Teacher, There’s a Brand Name in My Math Problem

Cynthia Peters


is saving his allowance to buy a pair of Nike shoes that cost $68.25. If Will

earns $3.25 per week, how many weeks will Will need to save?"

So asks

the McGraw- Hill math text book currently being used by 11-13 year old

schoolchildren. In an effort to make abstract mathematical concepts easier to

understand, teachers often use "manipulatable objects," and/or give

the math problem a story line. But now, kids get anchored to reality via brand

names. Another math problem asks you to figure out the total grams of fat in a

Burger King Whopper with cheese if you know the total number of fat grams in the

meal and the fraction of the total represented by onion rings. Yet another

problem asks you to express the diameter of an Oreo cookie as a fraction in its

simplest form, but not before it reminds you that "the best-selling

packaged cookie in the world is the Oreo cookie." (See the July/August

issue of Adbusters.)

Of course,

the Oreo’s rank in terms of worldwide sales of packaged cookies is completely

irrelevant to the problem of expressing its diameter, but that doesn’t matter.

What matters is that kids know, recognize, are intimately familiar with, and

feel allegiance towards brand names. What matters further is that kids learn the

rules of being a good consumer: that is, they ably juggle irrelevant bits of

information as if they are important.


to the "Education and Consumerism" issue of Radical Teacher, a major

battle has heated up in the last year between Coke and Pepsi, and it’s taking

place in U.S. public schools. These multi-million dollar soda companies want to

pay schools to exclusively market their product. For the soda marketers, it’s a

good use of advertising dollars: pay the school to make their brand name central

to kids’ lives all day everyday. For the school, it’s an easy source of much

needed funds.


is becoming ubiquitous in schools. In Colorado Springs, the side of a big yellow

school bus becomes a bill board for just $2500. A six-foot commercial banner

hung inside the school for one calendar year costs only $700. In Toronto,

schools are using screen savers on their computers that mix motivational

messages with sales pitches from fast food and soft drink companies. The

Pepsi-sponsored screen saver advises kids to "develop a thirst for

knowledge." In Braintree, Massachusetts, a company called Cover Concepts

has made a multi-million dollar business out of giving away free book covers

that are decorated with corporate advertising.


spaghetti sauce sends out free educational materials about viscosity and samples

of its sauce so that kids can see for themselves just how thick and rich it

really is. Gushers fruit snacks are sent out to teachers along with an

educational packet that promises to motivate students’ interest in Geology and

the Earth Sciences. The teachers are urged to "have each student put [a

candy] in their mouths, and discuss the process needed to make these fruit

snacks `gush’ when you bite into them. Then teachers can ask the kids to

describe how the biting process differs from the process that creates erupting

geothermic phenomena." [Stay Free! Marketing to Kids issue. Spring 1997.]


One — the advertising-driven, in-school TV network — is in about 40% of the

country’s secondary schools. It got there by giving free video equipment to

financially strapped schools. Schools give their students as an audience in

exchange. According to Roy F. Fox, author of Harvesting Minds, Channel One now

has daily access to 8 million kids in grades 6-12.

Have you

ever lost your way in a kid-oriented web site? What appears to be an

"exit" button, links you to an ad. Fake "back,"

"forward," and "home" links shoot you straight to an

advertiser’s web site. Even the little "x" symbol in the upper right

hand corner of the screen – the one that typically closes down the program in

all the main operating systems in use these days – is a disguised hyperlink to

somebody who wants to sell you something. The stories, games, and attractive

cartoon characters featured in kids’ web sites are all gateways to commercials.


America is saying to kids: you can’t escape. Every door, every pathway…even

every math problem…leads to a consumption experience. You may not make the

purchase, but you will at least take in and store bits of information that are,

in fact, irrelevant to meaningful existence, but highly relevant to the

continued existence of profit-making. Even if you can’t express the Oreo’s

diameter as a fraction, at least you might retain knowledge of its worldwide

sales. And this is a boon to makers of packaged cookies everywhere.


cookie-makers and soda marketers have other concerns besides getting their brand

name implanted in kids’ brains. They also hope to teach children to pay a lot of

attention to irrelevant choices. They want to accustom children to the notion

that it matters which soda they drink, which athletic shoe they wear, and which

cookie they dunk in their milk. They want kids to engage mightily in the minute

consumer decisions that collectively result in corporate mega-profits. And they

want kids to be prepared for a lifetime of consumption. So they have to start

working on them young: both to develop brand loyalty and to foster the belief

that it’s important.

There is

cause for optimism, however. The massive human effort and limitless reources

that go into marketing should be an indication of how corporate America views

the object of its jingles, icons, catchy slogans, and admonitions to buy/belong.

Namely, as a challenge. Kids are complex, imaginative thinkers. To have an

impact on them, you have to hit them with a steady stream of images, stealthily

slip your coroporate message into every nook and cranny of their lives, sneak

advertising into their schools, their curriculums and their math problems, and

lock them into web sites with no obvious way out.


challenge for progressives is not just to teach kids to be media literate,

recognize advertising for what it is, and resist its basic messages. Our true

challenge is to create real and relevant ways kids can participate in life, make

choices, exercise autonomy, and express themselves. And this must be a global

effort. Because while our children are locked in the no-exit fun house of

consumer culture, many Third World children are locked in factories, making the

meaningless irrelevant objects that stock the First World fun house.

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