Teaching Material(ism)

By Mieke H. Bomann

AS CORPORATIONS become ever more sophisticated in their marketing techniques to children, critics are calling for increased vigilance in schools, and government officials are starting to pay attention. Arguing that the classroom should be a marketplace of ideas, not of products, many educators and parents protest that advertising has no place in school. The uproar began several years ago with the emergence of Channel One, a 12-minute newscast that is now fed into a reported 12,000 schools in exchange for free video equipment and more recently re-emerged with soft-drink companies offering to place soda machines on campuses at no charge to the school as long as the company gets exclusivity.

Critics lambasted the highly controversial Channel One program because it contained two minutes of ads that under contract cannot be cut out and urged schools to raise money for desired equipment in other ways. Nevertheless, many districts that were strapped for cash went further and began negotiating multimillion-dollar deals with soft-drink manufacturers for exclusive rights to sell their products on campus.

“You’re using persuasive techniques on kids that may not be in their best interests, but the educational system should be working only in the child’s best interest,” says Brita Butler-Wall, co-founder of the Citizens Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools in Seattle.

Now, there’s a growing trend of market researchers conducting focus groups in classrooms, and instruction time is being used to test new products like cereals. Critics are fuming. According to Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, marketers are “going to extreme measures to gain access” to children and “entering sanctums that were previously off-limits.”

Ruskin and other critics point to two recent marketing techniques that they say are particularly worrisome. ZapMe!, a year-old California company that sparked protests at Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma earlier this year when it announced plans to enter public schools there, has outfitted each of 220 middle and high schools with 15 high-end computers and a printer, a satellite dish for fast Internet access, and a compilation of 10,000 educational sites on the Internet (see sidebar, “Classroom Catwalk”).

“Classroom Catwalk”

To access information, student browsers enter their birth date, sex, and ZIP code. The company collects and delivers the market information to advertisers who can customize their ads for a given student. The ads, including ones for Microsoft, which sponsored the system’s software, run across one corner of the screen.

ACCORDING to a company spokesperson, some 6,000 schools are on a waiting list for the equipment. ZapMe! went public last month, selling shares on the New York Stock Exchange. Ruskin views the trend as a betrayal of children’s best interests.

“School used to be a refuge from exploitative commercial influences,” he writes in a recent article for Mothering magazine. “But, increasingly, school officials are violating this trust and turning the schools into cash-and-carry operations for the advertisers and marketers of America.”

Another sticking point for critics is the work of Education Market Resources. A Kansas company, EMR has gone into multiple schools in 90 cities across the country to help corporations test new foodstuffs, to elicit ideas about how best to market a product, and even to get new product ideas from children in preschool through the 12th grade.

In an interview, company president Bob Reynolds drew a firm line between the market research his company does and the tactics used by companies like ZapMe! “There is too much commercialism going on in schools,” he says. “When we work with companies, those schools have no idea whom we’re working for.”

Where it’s required, EMR gets parental permission for children to participate in a focus group. More than 80 percent of parents sign the slips, Reynolds adds. “It’s a life-learning experience for these children,” he explained of parental compliance. “We’re tapping into their creative problem-solving skills.”

The children receive no compensation for their opinions and ideas, but schools may get up to several thousand dollars a year, he added.

It’s the schools that don’t require parental permission that Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., targets with a bill he introduced in Congress in September that would require written permission from all parents before students participate in any market research on campus. It would also mandate that a broad study be conducted of all commercial activity in schools.

Miller is concerned that market research companies are threatening the privacy of students and delivering messages that parents might not want their children to be taught, according to David Madland, a member of Miller’s staff. “There has been very little research on these topics and its growing so fast,” he adds.

For Ruskin, the issue of consumerism goes way beyond the classroom. “The ads teach kids that buying is good and will make them happy,” he notes. “They teach that the solutions to life’s problems lie not in good values, hard work, or education, but in materialism and the purchasing of more and more things.”

DESPITE EFFORTS to combat the deluge of commercialism in schools (see sidebar), marketing to children appears only to be growing. A daylong seminar in Washington, D.C., last month, titled “Selling to Kids University,” boasted a “faculty” who taught advertisers how to “get into the hearts and minds of kids” and reinforce their message by “adding alternative media, such as in-school, online, and direct marketing.”

Ruskin says parents interested in protecting their children from overexposure to advertising should watch less television, throw away video game machines, and avoid movies that promote values they don’t believe in. Get active in politics, he admonishes, start a parents’ group, and kick advertisers out of schools, he added.

The bottom line for schools is to get their money from a source other than commercial activities, says Suzanne Black of the national Parent-Teacher Association. “We would prefer that they would find other funding mechanisms from the local, state, or federal level, so schools wouldn’t have to go with their hand out.”

Mieke H. Bomann is a staff writer for the American News Service.

From the December 23-29, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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