What is Commercialism in Schools?

As companies seek to build brand recognition and brand loyalties at ever-younger ages, schools have become an attractive new frontier for marketers pitching their wares. Commercialism in schools comes in many different forms:

After you've read about the different kinds of commercialism in our schools, find out why commercialism in the schools is a problem.

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Direct Advertising

Direct advertising can appear on school walls, school materials (such as posters or book covers), buses, or athletic scoreboards. Such ads can be small or large, appearing on a school lunch menu, or on a huge billboard in a hallway or on a sports field. Channel One, the TV news and advertising program broadcast into middle schools and high schools, forces students to watch two minutes of TV commercials every school day. Reaching 8 million middle school and high school students each day, Channel One is the single largest form of commercialism in schools.

Direct advertising is generally subject to approval by the principal, site-based management committee, or school board. In many cases, schools receive cash compensation for displaying the ads.

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Public relations materials designed to look like classroom activities and lesson plans (a.k.a. "Sponsored Educational Materials")

Public relations materials can be obviously commercial. For example, McDonald's has students design a McDonald's restaurant. A Shell Oil video teaches students that the way to experience nature is to drive there - stopping to fuel up your Jeep at a Shell gas station on the way. The Shell logo appears on the screen at intervals throughout the video.

But such materials can also be more subtle. Some teachers were duped by Exxon's lesson plan about the healthy, flourishing wildlife in Prince William Sound, Alaska, which showed beautiful eagles, frolicking sea otters, and sea birds in their habitat. In reality, the program was a public relations vehicle designed to help Exxon clean up its image after the Valdez oil spill.

Sponsored educational materials reach the classroom by way of education conferences, unsolicited mass mailings, and offers in education journals. In schools where textbooks are old or there is no money for supplemental materials, these materials can be a popular way for teachers to brighten a subject up. Unfortunately, many schools do not have a review process for such curriculum materials, nor is there a national evaluation resource for teachers to use. The state of California reviews such materials in the environmental education field and publishes compendia broken down by subject area. Other states need to follow suit - for all materials.

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Contests, samples and incentive programs

To obtain demographic information on students and their parents, many companies sponsor contests. Seemingly harmless in some cases, these contests require students to provide their name, address, and other information, and often ask parents to do the same. Students are asked to collect cash register receipts, or read a certain number of books in order to win prizes for themselves or their school. Some of the prizes are just as commercial in nature as the contests. In one school, students won a contest for collecting the most General Mills cereal box-tops. The prize: cereal box mascots - the Trix Bunny and friend - came to visit the school and encourage students to eat more sugar-laden cereal. Other prizes are less commercial and more valuable, such as receiving computers for schools. Yet all of these contests and incentives were established by marketers to collect information and build brand loyalty.

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Why is commercialism in schools a problem?

When the Seattle, WA, School Board proposed selling advertising space in schools as a new fund-raising technique, citizens reacted with strong opposition. At a community meeting on the issue, on parent said, "Schools should be all about teaching students to make their own choices, not coercing them to buy things they don't need. Schools should not be selling my child as a consumer to corporations."

Another said, "We need less materialism in this country, not more. To 'teach' children that they 'need' unnecessary commercial products is morally wrong. That this is done on commercial television is bad enough. But to do it in a public school is reprehensible."

Seattle citizens are not alone.Many educators, parents, students, and others worry that advertising in schools adversely affects the quality of education.

With the decline of funding for public education, marketers have seized an opportunity to gain a greater presence in schools with offers of "donations" - free or low-cost supplemental materials, equipment, and sometimes, cash.

What's wrong with these offers?

Advertising on school grounds is not philanthropy - it's marketing.

In too many cases, advertisers are interested in nothing more than the opportunity to market to students in a new setting. Profit, not education, is their priority.

Commercial intrusion in schools doesn't offer a solution to schools' financial woes. While corporate offers may sound like they're worth a lot of money on the surface, schools who've begun to accept, and even seek out these offers, find that the earnings are insignificant. Although they have opened the doors to advertisers, many schools are left without the textbooks, instructional materials, and qualified teachers necessary to provide students with a top-notch education.

For example:

  • New York City's board of education signed contracts with companies that will place ads on the district's school buses. The board hopes to raise $53 million over nine years, or $5.9 million a year. In contrast, the New York City school system's annual budget is $8 billion.

  • Facing a $35 million budget shortfall over three years, the school board in Seattle, WA, proposed selling advertising to raise funds. But the $1 million per year they hoped to raise from the advertising was not enough to convince community members to support the plan to sell access to students to the highest bidder. After five months of community protest, the school board rescinded the advertising policy.

  • Schools that are signing multi-year exclusive contracts with cola companies are receiving as little as $3 per student in exchange for a monopoly on selling and advertising their beverages on campus.

Corporate-sponsored academic materials have little or no educational value.

When Consumers Union collected and evaluated examples of these materials, it found that 80 percent contained biased or incomplete information, and promoted a viewpoint that favored consumption of the sponsor's product or service or otherwise favored the company and its economic agenda. Over half the materials studied were found to be commercial or highly commercial.

Taxpayers fund classroom time that is being wasted on ads.

Leading the corporate rush into the classroom has been Channel One -- a twelve minute news and advertising television program viewed daily in 12,000 middle schools and high schools across the country.

Students in schools with Channel One are required to watch the program on nine out of ten school days. In return for students' time, schools are loaned TVs, VCRs and a satellite dish by Channel One.

But the time given over to Channel One is far from free. A 1998 study by Professor Alex Molnar, director of the University of Wisconsin's Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, and Max Sawicky, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, found that taxpayers in the U.S. pay $1.8 billion dollars per year for the class time lost to Channel One. Channel One's commercials alone cost taxpayers $300 million per year. The average secondary school spends $158,000 per year on the show, $26,333 on the commercials alone.

Commercialism in schools brings up many legal and ethical questions: Who owns the school when it is sponsored by a particular company? Who controls the curriculum? What kind of long-term effects will commercialism have over teaching and freedom of speech in the classroom? Where do we draw the line?

The bottom line is that educators already face a difficult job in trying to impart a quality education to all students. Forcing schools to rely on funding from corporate sponsorships and marketing gimmicks will only make that job harder.

Corporations truly interested in education can and do provide non-commercial support for the kinds of programs that really make a difference - sometimes millions of dollars for scholarships, science and math programs, mentoring, job and internship placement, and funding for parent involvement programs.