Selling Out: Advertising in America’s Public Schools

I came across an article a while back talking about adding advertising to schools in Florida. Here’s the upshot of the article:

“Signs of school spirit could soon be replaced in Brevard public schools with ads for soda companies, department stores and fast food chains.

“The school board is considering allowing advertisements in school hallways and cafeterias.

“‘I’m hoping that the potential advertisers realize is that our potential for their audience is probably greater than any other media source out there because of the number of children that are repeatedly, on a daily basis going to see something,’ said Andy Ziegler, a school board member.”

He went on to say that “it’s the only way to save non-core classes in the county, like music and art.”

Now, this is not a new phenomenon. This happened in my high school over twenty years ago. According to one statistic, “The American Beverage Association (formerly National Soft Drink Association) at one point estimated that nearly two thirds of schools nationwide had exclusive “pouring rights” contracts with soda companies.” An illuminating FAQ posted by a school district that has granted pouring rights can be found here.

I’m not a fan of the idea, even for high school sports. I have a huge issue with soft drink companies pushing liquid sugar to already unhealthy American kids to turn a profit, a tiny percentage of which is kicked back to the school. This is saying something coming from someone who studied advertising and marketing!

I have a problem with huge, for-profit, multinational corporations exploiting the failures of American schools for their own gain. Though I haven’t been able to find any statistics to support it, I suspect that the percentage donated to the schools is small in comparison to the value of the incredibly highly targeted (geographically, by age, and possibly gender, if ads in restrooms and locker rooms are permitted) advertising buy.

The line that really sickens me is this one:

‘I’m hoping that the potential advertisers realize is that our potential for their audience is probably greater than any other media source out there because of the number of children that are repeatedly, on a daily basis going to see something,’

A school board member, elected by the people and trusted to be a good steward of the local school system, has now identified local children as a commodity to be sold, made even worse by the fact that they are very truly a captive audience, required by law to attend that school. Daily, they will be forced to walk the hallways and eat at the cafeteria papered with advertising. And for what? So that this gentleman’s life as a school board member will be made easier.


To make it worse, I’m sure that the advertising content will not be vetted by parents. For the entirety of my children’s lives, I have worked to limit my children’s exposure to mass media messages. I’m not fanatical about it, but I am aware of the power of these messages and the fact that these messages are driven by commercial interests, not my child’s best interests. That’s my right as a parent.

But to turn around and have the local school district undermine my efforts and actively sell access to my child for the purpose of commercial gain, or be threatened with the dangling anvil of devastating budget cuts, especially to the very programs that make my child a better person? HELL NO. (Pardon my French.)

Developmentally speaking, kids do NOT yet have the power of discernment to critically evaluate the messages advertisers send. Studies have shown a whole host of negative consequences as a result of advertising to kids: from the obvious, like obesity and financial self-control, to less obvious, like emotional and sexual well-being.

Glori Chaika writes, ”School children are a lucrative market. According to the Hartford Courant (‘Public Schools Studying Future in Advertising,” April 24,1998), ‘In 1997, U.S. children 12 and under spent and influenced spending at a record $500 billion…increasing by 20% a year, …that could lead to more than $1 trillion in such spending by 2002. And teenagers age 17 and younger will make up the largest portion of the nation’s population in coming years.’ Since designer labels and brand names play an important role in defining status and social acceptance to many youths, getting them to buy and then become loyal to a particular product at an early age can ensure companies a profitable future. Marketers are starting to hawk not only children’s products but also ‘adult’ purchases, such as cars and vacations, supplying their captive, impressionable audiences with arguments they can use to pitch the requests to parents.”

My children are already growing up too quickly. I don’t want corporations reaching past me into my child’s lives to push them out of childhood and into American consumerism any more quickly than they already are. And paying off school districts to make it happen?


This issue is really a slippery slope: “Commercialism in schools brings up many legal and ethical questions: Who owns the school when it is sponsored by a particular company? Who controls the curriculum? What kind of long-term effects will commercialism have over teaching and freedom of speech in the classroom? Where do we draw the line?” Can you imagine what the state of American education would be if corporations (who may gradually foot increasingly more of the bill) started dictating the curriculum?

Nauseating. I guess this is why people homeschool their children.

That said, the idea of losing music in schools sickens me even more.

I’d be okay with an ad in the music department from, say, a local music store…if the ad was done artistically and sent an exclusively positive, supportive message to the kids. I’m also okay with a program like Box Tops for Education, which targets parents primarily at the grocery store. As a responsible adult, I’m prepared to critically evaluate whether I want to spend a few pennies more on a name brand product that will kick back a dime to my child’s school. That program financially benefits schools without specifically targeting the children within those walls. I’m even okay with Procter & Gamble offering product kits to my fifth-grader. They’re providing a service to me and the school, and their materials are not logo-laden.

I’m not okay with ads for soft drinks or fast food; that’s right up there with booze and cigarettes for me. I don’t want my kids not only exposed to, but pressured to buy products that inherently are bad for them in a place where they’re required by law to be. And don’t even get me started on the state of school lunches.

(Seriously. Don’t get me started.)

There are things that can be done. Ms. Chaika mentions a few: raising taxes so that schools are properly funded (stop laughing!); properly vetting advertising materials “to ensure that they are accurate, objective, complete, nondiscriminatory, and non-commercial except for the corporate logo used only for identification;” and schools actively teaching our kids media literacy. “If we helped children better understand commercial pitches, we might be able to avoid the negative aspects of corporate sponsorship while still reaping its benefits.”

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