It’s August and the stores are chalk/chock full of the latest notebooks, back-to-school clothes and all manner of ‘necessary’ electronics and locker accessories. Call me cynical, but I can’t help wondering if the reason so many schools start back in August instead of after Labor Day is to insure that retailers have something to sell after July 4th. Labor Day is not the easiest holiday to merchandize, which leaves a gaping hole in advertisement themes for July and August. In any case, there is something sickeningly poetic about starting to glorify the institutionalizing of our children the day after Independence Day.
As any parent will tell you, the only school prep that counts is the late summer quest for cool–cool shoes, cool clothes, and for lack of a better technical term, cool stuff. Case in point, the ruler that folds into one inch increments which caught my son’s eye when we recently went scavenging for the items on his school supply list. It of course goes without saying that no child is going to succeed academically if you buy the wrong jeans or sneakers.
There’s nothing new about children wanting to fit in, be cool, be accepted. But the amount of gear necessary to accomplish this has skyrocketed in recent years as more and more advertising is geared at our children. What is particularly disturbing is how much of the sales pitch takes place in the schools themselves.
Marketing in schools take place in a variety of ways. Many companies obtain exclusive agreements from schools to use or sell specific products. Does your child’s school sell Coke or Pepsi products? It’s unlikely to be both. Some 20% of our schools offer brand name fast food in their cafeterias. When questioned about whether feeding children sugar water and greasy foods is detrimental to their health, the companies in question are likely to tell you they are providing children an opportunity to make choices.
Companies such as Pizza Hut sponsor incentive programs like "Book It!" where children earn certificates for free pizzas when they read books, rewarding children for learning by feeding them unhealthy food. Other companies like General Mills donate money to schools in exchange for boxtops, which of course means that parents have to buy General Mills products to help their schools, undoubtedly spending far more than General Mills donates.
Perversely, some schools encourage parents to buy from websites that donate a portion of their proceeds to the school. Since these websites rarely pay taxes, money is diverted from the community tax base that supports the schools.
A number or corporations provide educational material to schools. Exxon Mobil and the American Petroleum Institute are only too happy to provide educational materials to the National Science Teacher’s Association. It is a reasonable assumption that ‘information’ from a company such as Exxon Mobil isn’t likely to present an unbiased view on topics such as global warming and energy conservation. Other examples include nutrition education materials from McDonalds and anti-smoking information from Phillip Morris.
Perhaps the most insidious marketing is via Primedia’s Channel One, which according to its website is, "delivered daily to nearly 8 million students and 400,000 educators in nearly 12,000 middle and high schools across the country". Fittingly, I discovered this fact only after closing the Verizon ad that popped up immediately when I clicked on their "About Channel One" page.
Channel One provides 12 minutes of programming each day, 2 minutes of which are paid advertising. Added up, children at schools that subscribe to Channel One are required to watch an entire week of television every year, and of that, a whole school day is spent watching advertising. Incredibly, a Primedia spokesman justified the advertising by suggesting that in order for the news to be unbiased, it had to have ads.
Unfortunately, children for the most part trust that what they learn in school is true. When a brand name is presented to them in that context, it has almost unassailable credibility. The regrettable result of the corporate invasion of our schools is that kids begin to believe that Coke quenches your thirst, McNuggets make a great lunch and conserving energy is not important. We need to take a very hard look at just what we are teaching our children before we fail altogether.
Lucinda Marshall, @2005