional classroom periodicals to reach students with sponsored materials. We think this gives the sponsored materials a legitimacy that disguises their commercial nature.
Science Screen Report. Produced by Allegro Productions, Science Screen Report is an “ongoing secondary level videotape program that focuses on the most recent developments in science, technology, and engineering.” Science Screen Report is produced with the “active participation” of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). It is a series of seven video science lessons which are distributed free to schools through the underwriting of local corporations.
Schools receive one video per month from October through April. Sponsors include Alcan Aluminum, Dow Chemical, Exxon, International Paper, Monsanto, Pfizer, and Ohio Edison.
Allegro has been reluctant to send materials for review; to date none have been forwarded, which makes us wonder: Why won’t they send them? Materials produced for curriculum use should be volunteered for review –in fact review should be welcomed. From their marketing materials it can be gleaned that Allegro charges local underwriters $1,600 a year to pay for the school’s subscription. For this price sponsor’s receive press release materials with photographs “for placement with local and in-house media.” Each video “opens and closes with the sponsor’s message, which provides excellent identification and visibility.” Sounds commercial to us.
The NEED Project. The National Energy Education Development Project (The NEED Project) is a “national network of students, educators, and leaders in government and industry” underwritten by corporate sponsors, including Dow Chemical, Mobil Oil, Nissan, and Potomac Edison. The NEED Project was launched at a White House ceremony in 1980 and aims to provide “learning strategies that involve students, teachers, and the community in projects that promote critical thinking, leadership, and problem solving”; provide “students with the vehicle to enhance personal growth and their knowledge of science, particularly as it relates to energy”; facilitate “the exchange of energy education materials and programs to meet diverse local needs”; and prepare “a new generation of energy literate citizens able to meet the challenges of tomorrow.” It does this by supplying schools with a catalog of educational materials (available for free to NEED members, for a fee to non-members) and offering schools NEED membership ($25/year). Membership also affords participation in its Youth Awards Program, an annual Energy Education poll, a subscription to the magazine Energy Exchange, as well as games, puzzles, and fact sheets.
The materials are primarily classroom activity guides for teachers. They seem carefully constructed not to offend their corporate sponsors. All energy sources (including solar and wind) are explored, but the negative effects of using these energy sources are barely touched on.
New Classroom Programs Coming
Two new in-class television programs were under development as this report was being prepared. We’ll be keeping an eye out for how they hold up to SOCAP and IOCU guidelines.
The Curriculum Network. A Channel One follow-on expected sometime this year is The Curriculum Network from TCN. It is planned as an electronic library of curriculum supplements in core subjects, funded through a mixture of public funds and corporate “underwriting messages.” TCN will begin a 15-month testing program in September of 1995, with an on-air target date of January 1997. The test schools will be located primarily in the midwest.
Media consultant Eric Jones and his California-based company, Screen Media Partners, are helping to launch the new network. Jones played a part in designing Channel One, but disagreed with Chris Whittle about the use of advertising. He says The Curriculum Network will follow guidelines on commercialism promulgated by the Public Broadcasting System and the NEA.
The Nightly Business Report. Nightly Business Report –planned for launch in 1995– will be a “special high school edition” of the popular TV program aired by the Public Broadcasting Service. Each segment will have a team of teen-age anchors. The video series will be underwritten by corporate sponsors and distributed by West Glen Communications, Inc., which bills itself as “the nation’s leading distributor of sponsored videos and films.” The videos will be shipped by mail rather than transmitted electronically.
Corporations produce literally thousands and thousands of sponsored videotapes for classroom use on a wide range of subjects from nutrition and health to history and economics. Generally these videos are either loaned to schools or offered free or for a nominal fee. It was beyond the scope of this report to evaluate classroom videotapes, but a random previewing showed that many share the same problems that other sponsored educational programs do –commercialism, bias, and incompleteness.
Sponsored contests and incentive programs, in which students compete with each other for prizes, find their way into classrooms because they supposedly motivate students to learn –and they often offer prizes for the teacher or school as well. But what many do best is motivate students to buy.
For this report, we evaluated 34 examples of contests or incentive programs sponsored by one or more private organizations. Some are annual events, while others are one-time efforts.
A few seemed to put educating students ahead of selling to them, notably the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search (designed to spur interest in science education and research among young people), the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards/Alliance for Young Artists & Writers (originated by Scholastic Inc., and now sponsored by a group of corporations and nonprofit organizations), and the National Geography Bee, sponsored by National Geographic Society and Amtrak (which will be replaced by a new corporate sponsor in 1995).
But most were clearly designed to promote their sponsors’ corporate images, products, or services. Like sponsored teaching materials, some sponsored contests promote their sponsors by including brand mentions or logos in contest titles and entry forms, and sometimes by offering their sponsor’s product or service as prizes. Some present self-serving views of the product or service offered by its sponsor, such as the benefits of using sandwich bags (from ZIPLOC) or the benefits of using a bank (from The Greater New York Savings Bank). In our evaluation of contests, we used criteria similar to those we used to evaluate SEMs.
A number of contests –including samples from Delta Airlines, The Greater New York Savings Bank, and Sears Optical– seemed to be targeted at kids as influencers of their parents. To heighten publicity value to the sponsors, some contests require that winners allow their names, photos, and entries to be used for publicity purposes (BIC, Discover Credit Corp., Duracell, Kudos Brand, Oxy 10).
Four of the contests we evaluated share the dubious honor of being the “most commercial”:

  • Oxy 10 $10,000 Scholarship Contest, a multimedia contest that requires entrants to send in a UPC or 3 x 5 card with Oxy written on it and to let the sponsor use their names and photos for promotional purposes.
  • Definitely Dinosaurs Contest for first graders, sponsored by Playskool and publicized in Scholastic’s magazines, whose stated objective was “to increase awareness of Playskool’s products among readers of Scholastic’s magazine for first graders.”
  • The Eyes Have It! poster contest sponsored by Sears Optical, which gave students a special discount offer for free eye exams, and also required students to go to a local Sears Optical store to submit their entries and to pick up any prizes they won.
  • ZIPLOC’s National Sandwich Day Contest, sponsored by Dow’s ZIPLOC Sandwich Bags, is actually promoted in a ZIPLOC educational program, whose main purpose is to push the use of the product.

Read Part Two of This Report.