Until a few years ago, Crayola and Scholastic were about the only commercial brand names visible in classrooms. Now you can color your local schoolhouses -- and the 43 million children who occupy them -- in the red, white and blue of American commercialism.
Nike, Coke, Pepsi, Lever Bros., McDonald's and dozens of other companies, big and small, are seeking a piece of the action in education, and the stakes are high.
According to Consumer Reports, children have the spending power of some $15 billion a year and have a say in how their parents spend an additional $160 billion.
Companies are engaged in a variety of marketing deals designed to imprint brand names and logos on the minds of schoolchildren. They're giving pizza to the best readers and trips to Disney World for the winners of national essay and poster contests.
Pepsi, Coke, Nike and Converse build or renovate field houses and gyms or put up goal posts in return for exclusive advertising or "pouring" rights. In Colorado Springs, Colo., yellow school buses bear the ads of Burger King, while in Seattle, a homework hot line blares commercial messages.
Soft-drink bottlers vie for exclusive rights to place vending machines in schools. (The machines, which are billboards themselves, can be placed in hallways, but federal school-lunch regulations bar them from cafeterias.)
Manufacturers of skin-care and other health-care products sponsor national school essay and poster contests. For example, the maker of Coppertone sun-tan lotion invites children to enter the "Block the Sun, Not the Fun" poster contest. Grand prize is a trip to Disney World.
Walt Disney Co. is one of several firms subsidizing "teacher of the year" contests. Local winners are greeted by Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters at their hometown Disney Store. The national awards ceremony in Los Angeles is carried on the Disney Channel.
Channel One, the 12-minute daily television news show for middle and high school students, has spread to 350,000 classrooms in 12,000 schools since its launching nine years ago. Schools get "free" satellite dishes and TV equipment in return for agreeing to show the program, with two minutes of daily commercials, on at least 90 percent of school days in at least 80 percent of all classrooms.
Giant Foods and other supermarket chains steer customers to their stores by supplying computers and other supplies and equipment in return for cash-register receipts.
Even the students have become billboards, wearing tattoos, shirts, jackets and sneakers bedecked with the corporate logos of some of the world's biggest marketers.
Profit-makers aren't the only ones joining the commercial blitz. The garment workers' union sends out 170,000 textbook covers to junior high schools, promoting awareness about child labor. The book covers feature a quiz about the number of children working in foreign "sweatshops."
While it's true that some firms -- S. C. Johnson & Son., for one -- distribute school material that is objective and noncommercial, with the sponsor's name used minimally, the vast majority of such programs are brazenly commercial, according to a recent study by Zillions, Consumer Reports' magazine for children.
Despite warnings from the National Education Association and PTA, the tide of commercialism crested this spring in the inevitable American absurdity: A high school senior in Evans, Ga., was suspended for wearing a Pepsi shirt during a Coca-Cola-sponsored fund-raiser. School officials say the student was being disrespectful to company officials visiting during "Coca-Cola Day."
"The commercialism reminds me of toxic dump sites," says Marianne Manilov, executive director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland, Calif. "The level of the stuff gets so high and the smell so bad that eventually it gets public attention and attention in Washington. We're reaching that point now -- I hope."
Manilov and other critics say the commercialism is detrimental because it meets no defined educational need and turns educators into unwitting agents for mass marketers. And when schools grant exclusive pouring or advertising rights to marketers, they say, children believe that amounts to a school endorsement of the product.
The marketers aren't impressed with these arguments. Children already are surrounded by ads, they say, and the marketers are simply entering one of the last untapped markets. Ads provide good product information for children and make them better consumers. And many of the activities promoted are legitimately educational, they say.
Susan Evans, a fifth-grade teacher at South Shore Elementary School in Crownsville, Md., for example, won the national grand prize this spring in the Lanacane Itching to Know Science Contest.
She developed a lesson plan focused on how humidity affects skin.
The contest is meant "to reward teachers for their everyday efforts toward broadening their students' understanding of science by encouraging inquisitiveness and hands-on experimentation," according to the sponsor, Lanacane itch cream.
"It's educational," says Terri Medd, a spokeswoman for the company. "It's much better than spending the money on advertising."
TC That's just the point, counters Alex Molnar, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "It isn't better than traditional advertising. It's essentially a corruption and debasement of our schools' programs."
Since Molnar wrote a book, "Giving Kids the Business," two years ago, he and his colleagues have established the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education. He's working on a new book, tentatively titled "Cashing in on Kids." He says it will document the hundreds of millions of tax dollars promoting products in schools.
Molnar calls contests like Coppertone's "Block the Sun, Not the Fun," poster and Lanacane's competition for teachers "examples flea-market mentality in education."
"Curriculum shouldn't be a flea market where the person with the most money can buy entrance to peddle his wares," he says.
The lure of advertising profits is strong where education budgets are tight. Many companies play charitable roles in schools, providing computer software, staff training and scholarships without demanding advertising deals in return.
But it only looks like a solution, insists Manilov, of the Center for Commercial-Free Education, "when, in fact, what the schools are doing is giving up control."
Manilov says commercialism is evenly divided between low-income and middle-income school districts.
"There isn't much evidence to show, for low-income kids, that these commercial deals make a difference in reading, writing and math. Where a difference is made," she says, "it's made by parents, teachers and mentors."
Pub Date: 6/25/98