Americans are used to being inundated with slick commercials for beer, fast food and cars, so it was probably just a matter of time until a company like Gateway Educational Products tried the approach with one of its product lines, "Hooked on Phonics."
The insistent advertising campaign has worked, if one accepts the privately held company's sales claims. Gateway, which is based in Orange, Calif., says that more than 500,000 consumers have dialed 1-800-ABCDEFG to order "Hooked on Phonics," a $179.95 collection of tape cassettes, cards and workbooks.
Whether the product works, however, is another question.
Gateway offers reams of testimonials to the program's success. But many of the nation's widely recognized reading experts have leveled blistering attacks on the company's claim that with its materials, virtually anyone from a child to an illiterate adult to a foreigner studying English can learn to read.
These critics demand that Gateway offer scientific support, not testimonials and sales figures, to make its case.
In response, Carolyn Sisco, a company spokeswoman, says there is no need for tests. "Phonics is already a proven method to learn to read," she said. "All we have done is made it easier and more fun."
Gateway is certainly not alone in making alluring though unscientifically documented claims in mass media advertising; it's just that other companies are less willing to discuss them. For example, Early Advantage of Norwalk, Conn., which markets BBC Language Courses for Children, and Chesterbrook Educational Publishers of West Chester, Pa., marketers of "Where There's a Will, There's an A," did not respond to repeated requests to discuss their products.
Gateway's success has made its products, and advertising, a focus of unusually intense scrutiny. But the disconcerting truth is that very few vendors of educational products to schools or the public have statistically valid proof of how effective their wares // are as teaching aids.
"About 10,000 products are published annually and 99 percent of it is driven by marketing conditions," said Douglas Carnine, a University of Oregon professor specializing in curriculum development and school reform. "There's very little testing of whether it is efficacious."
Consumers are out of luck if they turn for guidance on such products to big-name groups like the National Parent Teachers Association or the National Education Association. None of them issue product reviews or guidelines for assessing product claims.
Consumers may be more bewildered than usual in Gateway's case, because the company freely admits that most high-profile reading experts have criticized "Hooked on Phonics" for promising more than it can deliver. But the company dismisses such critics as protectors of vested economic interests who are jealous of its success.
"The country is in an educational free-fall," said John Shanahan, Gateway's 51-year-old founder, who never misses an opportunity say that tutors and schools, unlike Gateway, do not offer refunds when they fail.
Gateway promises that anyone can "read almost anything" by memorizing the letter combinations that represent the English language's 44 basic sounds and then practicing putting them together to sound out words.
It says it has made the task simple and fun for non-readers of all ages by putting exercises to music. It has applied the same approach to other products.
Shanahan says that nearly all of Gateway's customers are pleased. Fewer than 10 percent, he says, seek the refund guaranteed if the "Hooked on Phonics" program, for example, is returned within 30 days.
But last spring, a panel of experts convened by the International Reading Association of Newark, Del., which comprises 92,000 educators, concluded that the chances of learning to read using "Hooked on Phonics" were slim.
Even academics who share Gateway's belief in the power of phonics are upset by its claims. "I haven't encountered one scholar who has said it is a good program," said Jeanne Chall at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.
Chall notes, for example, that consumers cannot test whether they understand the meaning of the words and sentences they have learned to sound out.
The problem, according to many reading experts and counselors, is that illiterate adults, and many parents, are too embarrassed to return educational products or to complain to authorities about false advertising when they fail.
"The people who order this are most likely to blame themselves when the product fails, because there's a lot of shame in not being able to read," said Kathleen Stassen Berger, a developmental psychologist who teaches at Bronx Community College. "Others will put it on a shelf, telling themselves they will try later, where it becomes a symbol of --ed hopes."
But Sisco, Gateway's spokeswoman, says customers report and survey results show that using the program leads to "progress in reading and spelling."
Besides, Shanahan said, "The American people aren't stupid. If they don't like it, they send it back."
Berger complained early last year to the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the council's self-regulatory arm. After discussions with Gateway, the division concluded that the advertising misleads consumers by claiming that the program is all the non-reader needs to learn to read.
The division noted that many parents and teachers who submitted testimonials had used the program with other materials and with readers on hand to help the non-readers.
Gateway disagreed with most of the conclusions. In an interview, Sisco said that Gateway encouraged parental involvement in children's education and would never discourage adult customers from getting help.
But she said "a lot of people" had learned to read using the program alone. "We only say things in our advertising that customers have told us," she said.
Still, Gateway said that it wanted to cooperate and subsequently introduced new advertisements that satisfied the National Advertising Division.
The potential for conflict was also reduced by the company's decision to sharply cut radio advertising in favor of "infomercials," paid half-hour television programming packed with testimonials. Critics like Berger are upset but say they are unsure how to proceed.
Meanwhile Gateway is adding to its offerings a phonics-based reading comprehension package based on SRA Reading Laboratories, reading lessons published by a division of Macmillan-McGraw Hill.