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The Commercialized Classroom

by Holley KnausMultinational Monitor
March 1st, 1992

Students in U.S. schools are being fed "McEducation," says Kathleen Tyner of the San Francisco-based Strategies for Media Literacy. Peggy Charren, president of the advocacy group Action for Children's Television agrees: "Kids are getting pitched walking down hallways, kids are getting pitched eating lunch, kids are getting pitched sitting in the classroom."

Underfunded schools, desperate for resources, are increasingly receptive to corporate-sponsored educational materials and programs, and are ever more accepting of the associated commercialism and product promotion. "We are paying for educational deficits by selling kids to advertisers," says Charren.


Madison Avenue goes to school

"Kids spend money," says Tyner, and "schools are an untapped market segment."

Advertisers are reaching young people in schools through a variety of methods. Corporations now advertise to over three million students through GymBoards, a program of the New York-based American Passage Media Corporation. GymBoards places billboards in high school locker rooms with panels hawking products such as Neet hair remover and Tampax tampons alongside panels on health or social issues. Some students receive product samples in "GymBags." Sampling Corporation of America, of Glenview, Illinois, has distributed Halloween safety kits containing product samples and coupons to elementary students for over 10 years. Pizza Hut's "Book It" Program, which rewards young students with free pan pizzas for reaching reading goals set by teachers, may also lure parents into the restaurants as paying customers.

Not all corporate marketing aimed at students is this blatant or recognizable, however. Some of it "is cloaked as something else," says Jill Savitt of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for the Study of Commercialism. Lifetime Learning Systems (LLS), a Fairfield, Connecticut-based marketing service, specializes in creating, producing and distributing corporate-sponsored "educational programs" that promote the sponsor's products or general views. Since its founding 14 years ago, claims company Vice President and Editor-in-Chief Dr. Dominic Kinley, LLS's materials have reached over 2 million teachers.

Some LLS programs amount to little more than product promotion and samples packaged as educational materials. For General Mills, LLS created a "Grow-Up!" teaching kit on fruit and nutrition that was distributed to preschoolers. Each kit contained certificates and growth charts for the students, booklets for their parents -- and up to 96 product samples of the company's Fruit Roll-Ups. According to an LLS promotional brochure, over one million samples were distributed in the classroom. Lederle Laboratories, producers of Centrum Jr. multivitamins, hired Lifetime to create a teaching kit which introduced fourth, fifth and sixth graders -- at least those "in middle and upper income areas nationwide" -- to the importance of vitamins and minerals.

Savitt and other critics say that materials designed to sell children products or ideas gain credibility when they are presented by a teacher in a classroom setting. Savitt says "one of those most dangerous" aspects of corporate-funded curricula is that "some kids will feel that information is completely correct, unbiased and valid because it is given to them in the classroom."

Perhaps most disturbing are programs designed not simply to sell products to students and their parents, but to influence attitudes and ideas about issues such as energy or the environment. The LLS brochure describes a program created for the Hartford, Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities with the objective of "re-educat[ing] consumers to the realities of the energy crisis and increas[ing] public support for nuclear power development." The materials, distributed in elementary, junior high and high schools in the utility's service area, included filmstrips, a teaching kit, informational booklets and a board game on energy issues. According to the brochure, "Northeast Utilities surveyed participants in this last program to measure attitudinal change and found opinions shifting an average of 20 percent in favor of the utility's position."

Savitt points out that large corporations and utilities do not have much competition in selling their version of the truth to kids. "Other voices," those representing environmental or consumer concerns, for example, "don't have the money to produce materials to counter corporate" education programs that may be based on misinformation, or at least biased or one-sided information. And Charren says that many teachers, untrained themselves in identifying corporate promotion techniques, "don't recognize propaganda when they see it."

Kinley defends the integrity of LLS's materials. Former teachers, educators and publishers of textbooks prepare and review the company's programs, he says, and the company has received "consistently positive responses" from teachers who have used LLS materials. Kinley also contends that critics are "raising alarms about something that has been going on in the United States for generations."

Savitt, however, says that students have never been as bombarded with corporate images and logos in the classroom as they are now. Marketing to students has become "a cottage industry [that has] spread like wildfire," she says.


Auctioning off the school day

Savitt says that getting advertising into the schools is considered "a coup" by marketers. "Advertising is so ubiquitous in our culture," she says. "It's everywhere." And since "no one expects schools to be commercial," corporations that manage to "sneak in" advertising (disguised as curriculum or educational programs or contests) find that students greet their messages with less skepticism than usual.

Though he concedes that "marketing motives are involved," Kinley maintains corporations do not fund LLS programs "purely out of marketing interests." He says that companies see educational programs as a way "to do good for kids" and that both LLS and its clients are "very attentive as to where the line is drawn" and "very cautious" in deciding what is appropriate for the classroom. Furthermore, Kinley asserts, corporations do not necessarily influence what is taught. Materials are sent to teachers, he says, "who are free to use them or not use them" and "can shape them to their own purposes."

That is a claim of dubious validity. The U.S. education system is so poorly funded that teachers are desperate for resources and materials. Alex Molnar, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, says that inadequate funding makes teachers "much more vulnerable to all manner of marketing" and willing to accept "any free material, no matter how tangential to [the] curriculum or how blatant in terms of its marketing motives." Savitt says that corporations and advertisers "are taking advantage of a bad situation and co-opting schools." Educators are forced into "chopping up part of the school day [and] selling it off for auction."

Not only does schoolhouse commercialism provide corporations a captive audience to whom they can pitch their products and viewpoints, say critics, but it fundamentally interferes with the learning and development process. "Learning works best when kids feel good about themselves; advertising works best when they don't," Charren says. She says that educators must recognize the pervasiveness of the messages young people are receiving from corporations about the importance of consuming certain products. Charren insists that schools cannot teach students the importance of self-worth if they are also teaching them the importance of having the right pair of Nikes.

Commercialism in schools "is wrecking education in America," she says. One of the most blatant and better-known of the classroom hucksters is Whittle Communications, the producer of Channel One, a television news program beamed daily via satellite to 6.6 million teenagers in classrooms in over 9,000 high schools. In exchange for receiving free satellite dishes, video equipment and televisions from Whittle, schools agree to air the 12-minute program, two minutes of which consist of commercials.

In January 1991, the National Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) approved a set of principles to guide state and local education agencies in their relationships with corporations. The principles, based on the recognition that "compulsory education confers on educators an obligation to protect the welfare of their students and the integrity of the learning environment," blasted schools' acceptance of Channel One: "Selling or providing access to a captive audience in the classroom for commercial purposes is exploitation and a violation of the public trust."

Charren says, "A television set in the classroom is a teacher. ... What we are doing is letting the teachers do the commercials." She is particularly concerned that "the Whittle idea works best where there isn't any money" -- that is, in low-income communities most likely to accept free equipment. This means that Whittle is pushing products in communities where "kids are in no position to waste money."

Even the content of the advertisements concerns Charren, who points to a commercial for Skittles candy currently being run on the channel. The ad pokes fun at clothes worn by foreign students and notes with amusement and astonishment that in some countries, students "go to school on Saturdays." Charren is outraged that Whittle runs the ad which she says reinforces a "peculiar kind of jingoistic Americanism."

Charren is also deeply concerned that if Whittle's latest plans -- to set up a system of 200 private for-profit schools by 1996 -- come into play, classrooms will exist "just to give the kids a place to sit" while they watch Whittle television. This could be the "beginning of the downfall of education in America," Charren says.


Behind the beneficent corporation

Corporations have entered the schools with other, less intrusive programs. Many large corporations have sponsored large-scale education initiatives ranging from "adopt-a-school" mentoring programs to financing scholarships to opening their own "academies" in which staff members tutor students. Other corporations donate equipment such as televisions and computers (many of these donations are tied to receipt or label collection programs: the more labels from a particular product or receipts from a particular store a school manages to collect, the more corporate giveaways they "earn").

Corporations like Pepsico, IBM, Apple and American Express have earned reputations as good corporate citizens for their involvement in education. But educators assert that these reputations are often undeserved. They note that many of these same companies seek exemptions from property taxes -- which fund public schools -- that far surpass the value of their highly publicized donations.

Educators voice other complaints about direct corporate support of schools, as well. Pointing out that corporations tend to enter the schools with an air of saving or salvaging the U.S. education system and U.S. students, Molnar says, "Ideologically, it is important for business that public institutions be blamed for the failure of the American economy." Accusations that U.S. schools are producing unqualified graduates "takes the focus off American business and industry for its failure to provide jobs for American workers." Educators are also worried that corporate involvement supplants public schools' mission of preparing students for participation in civic life with that of preparing students for life as workers in the free-market enterprise system.


Fighting commercialism

Opponents of the commercialization of schools agree that schools need much more money if educators are to resist relying on corporate-sponsored materials and programs.

Molnar says that "the simple and most direct way to reestablish the proper balance" between schools and corporations is to adequately "fund public schools through a steeply progressive income tax." He says a "progressive source of public funds for the public schools" divided equitably would do away with the need for "adopt-a-school" programs since "no school would be an orphan."

But Charren insists that school boards and local PTAs, as well as individual educators and parents, also have to take on some of the responsibility for keeping commercialism out of the schools. "The villains are the school systems, the school boards [as much as Whittle]. They have the power to say no," she says. "Schools have to reorganize their priorities about what it is schools should be doing -- educating kids." The purpose and responsibility of the public education system is to tell kids from a variety of economic groups that what is important is "who you are and what you know, not what you have and what you can get."

"Schools should be a sanctuary for kids," says Savitt. "They are constantly bombarded with ads outside of school. Those six hours should be commercial-free."