Jan 15, 2002
Attention, -- Students -- Shoppers
The newly built gymnasium at a New Jersey elementary school has attracted lots of attention nationwide. It has been mentioned in Sports Illustrated and talked about on ESPN radio. It even was reported on CNN, right after news on the war in Afghanistan.
But it isn't the gym's cool features, like retractable bleachers and a regulation-size basketball court, that are getting noticed. It's the name: the ShopRite of Brooklawn Gymnasium. The gym at Alice Costello Elementary School was named after a local supermarket in exchange for a $100,000 donation.
School board members say having a corporate sponsor like ShopRite helped them get a gym without asking district residents to pay higher taxes. Critics, though, say it's the latest example of public schools selling out students to businesses that want to make consumers out of kids.
"Companies are trying to buy customers for life and get into the classroom," says Elena White, associate director for the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education. "If they wanted to make a difference, they'd do it without their logos all over the place."
A September 2000 report from the U.S. General Accounting
Office (GAO) found that advertising in schools is widespread: Gum ads on textbook covers. Soft-drink logos on scoreboards. Fast-food hamburger ads on school buses. Zit-cream giveaways. Free shoes for sports teams. Nutrition lessons by pizza and candy makers and educational videos about the environment by lumber and oil companies.
Companies also pay schools thousands of dollars or give away expensive equipment in exchange for using their product. Channel One Communications gives a satellite dish, VCRs and classroom TV monitors to schools that agree to air its news program that contains two minutes of paid commercials. Coca-Cola and Pepsi compete to sell their soda exclusively in school vending machines.
Why would a local grocery store or big soda company be interested in putting its product or logo in schools in the first place? The answer, says Consumers Union, a consumer advocate group, is that kids in schools are a huge captive market. More than 43 million children attend school and have money to spend. Elementary-age kids in the U.S. spend about $15 billion per year. Teens have even more spending power: $57 billion a year. Plus, kids and teens influence what their parents buy.
"Influencing rookie consumers where they spend a lot of time--at school--makes sense to companies," states a 1998 report by Consumers Union called "Captive Kids: A Report on Commercial Pressures on Kids at School."
The report also found that many companies aren't straight with the facts. Consumers Union staff examined 200 examples of educational materials by corporations and found that nearly 80 percent contained biased or incomplete information.
John Borowski, an environmental biology teacher at North Salem High School in Oregon, says he often uses free classroom materials to teach his students about how to sift through propaganda. "A fantastic amount of money is put into this stuff, and some of it is incredibly well done. That's the thing making it so dangerous."
Parents expect schools to be a place where kids get the best knowledge available without special interests interfering, says Alex Molnar, director of Arizona State University's Commercialism in Education Research Unit, but "advertising has a really serious impact on the integrity of schools and it's done almost without any attention or regard." Nineteen states, including Illinois, have laws limiting some kind of advertising activity in schools, but no flat- out bans on marketing to schools exist, he adds.
National PTA President Shirley Igo says the increase in advertising in schools is directly linked to schools trying to meet more demands without enough public funding. "Schools and our youth are a public responsibility."
But some educators say corporate sponsorships can offer more opportunities to students. Principal Robert Kemmery of Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore says businesses often possess expertise that schools just don't have. "The best way to get students ready for the high-tech economy is to have them use and integrate it into their educational program," and businesses can help with equipment, knowledge and funds.
Eastern Tech students take courses in applied physics from engineers working at Lucent Technology. They have access to college courses through their school's Verizons Distance Learning Lab and do experiments in a Lockheed Martin Applied Physics Lab. The school also funds extracurricular activities from Coca-Cola vending machine sales.
Last year in the Chicago area, a committee at Naperville School District 203 recommended the school expand corporate sponsorships or advertising. The committee suggested that businesses could fund banner advertising at district events, purchase lab equipment or endow a department chair. Already, the district has a vending agreement with a soda distributor for which it collects thousands of dollars annually. Other Chicago-area schools, including Chicago Public Schools and Crete-Monee District 201-U in the south suburbs, have similar deals.
Critics say such soda deals send mixed messages to kids about nutrition. "Schools teach kids all about the four food groups and the importance of a balanced diet, yet many schools are not only allowing but encouraging kids to fill up on sodas and empty-calorie snacks," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) says. Last year, he introduced a bill that would give the agriculture secretary more authority to restrict soda sales in school.
But Nell G., 17, a senior at New Vista High School in Boulder, Colo., says what bugs her about soda deals and Channel One ads is that they try to influence kids into adopting one brand over another and turn school officials into marketers. When Nell was a freshman, she fought her school's attempt to sign a soda deal with a petition drive. "Sure, we see advertising all the time. But usually we can change the channel or leave the room. At school, you have to watch the Channel One ads or buy the Coke if you want something to drink."
Students' candor not tasty or refreshing, school officials say
Tristan K. doesn't think much of McDonald's. Mike C. is more of a Pepsi guy than a Coke guy. In most situations, these opinions wouldn't make national headlines or get a kid in trouble at school. But that's exactly what happened when Tristan and Mike each spoke out at corporate-sponsored school events.
Last spring, Tristan, now in the 11th grade at Stonington High School in Connecticut, was chosen from the audience at a school assembly by a McDonald's executive to do a mock job interview. "She asked me questions like, 'What's your name?,' 'What are your interests?' and 'Why do you want to work at McDonald's?' "
The problem was, Tristan didn't want to work at McDonald's and said so. Then he gave reasons. "I said they lied about the beef flavoring in their french fries," and he criticized the company's environmental practices.
(In August, McDonald's said it would provide the source of natural flavorings--dairy, vegetable or meat--in menu items after vegetarians sued the company for not disclosing that its fries are made with a beef flavoring.)
Tristan said he was made to write an apology and read it over the school's public announcement system and apologize to the McDonald's executive.
In the late 1990s, Mike, a senior at Greenbrier High School in Evans, Ga., was suspended after he wore a shirt spelling out "Pepsi" at his school's "Coke in Education Day." The high school had won $10,000 in a national marketing campaign and about 20 Coca-Cola executives spent the day lecturing on economics and helping students analyze the sugar content of the soda. The day was to wrap up with 1,200 students spelling out "Coke" in the school's parking lot. Just as the photographer was about to snap the photo, Mike exposed his Pepsi T-shirt. The school's principal suspended him for showing disrespect.
What do you think? Should have Mike and Tristan gotten into trouble? Or did they have a right to speak out in their situations? Write KidNews, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ad it up
Guess which of these two school-based promotions didn't ever really happen:
1. A chocolate company sent a fact sheet to schools that read: "Myth: Chocolate is high in fat and raises cholesterol."
2. A food company proposed students compare the thickness of two spaghetti sauces as a science experiment.
3. A school near an airport converted its roof into an ad for a soda company.
4. A record company gave suggestions on how students can produce their own music video for a multimedia project and provided clips from Britney Spears videos as examples.
5. A tobacco company sent textbook covers to schools that pictured a snowboarder beneath the words: "Don't Wipe Out. Think. Don't Smoke." But school administrators in several states scrapped the covers after students said the snowboard looked like a lit cigarette.
6. A cosmetic company sponsored a self-esteem plan called "Good Hair/Bad Hair Day."
7. A gum company gave 50 boxes of its product to the school that could scrape the most chewed gum off the bottom of its bleachers.
Answers: 4, 7
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