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

Getting kids to read and instilling a love for reading in the young is an important goal of education: also it’s the focus of the incentive programs we looked at from Chrysler Corporation, Minute Maid, Pizza Hut, Toys ‘R’ Us, and McDonald’s.
These sponsored incentive programs can be two-edged swords. On the one hand, kids who might not otherwise develop reading skills are encouraged to do so. On the other hand, kids are being used by the sponsors to influence family purchases. (We found all but Chrysler’s program to be highly commercial.)
And incentive programs themselves lead kids to expect a reward for doing something that should be rewarding in itself.
From its pilot testing in 1989, Channel One has made a major effort to legitimize in-school advertising as a way of paying for educational programs and technology on a national scale. Since 1989, many groups, including Consumers Union, have vigorously opposed Channel One and the concept of selling in-school audiences en masse to advertisers, regardless of the perceived needs and benefits. Yet despite the opposition, Channel One continues to be broadcast to millions of students in thousands of schools.
What Is Channel One?
Channel One, is a daily, ad-bearing news program for students in grades 6 through 12. It is broadcast “free” to schools that promise to make it a mandatory part of the curriculum. The incentive to schools: free use of the satellite dish, VCRs, and classroom TV monitors.
Channel One is produced in the network’s Los Angeles studios and delivered free to schools along with other Channel One Communications offerings, The Classroom Channel, P.E. TV, and The Educators’ Channel. The automated daily feed is picked up by satellite dishes located at the schools between 3:30 and 5:30 a.m. EST and recorded by a master VCR. Programs can be previewed by teachers and/or administrators before being shown to students.
Each participating school signs a three-year contract in which it promises to show Channel One on 90 percent of all school days and in 80 percent of all classrooms. Schools may air the show whenever they wish during the day. Channel One’s chief lure to schools is the equipment that comes with the program. In each school that signs up, the network installs a KU-band satellite dish and provides head-end and recording equipment, lines for re-transmission through the school, two central VCRs, and a 19-inch television set for each classroom. Channel One Communications owns the equipment, maintains it, insures it –and takes it back if the school drops its contract. Schools can use the equipment for more than Channel One programming. To the school, everything (programming, equipment, installation) is “free.” The school just has to deliver the audience of youngsters to the waiting advertisers.
Channel One claims that it’s viewed five days a week in 350,000 classrooms in some 12,000 schools across the country. Opponents, however, dispute those numbers.
According to a University of Massachusetts study, Channel One has made greatest penetration in schools in South Central, Mountain, or South Atlantic states and least penetration in schools in New England or the Pacific states.20 The study found that the program is disproportionately shown in schools located in high-poverty communities, where money for educational programs and materials is most lacking, and communities of color; schools in wealthy communities are least likely to subscribe.
What’s on Channel One?
Two minutes out of each daily 12-minute program are devoted to paid commercials by such sponsors as Snickers, Rold Gold pretzels, CareFree bubble gum, Pepsi, and Reebok.
Periodically, Channel One presents live hour-long specials on major events. One, in December 1993, featured Attorney General Janet Reno answering student questions. These specials do not carry commercials, but may feature the logo of sponsoring companies with the message “programming paid for as a public service by …”
Channel One’s stated purpose is to “use news and current events information as a tool to educate and engage young adults in world happenings; make the daily news accessible, relevant and exciting to younger viewers; promote awareness of the relationship between national and world events and every teen’s individual life; encourage young people to become productive and active adult citizens by proving to them that they are participants in history not just witnesses to it.” But another purpose is to deliver to its advertisers a large and guaranteed audience for their ads. Channel One advertisers are willing to pay the $194,000 price tag to have 30 seconds of kids’ attention in school, where they can’t change the channel, leave the room, or turn off the TV.
Channel One –The Controversy
The main argument for Channel One revolves around schools’ need for technology equipment they cannot afford, and the ability of advertising to pay for that equipment. Schools get what they need; advertisers get the targeted audience they want. The fact that kids see two minutes of advertising is not a problem because they’re exposed to so much advertising each day anyway. “Ultimately it comes down to a very pragmatic decision. Channel One –the technology, the programming, the other resources for the teacher– is only made available because of the advertising, the two minutes of advertising. It’s as simple as that,” says Jim Ritts, president of network affairs for Channel One Communications. And he has his supporters:
In an interview in The New York Times, Elias Chamorro Jr., a principal in California’s East Side Union High School District (which has mostly Latino and Asian American students), said: “Bringing technology to the school that we normally could not afford allows me to have 104 television monitors that are totally networked and are used for our daily bulletins and with our VCR’s.” 21
In defense of the program, the network’s repre-sentatives also focus much of their argument on the educational value of the non-advertising portion of the program. Company representatives point to a string of awards their programming has earned.
But many teachers, parents, school boards, education organizations, state education agencies, and consumer advocates oppose Channel One, recognizing that the price schools pay for Channel One’s “free technology” is far higher than any benefits they could get. Despite schools’ financial straits, there are issues much more serious than money that fuel their opposition to Channel One.
Using Channel One cedes control of the curriculum to outside parties.
The requirement that schools air Channel One most days to most students means that teachers don’t decide whether it fits their curriculum –they must air it, regardless of whether or not it relates to what they’re teaching.
An example: Marilyn Harris, teacher of freshman German at Glencliff High School, Nashville, Tennessee, reports she was surprised when the TV clicked on and started airing Channel One during class. When told she was expected to suspend teaching German for 12 minutes each day so her students could watch Channel One, she reported being “outraged.”
“Perhaps the most dangerous … of the implications,” writes Joel Rudinow of the Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique at California’s Sonoma State University, “is the transfer of substantial control over curriculum and content from individuals and institutions that are locally responsible –teachers, school boards, and parent groups– to a remote corporate hierarchy.” 22
Requiring students to view ads in school is unethical and runs counter to what schools are entrusted to do.
The American Association of School Administrators voiced early opposition to Channel One in 1989 “because it requires students in the classroom to view product commercials,” explained associate executive director Gary Marx. “The classroom is a marketplace for ideas, not a marketplace for commercial products.”
Former New York State Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol, explaining why the State Board of Regents reaffirmed its ban on Channel One in 1993, keeping the program out of the state’s public schools, asked, “What message would we send to students if we removed the ban [on Channel One]? That we value you as consumers more than we value you as students?”23
Showing ads in school compromises the integrity of education.
It’s not the job of teachers to help sell candy bars, zit-cream, sugar water, and hamburgers in classrooms to students,” said Nick Leon, a high school teacher from San Jose, California, and member of the California Education Association.
In 1993, the 9,000 delegates to the National Education Association’s annual meeting agreed with him, passing a new business item “to investigate and file, when appropriate, legal challenges aimed at stopping growing commercialism of our classrooms which forces teachers to treat students as consumers rather than learners.”
Other education associations followed suit. Among them, the National Council of Teachers of English, which in 1992 resolved, among other things, to “encourage teachers to resist commercial programming in school.”
Students themselves have protested required viewing of Channel One. “We don’t feel corrupted by watching commercials,” said one student involved in a Fargo, North Dakota, sit-down, “But we think we should have the choice of watching or turning them off.” The students won a partial victory. Fargo’s North High School now shows Channel One before the start of the school day, and students who don’t want to watch it don’t have to.24
The ads often contradict the lessons schools are trying to teach.
Health courses stress the importance of choosing healthful foods over “junk foods.” At the demand of adoption committees, publishers carefully avoid picturing sugar-laden products in textbooks. Yet Channel One brings into the classroom commercials that glamorize soft drinks, candy bars, and similar products that teachers are cautioning them not to buy.
In addition, commercials often promote consumption and materialism. “Over half the kids in Texas are too poor to buy their own school lunch,” says activist Karen Miller of suburban Houston. “In light of this, it is egregious that students are forced to watch commercials at school and be reminded daily of the products they cannot afford to buy.”25
The ads that students are required to watch on Channel One are more insidious than the commercials they see on TV at home. At home, kids can turn off the TV or raid the fridge during ads. They’re likely to see competing ads for similar products, which helps temper the “sell.” Commercial TV ads must appeal to a broader age range and can’t hone in on the interests of their age group only. And no authority figure will be asking kids to watch, thereby giving the ads they see its implicit endorsement. Not so with Channel One.
“Market research demonstrates that such advertising [referring to that on Channel One] does have an impact, contrary to the claims of some, particularly when it is designed specifically for a target audience, shown repeatedly, and when competing products are not permitted the same access,” pointed out the L.A. Chamber of Commerce in a 1993 letter in support of state legislation barring Channel One. “Furthermore, we are concerned that younger children especially will perceive the products as having the implicit endorsement of the schools, including products that are beyond the financial reach of the families of many of our local children.” [26]
Watching Channel One takes time out of the school day and costs the taxpayers money.
“Schools are already hard-pressed to find the time they need to deliver the planned curriculum,” observes Gary Marx, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “Carving out an additional 12 to 15 minutes a day may not be reasonable in many schools.”
“The time in question adds up,” says Gloria Blackwell, President of the California State Parent Teachers Association. “The Channel One contract requires that the schools show the entire program, virtually every day of the school year. That twelve minutes a day adds up to a full six school days per year. If you consider only the advertising, it totals one school day per year. The cost to the taxpayer, for the advertising time alone, exceeds the total value of the equipment Whittle leases the school (when figured over the course of a three-year contract).” [27]
In 1989, California officials calculated that the cost of keeping public high schools open for one day a year added up to $29-million statewide, or $87-million over the course of a three-year contract.
Channel One, if allowed to flourish, will “legitimize” selling student audiences to advertisers as a means of financing public education.
Public schools rely on compulsory attendance laws to assemble students for the purpose of education. It is a perversion of that purpose to require students to view commercial messages. When Channel One was just starting in 1989, Bill Honig, then California Superintendent of Public Instruction, said: “We have no right — legally or morally — to sell access to our students even if schools receive some benefit in return.” [28]
In its 1993 letter in support of state legislation barring Channel One, the LA Chamber of Commerce said “… it is a poor precedent to begin to ‘sell’ the school day to pay for basic programs and equipment. Public education is public trust and should be supported by the public.” [29]
Channel One: The Bottom Line
Whether or not Channel One is a worthwhile educational program, the arguments against a program financed by advertising in the classroom are, in Consumers Union’s view, compelling. We believe educators, not marketers, should control the school curriculum. We believe public education should be publicly financed, not financed through the sale of student audiences to advertisers.
Channel One has attracted a lot of controversy. But classroom magazines or newspapers that carry advertising have not met strong opposition.
However, there is reason to take a look at the print arena, too. Print ads are not necessarily innocuous. They certainly contribute to the growing commercialism of the school environment and possibly carry an implied endorsement of the schools.
Classroom Magazines
Two companies, Weekly Reader Corporation (owned by K-III Communications) and Scholastic Inc. (Senior Scholastic, Junior Scholastic, Choices, etc.), dominate the classroom magazine industry. Each company publishes a variety of magazines (weeklies, bi-weeklies, monthlies) targeted at different grades and subject areas.
Neither company accepts ads in publications aimed at elementary students, other than pitches for the publishers’ own book clubs. Says Mary Harbaugh, Weekly Reader’s Executive Editor of Elementary Publications, “Placing ads in magazines makes kids a captive audience…We never accept space advertising in elementary periodicals, except for occasional inserts for book clubs; teachers can opt to either use them or not use them. They are not bound into student editions. This is a company policy.”
Although Weekly Reader says it accepts ads in its upper-grade publications, Career World, Writing!, and Current Health 2, we found no ads in the issues we reviewed (September 1994). Other upper-grade publications may include posters or other special materials that bear the logo of a corporate underwriter, without any advertising message. For instance, the March 11, 1994 issues of the teen magazines carried a supplement on alcohol made possible by a grant from Citibank. It appears that Weekly Reader (in consultation with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.) maintained editorial control of this supplement and that the sponsor merely put up the money.
Upper-grade magazines from Scholastic Inc. carry up to six pages of advertising. Scholastic’s own promotional materials for advertisers claim it can “present you with the largest single print advertising opportunity there is to reach teens . . . in a virtually non-competitive, highly-receptive, captive environment –in school.” 30 Advertisers pay up to $33,000 to put a four-color, full-page ad in the five magazines in Scholastic’s Teen Network: Junior Scholastic, Choices, Science World, Scholastic Scope, and Update. Typical advertisers include Finesse Mousse, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, Cliff Notes, Inc., Noxzema, Capezio ballet shoes, Milton Bradley games, Discover Card, and Warner Brothers. In addition, Scholastic’s middle and high school magazines may contain corporate-sponsored inserts –infomercials, single-sponsor magazines, and corporate-sponsored contest announcements.
Classroom Editions of Adult Publications
A number of ad-bearing adult magazines and newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post National Weekly, The Nation, The New Yorker, and others) offer special bulk subscription rates for classroom orders and offer teaching guides. These publications are not specially edited for students, however, nor are the ads they contain. Somewhat different is the tabloid-format Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition, which is edited for students. The Classroom Edition targets economics, business, journalism, and social studies classes. Each 24-page monthly issue has two or three pages of advertising directed at students (currently, Merrill Lynch and ITT). It also has an “honor roll” page that recognizes some 500 business sponsors. These sponsors are individuals and advertisers that pay at least $150 apiece for a high school class to receive 30 copies of the newspaper plus a teaching guide for one semester.
Video Programs: Another Model
In the course of our research, we uncovered two interesting experiments in sponsored programming.
Yaros Communications, Inc. in St. Louis offers two video programs with innovative links between corporate funding, local television stations, and classroom learning. One program, Weatherschool, focuses on the science behind weather forecasting. The other, StudentBody, concentrates on healthy eating and exercise. The programs are targeted at grades one through eight and are produced by Yaros Communications, Inc.
Local corporate sponsors help pay for computer software and teaching guides that are supplied to classrooms. The software for StudentBody includes games that teach good nutrition habits, while that for Weatherschool has students create their own weather broadcasts. Once each month, news and weather programs on cooperating television stations address topics that have been covered in class. Students are encouraged to view the segments –for example, a weather reporter’s explanation of how new Doppler radar installations work, or a health report on the latest nutrition research.
Ronald Yaros, a former TV weatherman who is the president of Yaros Communications, stresses that no advertising appears in the classroom. However, students and parents who watch the televised segments will be exposed to the sponsors’ commercials. Yaros says that the logo of a corporate underwriter appears in only two places –on the lesson plan supplied to the teacher and on the computer screen when the software boots up.
Direct advertising in the school has mushroomed in recent years, as marketers come up with ever more ingenious ways to tempt needy school districts to sell access to children. In preparing this section, we looked at advertising on school buses, in-school wallboards, book covers, scoreboards, and kiosks. We also looked at product sampling, fund-raising efforts, in-school licensing, and radio programs.
Advertising on School Buses
School-bus advertising is found in some school districts hungry for funds. And many more might permit it if it weren’t for state restrictions.
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, for example, colorful cartoon ads for 7-Up are emblazoned on both sides of two of District 11’s school buses. A huge 7-Up can is painted on the top of each bus, too, presumably to draw the attention of low-flying pilots, drivers on overpasses, and people looking out the windows of high-rise buildings. Two other buses contain art, logos, and addresses of local businesses. Burger King will have its logo on five school buses, with art provided by five local high schools. Starting in the fall of 1994, District 11 expected to have ads on a dozen school buses. The district is using the revenue from these ads to buy books, lab equipment, and other supplies.
Directors of California’s Fremont Unified School District thought they might similarly bolster school finances by using their school buses for such advertising. However, they were blocked by the Highway Patrol’s Motor Carrier Division, which warned that ad-bedecked vehicles would be hard to identify as school buses, and that ads might distract motorists and increase the risk of accidents. Steve Williams, director of pupil transportation for Mississippi Department of Education, says his department also considered ads on school buses, but ultimately rejected the idea because of fears about safety.
According to The New York Times, New York City is currently considering selling ad space on the sides of its school buses. [31]
In-School Radio Programs
By filling a school’s hallways, lobby and lunchroom with rock music and commercials, some administrators bring in up to $20,000 a year in extra cash.
That is the pitch used by vendor Star Broadcasting of St. Paul, Minnesota, which began operation in the fall of 1993 and claims to be broadcasting Top 50 music and commercials into 400 schools across the country. Star’s programming is strictly entertainment, not part of the required curriculum. But the music and commercials are hard to avoid –a point Star stresses when selling to national advertisers. Star offers both a rock format and an alternative “hot country” format, and points out that schools that want to boost their earnings can sell their own local advertising. A big school might take in an additional $15,000 this way, Star estimates. Like Whittle, Star equips schools with a satellite dish to receive its programming; Star values the equipment at $5,000 per school.
In 1994, National Public Radio news visited Apple Valley High School, a suburban school south of Minneapolis, to gauge reactions to Star’s programming. It quoted a Star spokesman as saying, “Our whole cause and our drive is not about advertising, it’s about helping schools.” Two students interviewed on-air welcomed the music, and Apple Valley’s principal was grateful to have found a new source of funds. [32]
Is there any harm to such advertising? Supporters of the venture say kids like the music and they’re used to the ads. But we question the wisdom of distracting students with pop music and commercials when there are already so many demands for students’ attention during the hours schools should be imparting basic knowledge.
Ads on Walls
To ambitious marketers, school wall surfaces look like opportunity. And wherever fund-poor educators are willing to try something new, marketing schemes are taking hold.
Advertising panels, or wallboards, in hallways and lunch rooms are commonplace sights for many students. Whittle Communications pioneered the trend when it began placing wallboards in schools during the 1980s. Each wallboard contained product advertising along with educational messages from celebrities. By 1989, 5,400 high schools carried Whittle’s Connections wallboards and 9,000 elementary schools carried the comparable Big Picture wallboards. Whittle has since dropped its Connections service and is reevaluating the Big Picture as well. However, imitators have picked up on the idea.
Youthtalk Advertising Agency in Salt Lake City has pushed the wallboard idea a step further. Starting with two schools in 1992, it began placing acrylic-faced billboards in school restrooms and cafeterias. For the 1994-1995 school year, the company placed its wallboards in 42 high schools in 10 school districts in the Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Provo areas. It estimated that some 80,000 students have seen the ads while sitting in toilet stalls and standing at urinals. When they wash their hands they find ads around the restroom mirrors. A portion of the ad space is set aside for public service messages and notices of school-related events.
Edward Jackson, president and founder of Youthtalk, has even found a philosophical justification for restroom ads: They reduce damage from graffiti. Youthful artists scrawl on the acrylic rather than on the toilet stalls themselves. Jackson also claims educational benefits: his ads empower students. Students in graphic arts classes design some of the ads.
But the real bottom line is money. Jackson says schools that sign up for his service can realize from $2,000 to $10,000 in ad revenue each year.
While Youthtalk operates only in Utah at present, it hopes to carry its ideas to other states in the future.
Textbook Covers
More than 16 million students in almost 25,000 schools use their free book covers, claims Cover Concepts Marketing Services, Inc. Fifty different advertisers –including Nike, McDonald’s and Hershey– use the covers to pitch sneakers, food, and other products to elementary, junior high and high school students. According to Cover Concepts, most advertisers include “socially responsible” messages, such as “Stay in School” and appeals for “racial harmony.” But we found plenty of big-brand candy, apparel, and food marketers, as well.
National Book Covers (Whitefish, MT) also provides schools with free ad-bearing book covers, but would not send us their materials to review.
Student Publications
Students themselves often publish ad-supported newspapers and yearbooks. These serve as training grounds for future journalists and marketing specialists, and ads serve to recover some of the costs involved in the endeavor. Students gain work-related experience selling ads to neighborhood shops and local outlets of national chain stores. They may also sell yearbook space to their parents, family members, and neighbors.
Advertisers use the space to promote their products and services or to build up a corporate image. Local soft drink bottlers are avid users of newspaper and yearbook space. Coca-Cola supports sports and the arts in many schools, so Coca-Cola bottlers’ ads often salute a school’s basketball team or theater group. Individual clothing stores in the Benneton chain also buy space in school yearbooks to congratulate the graduating classes of local high schools.
Perhaps no school surfaces get more concentrated attention than sports scoreboards. A logo or ad on a scoreboard receives prime-time exposure throughout the sports season. Therefore, advertising revenue can be significant. And many schools avail themselves of the opportunity. Soft-drink bottlers and distributors are among the leading supporters of school sports activities.
During the 1992-1993 school year in Layton, Utah, for example, the local Coca-Cola bottler donated $45,000 for several scoreboards, including a four-sided electronic scoreboard suspended from the ceiling in the gymnasium at the new Northridge High School. The large scoreboard carries only the Coke logo.
In Colorado Springs, Co., on the other hand, the Pepsi logo is the exclusive sponsor adorning the eight-foot-square lighted scoreboard for District 11.
In fund-poor New York City, where basketball is the most popular sport and school equipment is frequently broken, Van Wagner Playground Programs signed agreements with school boards to install and maintain basketball backboards, rims, and nets in elementary, junior high and high school yards. Money was provided by FILA (makers of athletic clothing) and Foot Locker (makers of sneakers), both of which signed three-year contracts. As of September 1994, 625 schoolyard basketball courts had been rehabilitated. No advertising appears on the backboards — only a tag reading “Donated by…” Van Wagner anticipates expanding to Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., in the future.
Vending Machines
Soft-drink bottlers vie for exclusive rights to place their vending machines in schools to build brand loyalty among school kids. Whether it’s Coca-Cola or Pepsi, the colorful machines placed strategically in high-traffic areas outside the school cafeteria, in the lobby, or in a main hallway lock in loyalty from the young passers by.
Critics like Democratic Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont want to get such vending machines out of the schools. His concern is not so much with commercialism as with the lack of nutritional value in the products most school vending machines offer to kids. He introduced a bill in the Senate in 1994. Not surprisingly, he met opposition from Coca-Cola, which makes millions from school vending machines. But the other vocal opposition block were school administrators, who have become dependent on the funds they get from the machines’ sales. 33
In DeKalb County, Ga., the school board has agreed to install pay phones with electronic kiosks that display a continuous loop of five-second ads in each of its 26 junior and senior high schools. A Deputy Superintendent maintains that the ads don’t represent a problem since they aren’t in the classroom. 34
Product Give-aways and Coupons
The distribution of coupons for free, “trial-size,” or “cents off” the 32-ounce size of a product has become a national institution. They’re handed out in supermarkets, appear in local newspapers, and can be found in any elementary school classroom that’s taking part in the Minute Maid Summer Reading Program. But coupons are not the only give-aways that companies are distributing in the nation’s schools.
Product samples –toothpaste, snack foods, candy bars– are also making their way into schools. Usually they come with some educational materials for the teacher and the students –a video on how to brush your teeth properly, or a unit on nutrition that describes how certain snack foods help you grow. As teachers become more desperate for new, more up-to-date and more interesting materials to supplement aging textbooks and other basics, they begin to look more favorably even at samples of products that arrive without accompanying educational materials.
Corporations are looking to jump into this niche with products they hope teachers will distribute to their classes. Several products from a single company can be put together in one bag. Or the products of several companies can go into the same bag. Product samples even come with advertising materials the teacher can send home with the kids.
Modern Talking Picture’s Product Sampling unit has been placing companies’ products in schools for eight years. Its advertising claims that the company can reach ” …more than 14,000 teachers and over two million students. And the cost of the program can be less than mailing a letter to each student.” All of Modern’s sampling programs include classroom activities and teaching guides, and are sent “only as a part of a total educational package.” Roseanne Pollak, company vice president, claims that samples are sent only if they are requested, with enough time for teachers to look them over and to decide whether the materials are proper for their classroom.
Lifetime Learning Systems gave away more than one million samples of General Mills’ snack food, Fruit Roll-Ups, to preschool children in the classroom. The package included a growth chart, a calendar, and some student activities. Materials told about the foods people eat and the fruits that they grow –both related to the sample fruit snack. A take-home booklet was included so the sponsor’s advertising message could reach kids’ parents at home, giving the sponsor two bangs for their buck. Lifetime’s advertising claims that it can reach 600,000 preschool students.
Modern’s TeenPak sampling program comes with teaching materials and promises companies to “get your product into the hands of the $81 billion teen market more ways than anyone…in a focused classroom setting.” Their Prom Promise sampling program, developed for Nationwide Insurance Company, will give a package of as yet unspecified products to students who sign a pledge not to drink and drive on their prom night.
But Cover Concepts doesn’t see the need to have educational materials as part of its projected Grab Bag sampling program. Steven Shulman, the company’s president of operations, plans on including messages from sponsors urging kids to “Stay in school” and “Don’t do drugs” in the grab bags he hopes to distribute early in 1995. Those samples will go straight into the hands of the 20 million students who now use Cover Concepts’ book covers.
Other marketing groups, including Sampling Corp. of America and Scholastic, also put together product sample packs for students.
Fund-raisers turn kids into salespeople. Kids are pressured to either sell something or collect labels or receipts forcing them to convince their parents, neighbors, relatives, and friends to buy certain products or frequent certain restaurants or retailers. Sometimes kids are even exhorted to go door to door selling a product or service. Companies that sponsor such fund-raisers not only gain an unpaid sales force, they can often sell products at a higher price than the market would ordinarily bear, since the enterprise is presented as charitable in nature.
Corporate Fund-Raisers.
Major corporations sponsor a wide range of fund-(or equipment-) raisers. Companies that have offered money or equipment to schools for buying their products or shopping at their stores include: Hershey, Jif peanut butter (Procter & Gamble), Orville Redenbacker, a number of grocery stores and chains, and magazine sellers.
These companies are very direct: They tell schools to get their students or their parents to buy from us, and we’ll give your school or students something in return. The prizes run the gamut from playground equipment to computers. Companies solicit students, their families, and teachers to promote or buy their products for some kind of good –buy a product (peanut butter or canned soup), show proof of purchase, and win a new backstop or other benefit for your school. Or they encourage students to get their families to shop at certain stores, turn in receipts, win gifts for the school. Such programs have schools put unfair pressure on kids to influence family purchases that they have no control over. Kids also learn to choose products or stores for all the wrong reasons.
Labels for Goods.
Campbell’s has been using school children for years to collect labels and UPC codes from their soup cans and other food products. Their advertising, directed at classroom teachers, tells them to urge their students to get the labels from their own and their neighbors’ homes. Campbell’s says that “In the past 20 years, these schools have redeemed billions of labels for more than $60-million in free equipment.” Some of the items schools can “buy” are books for their libraries, slide and film projectors, and equipment for their playgrounds and gymnasiums.
Dialing for Schools.
Florida schools are involved with fund raising through its “Dialing for Florida Public Schools” program. Local residents (“students’ families, friends and neighbors”) and businesses sign up for a “long distance telephone service that will help raise potentially millions of new dollars annually for Florida’s Public Schools and significant funds for Florida Association of School Administrators (FASA), too.” Schools and FASA are promised “six percent of the net” by the sponsor, a group called the Affinity Fund. A school that signs up 500 subscribers can raise approximately $15,300 annually for itself and $1,700 for FASA. (Maryland and other states are looking into this).
Driving for Education.
Chevrolet/Geo dealers’ “Driving for Education” program lures parents and other interested adults into Chevy’s showrooms to test drive a new Geo or Chevrolet. For this drivers get a “Proof of Drive” certificate, which they can turn in at their child’s school. The school turns in the accumulated certificates for Apple Computer products, audio/visual equipment, or encyclopedias. While the program directly targets administrators and teachers rather than students, there is implied pressure on all the kids in a participating school to get their parents into that showroom. Everyone in the school knows which parents have already taken a ride. Students are also involved indirectly as participants in the awards ceremony, which can take place in a “special school assembly, half-time of a sporting event, at [the local] dealership, or during lunch in the cafeteria,” and which can include entertainment “to be provided by the school’s chorus, band, theater group, cheerleaders, etc.”
Fund-raising companies.
The old-fashioned bake sale or car wash pales beside today’s modern fund-raising for hire industry. More than 100 fund-raising companies representing candy makers, magazine publishers, and others supply the schools with products to sell; the kids do the selling; and the school or school group gets a percentage of the sale.
In-School Licensing
The opportunity to earn revenue from the names and logos of their teams and programs also brings schools into the commercial advertising arena. Recently, school boards in Utah, Florida, Illinois, and Nebraska signed agreements with School Properties, Inc., a San Francisco promotions and licensing company, to market their school names. The license agreement permits School Properties to create products carrying member school logos and emblems. The company finds corporate sponsorships for them, does catalogue marketing, and even makes arrangements for school-backed credit cards.
Envious of the “millions of dollars” raised by college and professional sports groups, Utah School Boards Association associate executive director Darrell K. White wants to get “greater access to discretionary funding” from the arrangement. He looks forward to revenues of $250,000 to $500,000. Florida officials are even more optimistic, hoping to make $1-million dollars for their schools.
The promoters of this partnership expect that nearly two dozen other state school boards and school administrators associations will sign up before long. Others are less optimistic about this fund-raising concept. Some have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the amount of cash to expect. And others worry that the products sold will have little to do with the schools themselves. 35
Where Is This All Going?
Just cataloguing and describing these numerous marketing ventures that target school kids is exhausting. What concerns us, however, is not just the sheer numbers of marketers eager to leap into schools. We are also disturbed by the apparent willingness of educators and school administrators to subject the children entrusted to their care to such commercial influences and pressures, all in the name of acquiring equipment or money.

“Schoolchildren are for sale to the highest bidder. This was true in 1979, when my book Hucksters in the Classroom: A Review of Industry Propaganda in Schools was published, and the situation is even more threatening today. Today’s corporations are slicker, more sophisticated in their marketing strategies than they were a decade ago. Intrusions into the classroom by business interests continue unabated –some blatantly promotional, others more subtly biased.” –Sheila Harty, Educational Leadership [36]

Are the many promotional messages and commercial influences reaching kids at school undermining the integrity of education, or are they an acceptable price to pay for an infusion of materials, programs, and equipment into financially hard-pressed classrooms? In this section, we look at arguments for and against commercialism in the schools.
Most of the arguments in support of in-school commercialism rest on schools’ financial needs and assumptions that administrators and teachers can counteract any adverse affects of commercialism in the school environment or in classroom materials and programs. No one is saying in-school commercialism per se is desirable; rather, they’re looking at it as a means to an end. We believe the debate would not exist, in fact, if schools weren’t chronically underfunded and forced to accept help from companies willing to give it.
Defense arguments include the following:
Sponsored programs and outright advertising provide schools with desperately needed materials and financial support.
The business interests argue that in-school advertising and sponsored educational materials and programs augment tight school budgets, either by saving schools money or giving them income. According to Edward Jackson of Youthtalk Advertising Agency, provider of in-school wallboard advertising, many schools wholeheartedly welcome the helping hand. “I’ve had principals cry when I presented them their check at the end of the year,” he told us.
Commercialism is everywhere.
Students see commercial messages everywhere. There’s no reason to believe kids are unduly influenced by the additional ads they see in school.
Not all teachers view sponsored materials as uniquely “commercial.” One of the teachers we spoke with on-line observed that everything is commercial: “…It doesn’t take the words ‘provided by Exxon’ for material to be one-sided nor should we assume that because something is sponsored by a corporate donor it is automatically bad.”
Teachers are capable of evaluating materials for commercialism and bias, and using the materials in an appropriate way.
Defenders feel that teachers and students are capable of recognizing and working around any bias in commercially-sponsored materials, maintaining that they can and do evaluate incoming materials and serve as gatekeepers against excessive commercialism in the classroom.
Some see these materials as opportunities to teach media literacy.
Some even welcome sponsored materials as grist for classroom analysis and investigation. They argue that even the most biased materials can be used –if not for what the materials purport to teach then for the opportunity to show propaganda in action.
Business has unique information and resources that can improve students’ education.
Some supporters argue that corporate-sponsored materials offer information not typically available in schools. They see no problem with such materials, especially if the sponsoring company produced materials related to its area of expertise.
The problems with sponsored materials are exaggerated.
Some teachers who responded to our on-line poll found the handouts from corporate or organizational sponsors offered them a way to vary their lesson plans and give kids “hands-on” materials to work with. One middle school teacher in Stamford, Connecticut, said: “If it’s free (and good) it’s for me! Great, glossy, up to date, motivating materials…are a heck of a lot better than the 1966 textbooks that many teachers are refurbishing to pass out each September.”
The case against commercialism in schools gets to the heart of what education should and shouldn’t be –the school environment, what lessons teachers should teach, and who should set the agenda. The single criterion driving these decisions should be what’s best for students, not what’s glossiest or most lucrative for schools.
The main arguments against commercialism in the school environment and in classroom materials –why schools should be ad-free zones– mirror some of the arguments presented against Channel One.
Cedes control to people outside education.
One of the complaints against Channel One is that outsiders dictate to schools what programs to show kids and how often. Teachers and administrators should set the educational agenda, not outside commercial interests. (A related problem is who should produce the educational materials schools use.) Educators with no agenda other than meeting curriculum needs and educating kids should develop and/or control the curriculum materials used in classrooms. Materials should have a legitimate education need, not a commercial motive.
Compromises the integrity of education.
Programs or materials produced with marketing objectives in mind are propaganda for either a product or an idea. Such materials ultimately corrupt curricula and compromise schools’ efforts to educate and empower students. Getting kids to buy products, feel good about a corporation, or adopt the viewpoints of an industry on an important issue is not the purpose of education. One teacher from Alaska who we spoke with on-line agrees that “sponsorship by corporate America comes with a definite price tag.” He told of receiving “two cases of a beautifully designed mini-handbook on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights” from Phillip Morris Company and putting the books in his closet because the company’s logo appeared on the front and back covers.
Selling or providing access for commercial purposes to kids while they are captives in the classroom is a perversion of education.
Ads in school and in school materials carry the weight of an endorsement.
Ads in school materials and programs lend an implied endorsement to the sponsor or its product, all the more damaging because it affects a captive audience that has been asked to trust what the teacher says and does. This power is not lost on the in-school marketer: “There is an implied endorsement from a trusted institution,” says Steven Kaplan, president of Sampling Corporation of America (SCA), which distributed 110 million product samples to 76,000 schools nationwide in 1994.37
Promotional sponsored education materials blur the line between education and propaganda and lead to distorted lessons.
Many commercial efforts masquerade as educational materials or activities while promoting self-interested, incomplete, or discriminatory points of view. Sponsored materials often fail to present opposing points of view, to reveal who financed studies that support their viewpoints, to acknowledge the sponsor’s own financial interest in the point of view expressed, or to disclose conditions and information that affect the accuracy of what they teach. Such materials basically teach opinion as if it were fact. Similar to the confusion between the infomercial and the independent report in some magazines, this blurs the line between fact and propaganda. The result is a distorted picture of the problems, choices, and trade-offs inherent in the issues these materials cover.
Often such materials contradict other lessons kids learn in school. Colas, potato chips, fast-foods, candy are all foods that students should consume only in moderation. By marketing such products to kids in school, there’s the possibility that students will get the wrong idea –that they’re okay after all.
An example cited recently by Consumers Association of Australia noted that: “A teacher may not be sufficiently versed in nutrition to assess a company’s nutrition information. Yet its products may be in direct conflict with good nutrition. Even if it is obvious to teachers and parents that a company’s products are not for frequent eating, this is difficult to explain to children who are being encouraged to join in fund raising nights involving buying a company’s products, or who come home with sports uniforms carrying its logo.” [38]
Sponsored programs and materials often bypass review processes intended to safeguard students from biased or otherwise flawed materials.
Materials sent free to teachers often come into schools through the back door, rather than through the formal curriculum review boards that evaluate potential learning materials for, among other things, balanced point of view and excessive commercial content. Business-sponsored incentive, label collection, or other programs also fall outside the purview of review boards.
The idea that teachers can serve as the gatekeepers against the biased messages often found in sponsored materials is naive.
Despite the fact that many educators believe that teachers are capable of evaluating materials for commercialism and bias, according to Alex Molnar, Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, most teachers haven’t been taught how to do this –or don’t even see the need to. And unless a teacher is an expert in a topic, evaluating sponsored materials is not necessarily easy. In evaluating these materials, we had to draw on CU’s ecology, economics, and nutrition experts.
Educators’ beliefs that that they can handle and defuse promotional content of commercial programs is equally questionable. Saying that teachers can defuse the advertising messages in sponsored materials and programs and salvage something worthwhile from them is like using textbooks with gender or ethnic discrimination, and claiming it’s a good way to teach about diversity.
In-school marketing contributes to the din of commercialism targeted at kids, and promotes materialism.
In 1990, 30,000 television commercials were aimed at children in the home. Add to this a host of kids’ clubs, catalogs, comic book and magazine ads, and a range of ads and promotional materials in the schools, and our children may be the most targeted group of Americans that has ever existed. The message that comes through this din is pro-consumption. But creating such a buy-me-that climate among children who are already burdened with too many ads to buy things they can’t afford is obviously unfair.
Advertising for everything from fast food to sneakers can come between students and their families: Pressuring parents to buy certain products often leads to conflict. Regardless of one’s personal position on materialism and consumption, schools should be preparing students to make their own choices, not influencing them to follow the path advocated by marketers.
The idea that kids aren’t influenced by in-school advertising because it’s everywhere reflects a naivete about the nature of advertising.
Even adults are affected by advertising. If they weren’t, advertisers wouldn’t be in business. Students are even less discerning and therefore more easily influenced than adults.
The idea that school-business partnerships should have a commercial pay-back aspect is unethical.
Rather than sell students’ minds to business in exchange for free programs or technology, schools need to pressure the corporate sector to live up to its non-marketing responsibility to support schools, the institutions that are preparing the corporations’ future workers, future consumers, and future citizens.
Any one of these factors alone poses a threat to the independence and integrity of the educational system. And left unchecked it is likely to grow stronger in the future.
According to statistics from the Council for Aid to Education, Corporate America’s interest in education gets stronger every year –corporations are focusing more money than ever on donations and programs for elementary and secondary schools. Corporate expenditures on pre-college education in 1993 totaled $381 million nationwide, or 15 percent of all corporate donations for that year. That’s 54 times what it was three decades ago, or an increase of 5400 percent. Most of that growth in corporate spending has occurred in the last five to ten years. [39]
We were unable to find data on how much of this money supported non-commercial school programs, and how much went to schools with strings attached. Most likely it does not include sponsored educational materials. According to Diana Rigden, CAE’s vice president for precollege programs, the cost of funding sponsored materials would be considered “cause-driven marketing” and would not count as support of education. However, equipment that is given to schools under an I’ll-scratch-your-back, you-scratch-mine arrangement would.
Do corporations get tax breaks for such arrangements? It’s a question worth exploring.
We polled 21 education associations to learn where they stand in this debate. The strongest opponents of commercialism in U.S. elementary and secondary schools are the National Education Association (NEA), which opposes many such activities and will fight them in the courts, and the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA). The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) is also opposed to advertising in the classroom.
Many of the other education organizations we polled felt it was up to the individual districts, supervisors, and teachers to determine policy. None of the groups actively encourages commercialism in the schools, and some are currently forming policy guidelines intended to establish minimum standard requirements for sponsored materials.
See the Ratings Charts for the responses of each of these organizations. It is worth noting that half of the groups have taken clear stands against the use of Channel One. And not one of the groups champion Channel One as a valuable teaching tool or an important part of the school day.
Positions on other types of commercial materials were mixed. Sponsored educational materials (teacher’s guides, posters, workbooks, videos, etc.) elicited outright opposition only from ASCD, but most groups encourage close monitoring by teachers and principals. The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) advocates that schools and businesses develop materials through partnerships, as long as this does not result in “commercialization of instructional time.” Many other groups encouraged setting standards at district and state levels, with schools responsible for evaluating sponsored educational materials case-by-case.
Positions were even less fixed with regard to the use of ad-bearing materials on school grounds. Most of the groups we polled had no official position. Those that did all mentioned that no student should be required to view commercial materials, but did not close the door on placing ads on school buses, or on print ads in classroom magazines.
According to Professor Alex Molnar, who studies the problems of corporate involvement in school curricula, the struggle to insulate schools from corporate interests has been going on for years: “In 1929, the National Education Association published its Report of the Committee on Propaganda in the Schools. The report’s author E.C. Broome argued that corporate sponsored materials should, in general, only be used if their use is indispensable to the education of children. If widely adopted, this principle would virtually insure that most corporate sponsored materials were taken out of classrooms.” [40]
Little public attention to corporate involvement in education followed the NEA report until the last twenty years, when businesses seemed to become more aggressive and flagrant in pushing their own interests into public and private education.

  • In 1979, Sheila Harty wrote Hucksters in the Classroom, which descried self-serving corporate material for corrupting the educational curriculum. A decade later, she continued to warn of the ever slicker intrusions into the classroom by business interests: “Schoolchildren are not the rational consumers for whom advertising provides information relevant to logical market behavior. We must not allow them to become pawns in the game of building corporate images.” [41]
  • In 1982, the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business (SOCAP) prepared voluntary guidelines for business-sponsored consumer education materials, in cooperation with three consumer interest groups.42 These guidelines, updated in 1989, stipulated that materials should be consistent with established fact, easily verifiable, and current; objectively reported with any sponsor bias clearly stated; complete; reported in understandable language; free of derogatory or discriminatory content; and noncommercial, with the name or logo of the sponsor used only to identify the source of the materials.
  • In 1989, the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU), now called Consumers International, issued its own “Code of Good Practice and Guidelines for Controlling Business Sponsored Educational Materials Used in Schools.” The code covers many of the same points as the SOCAP guidelines. In addition, it specifies that materials should encourage awareness and cognitive evaluation of the subject among pupils, and should in no event be distributed unsolicited to pupils or teachers. The IOCU code also advocates independent assessment of all business sponsored educational materials and that schools reject any promotional materials sent to them by companies. It offers guidelines for governments, for national and regional education authorities, and for independent consumer organizations. [43]
  • Since Channel One was launched in 1989, opposition to advertising in the classroom has included government agencies as well as educators and parents. The California Department of Education and the New York Board of Regents have fought to keep Channel One out of those states; the National Parent Teacher Association, the National Education Association, and other education In 1990, Consumers Union published Selling America’s Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids of the 90’s, which documented the marketing objectives for many sponsored materials, and raised objections to the growth of outright advertising in the schools. [44]
  • Also in 1990, the Milwaukee Conference on Corporate Involvement in Schools was convened by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Education, bringing together representatives of national education associations and concerned organizations. The stated goal of the conference was to create “a set of principles to which educators and businesses can subscribe, which will distinguish those areas in which both can cooperate.”
    The two-day conference produced proposed ethical guidelines for corporate involvement in schools. Although efforts to form a coalition of national education associations to endorse these guidelines proved unsuccessful, a number of national education associations did adopt the guidelines. Those guidelines stipulated that:

    • Corporate involvement shall not require students to observe, listen to, or read advertising.
    • Selling or providing access to a captive audience in the classroom for commercial purposes is exploitation and a violation of public trust.
    • Since school property and time are publicly funded, selling or providing free access to advertising on school property outside the classroom involves ethical and legal issues that must be addressed.
    • Corporate involvement must support the goals and objectives of the schools. Curriculum and instruction are within the purview of educators.
    • Programs of corporate involvement must be structured to meet an identified education need, not a commercial motive, and must be evaluated for educational effectiveness by the school/district on an ongoing basis.
    • Schools and educators should hold sponsored and donated materials to the same standards used for the selection and purchase of curriculum materials.
    • Corporate involvement programs should not limit the discretion of schools and teachers in the use of sponsored materials.
    • Sponsor recognition and corporate logos should be for identification rather than commercial purposes.” [45]

In the next section, we offer our recommendations for controlling in-school commercialism. The bottom line: Our belief is that business and schools must work together to preserve the integrity and effectiveness of our educational system. Careful self-examination is called for, and rigorous guidelines must be embraced with enthusiasm.
In 1990, Consumers Union called for making schools ad-free zones, where young people can pursue learning without commercial influences and pressures. We also called for higher standards for all promotions targeted to children, whether in the school or not. And we urged schools, teachers, and parents to actively educate children about the nature of commercial messages directed at them and build their ability to resist commercial pressures. The need to control the burgeoning phenomenon of in-school marketing is now even more urgent.
We therefore call on business leaders, educators, parents, and government to work together to embrace practical, responsible approaches that will protect the educational integrity of our school systems. Specifically, we recommend:
The corporate sector, including industry associations and other special interest groups, should:

  • Acknowledge and respect that schools are not a marketplace for products, corporate images, or self-serving viewpoints, and declare that all forms of advertising in classrooms, from couponing and sampling to commercial SEMs and contests, are inappropriate and not an acceptable way of marketing to kids.
  • Recognize that schools are under-financed and can benefit from the financial and other resources of the business community; and assist schools with programs whose objectives are empowering and educating youth, not selling to them.
  • Publicly support proper funding of schools to eliminate their reliance on corporate sponsorship and advertising revenues.

The education community should:

  • Support the idea that schools should be ad-free zones, and that classrooms should not be purveyors of commercial messages or influences.
  • Adopt SOCAP or IOCU guidelines, and require sponsored programs and materials to undergo the same review procedures and meet the same standards as other curriculum materials.
  • Reject the idea that allowing advertising in the school is an ethical way to acquire materials or finance education. Identify and pursue noncommercial partnerships with business.
  • Educate children about the nature of propaganda and commercial messages by teaching consumer and media literacy, helping kids to analyze ads, demythologize products, evaluate sources of information, and clarify alternatives in the marketplace. This should begin in the elementary grades.

Parents should:

  • Support the adoption and enforcement of SOCAP or IOCU guidelines to keep commercial sponsored programs out of the classroom.
  • Teach children to evaluate commercial content in all of the materials they receive, including those in the schools. Regularly discuss purchasing and money-management decisions with children, and analyze advertising with them.
  • Address the larger problem of the underfunding of our schools.

Government should:

  • Ensure proper funding of schools to diminish their reliance on corporate sponsorship and advertising revenues.
  • Eliminate tax benefits for corporate contributions to schools that carry a commercial message.
  • Insist that corporations pay their fair share of school funding.

Consumer education and information materials should meet the following minimum standards:
Accuracy. Statements are consistent with established fact or with prevailing expert opinion on the subject. Information is easily verifiable. Information is current at the time the material is produced, and can be expected to remain current throughout the time the sponsor distributes it.
Objectivity. Points of view are fairly presented. If the subject is controversial, arguments are balanced. Any sponsor bias is clearly stated and references to differing views are made.
Completeness. The materials contain all relevant information and do not deceive or mislead by omission.
Language. Materials are both interesting and understandable. Word choice, organization and sentence length are suited to the primary target audience. Technical terms are used sparingly and are fully defined.
Non-discrimination. The text and illustrations are free of any content that could be considered derogatory toward a particular group; for example, an ethnic group, an age group, a race, or sex. The diversity of our population should