When Susan Crockett walked Amy, her 8-year-old daughter, to her school bus stop last September, she was in for a surprise. The school bus that rolled up was covered with advertisements for Burger King, Wendy’s and other brand-name products. A few weeks later, Amy, a third grader, and Crockett’s three older children arrived home toting free book covers and school planners covered with ads for Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts and Fox TV personalities. Then, in November, came news that local school officials were pushing a year-old contract giving Coca-Cola exclusive permission to sell its products in district schools. That was the last straw for Crockett.
“It really angers me that the school is actively promoting and pushing a product that’s not good for kids,” says Crockett, whose oldest child was a senior last year in the Colorado Springs, Colorado, school system. “What’s next: Will kids be required to wear Nikes before they are allowed to go to school?”
These days, lots of parents are asking that question.
Eager to attract a captive audience of young customers, almost every large corporation sponsors some type of in-school marketing program. Many also sponsor curriculum materials salted with brand names and corporate logos [see “The Corporate Curriculum” in thi]. Throughout the nation, nearly 40 percent of schools begin their day with current events and commercials transmitted by Channel One, the in-school TV news program for teens. Started in 1989 by controversial entrepreneur Chris Whittle, Channel One is probably the best-known in-school marketing program, but more recent examples are even more alarming:
§ An exercise book that purports to teach third graders math by having them count Tootsie Rolls.
§ A classroom business course that teaches students the value of work by showing them how McDonald’s restaurants are run.
§ Multimillion-dollar contracts that have turned some schools into virtual sales agents for Coke and Pepsi.
Why the stampede into the classroom? “That’s where the kids are,” says Alex Molnar, director of the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. “Companies like to say they are promoting education and school-business partnerships, but what they’re really doing is going after the kids’ market anywhere they can.” Ira Mayer, publisher of Youth Markets Alert, an industry newsletter, notes that companies “want to get them started young–and hopefully keep them for life–that’s what brand loyalty is all about.” In 1997, children 4 to 12 spent an estimated $24.4 billion, according to American Demographics. Last year, kids 12 to 19 spent an estimated $141 billion, according to Teenage Research Unlimited. Meanwhile, many cash-strapped public schools find it difficult to resist corporate-sponsored advertising and handouts, especially when they come with free computers or new football stadiums and scoreboards.
Nowhere is the convergence of schoolhouse need and corporate greed more apparent than in Colorado Springs. At Palmer High School, students walk through hallways dotted with signs for national brands and local companies, eat in a snack bar sporting brand-new vending machines, use computers with ad-bearing mouse pads and play basketball in a gym decorated with banners of corporate sponsors.