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Corporations are flooding schools with teaching aids--and propaganda galore

It's a kid marketer's dream: a huge audience with great demographics and a willingness to pay full attention. No, it's not Cartoon Network or Beavis & Butt-Head. It's America's classrooms, where advertisers have been descending in droves, angling for the chance to display their logos before a truly captive audience.

These days, teachers find themselves deluged with lessons-in-a-box, videos, and other teaching aids courtesy of some familiar brand names, including Nike Inc. and McDonald's Corp. But not all gifts are of equal value. While AT&T provides much needed computer equipment, Campbell Soup Co. cooked up a science experiment intended to prove that its Prego spaghetti sauce is thicker than Unilever PLC's Ragu. Although Campbell withdrew the offering in the face of criticism, squeezed budgets mean many other blatantly commercial ''lessons'' are making it into the curriculum.

Why the stampede into the classroom? With the profusion of cable channels and home computers, children have more media choices than ever. That makes schools, where kids spend at least five hours a day, irresistible. ''It's become a kind of arms race,'' says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee education professor Alex Molnar, author of Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialization of America's Schools. ''If you're Pepsi, and Coke is in the schools, then you've got to get in.''

GRAY AREA. Molnar calls such efforts ''strategic philanthropy.'' Companies give away equipment and services in return for frequent opportunities to flash the corporate name. But determining who gets more out of the deal, the marketer or the student, is no easy task. Last spring, for instance, Nike mailed out sneaker-making kits. Teachers were supposed to assemble a shoe, while imparting a lesson on environmentally responsible manufacturing to their elementary and middle school students. Nike denied using the kits for marketing and said many teachers found them useful.

The onslaught of marketers through the schoolhouse doors has some educators and parents concerned. In New York and Seattle this year, coalitions helped fend off attempts to allow outright advertising on school property. ''It's a gray area,'' says Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Board Assn. ''But when advertising comes into the schools in the context of learning, the gray becomes much darker. Many of these companies are looking not only for market share but mind share.''

Corporations first began to focus on schools in the '80s. As school budgets were squeezed, companies provided mentors, money, and training programs. In 1989, a barrier of sorts was broken when Whittle Communications launched Channel One, a daily TV news program for middle and high school students, supported by commercials. Now owned by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., Channel One is seen by 8 million kids every school day and carries ads for Reebok sneakers, Mountain Dew, and other products. With unvarnished advertising already in the classroom, many schools, struggling to educate more kids with less money in the '90s, began to welcome company participation.

Many corporate gifts are of indisputable value, providing technology, grants, and scholarships that can make a huge difference in students' lives. Some, such as the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search, have been in place for decades. More recently, AT&T committed $150 million over the next five years to provide training and equipment for linking classrooms to the Internet.

In other cases, though, the educational content is distinctly secondary to the commercial content. At Pembroke Lakes elementary school in Broward County, Fla., 10-year-old Travis Licata recently learned how to design a McDonald's restaurant, how a McDonald's works, and how to apply and interview for a job at McDonald's, thanks to a seven-week company-sponsored class intended to teach kids about the work world.

Assistant principal Linda Chuckman admits that Pembroke let McDonald's in because the fast-food giant arrived with a curriculum in hand that would cost the school nothing. Was it worthwhile? Here's Travis' assessment: ''If you want to work in a McDonald's when you grow up, you already know what to do.'' Also, he adds, McDonald's is better than Burger King.

Some lessons prepared by outside companies are worse than merely misguided; some are barely disguised corporate propaganda, such as environmental videos from oil companies or nutritional information on chocolate from candy makers. ''It's not that all the information is false,'' says Charlotte Baecher, director of education services at Consumers Union, which studied hundreds of corporate-sponsored curriculums and found most to contain misleading and inaccurate information. ''But many state opinions as fact. When we were evaluating those curriculums we had Consumers Union's technical staff at our disposal. The kids and teachers don't.''

Then there are instances where schools just seem to get a lot less than they give. In May, Columbus (Ohio)-based Red Roof Inns Inc. combined a celebration for the Phoenix opening of its 250th budget motel with a promotion to help local high schools raise money for their music programs. Red Roof enlisted 250 high school band members to play at the ceremonial ribbon-cutting. The school connection helped draw overflow crowds and extensive local media coverage. In exchange, the seven schools got a couple of hundred audio cassettes of their music. If they manage to sell all of them, they can make about $2,800 per school. Of course, there also was a hat and T-shirt for each participant--boldly decorated with the chain's logo.

SELLING SHORT? Even the severest critics recognize that schools simply can't afford a blanket ban on corporate involvement in the classroom. But they complain that schools sell themselves and their students short. ''The thing that upsets me sometimes is not only that the schools are selling their students,'' says Lisa Bond, president of the Seattle Council of Parent-Teacher-Student Assns., which recently helped shelve a proposal to allow advertising in the city's schools, ''but that they are not even making good money off of it.''

Take Colorado Springs, Colo., which has welcomed advertisers in its schools. At Palmer High, Burger King and Sprite advertise on the sides of school buses. Norwest, Cub Foods, and Mountain Dew have posters in school hallways. Next fall, there will be a new scoreboard on the football field with a Pepsi logo on it. For most students, the ads seem to have become just part of the environment. ''It doesn't offend me, but it's sort of stupid,'' says Lauren Kinnee, a junior. ''They're ugly.''

What does Palmer get out of all this? In the 1996-97 school year, the school district took in $145,000, of which it paid 30% to the marketing firm that helped sell the ads. Each of the 53 schools in the district got a percentage of what was left, amounting to a few thousand dollars for Palmer.

To help marketers make the most of the new opportunities, a cadre of consultants and program designers has emerged. Scholastic Corp. has sold its books and magazines through schools for decades. Recently, it started preparing materials for corporations as well. The company says it uses teachers extensively to evaluate its products. Scholastic developed materials for both AT&T's widely respected Internet program and Nike's sneaker-making project.

Offering another way into the classroom, Cover Concepts in Braintree, Mass., sells advertisers space on textbook covers, which it then hands out in schools. It charges $129,400 for an ad that appears on a million covers. Now the company is putting together product samples for marketers that are also given away in schools.

''Marketers have come to realize that all roads eventually lead to the schools,'' says Ed Winter, co-founder of Channel One, who is now starting his own marketing and program development firm in Knoxville, Tenn. With budgets continuing to shrink, the question is whether schools can afford to flunk the programs that simply don't measure up.

By Pat Wechsler in New York, with bureau reports


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Updated June 23, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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