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Flooding the Schools with Ads

by Lynette Harper, Task Force on Privatization

It started with parents wanting a playground for their children at a North Vancouver elementary school. It ended with a nine-year-old returning home wearing a Home Depot shirt, carrying a Home Depot toy hammer, singing the Home Depot song and a playground bought and paid for at what price? Underfunding, marketing needs, and political agendas are turning schools into a multi-billion-dollar industry in marketing and commercialism.

The CCPA (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) study Who’s Cutting Classes reveals that education funding has been declining in B.C. since the 1990s. The decrease has forced parents and school boards to look elsewhere for funding for basic materials and programs. Advertising is one method for making up the shortfall. Businesses and corporations are only too willing to step in and provide cash or products in return for access to students, their parents and ultimately their money.

Advertising in schools is motivated by several factors. Access to a "captive audience" is one. Children are required to attend school and class. In fact, with busy schedules and after-school activities, school may be where advertisers are guaranteed to reach children the most. Advertisements in this setting get exposure. According to What! Magazine classrooms offer a clean environment for advertising and so the message will stand out.

Erica Shaker explains that in addition to advertising standing out in schools there is also an "implicit endorsement by the education system" for the product or service being advertised. Teachers are forced into becoming the marketers of products that potentially conflict with their teachings and with public education in general.

As revealed in the Home Depot experience in North Vancouver, businesses often look for positive public relations to boost buyer confidence in local communities by appearing to be charitable while obscuring what they get out of the agreement. One of those things is to build brand loyalty while children are young and impressionable.

Advertising is already everywhere in our schools and on school property. Billboards, score clocks, uniforms, playgrounds, vending machines, sponsored materials, book covers, agendas, report card envelopes and the list could go on. Here are some more detailed examples from B.C.

  1. Princess Margaret Secondary, Surrey: Students were picked to participate in a drinking contest using Pepsi. The student who won received a pager as a prize. Pictures were taken with students holding their glasses so the label could be read. This was at an awards ceremony.
  1. Robert Bateman Secondary, Abbotsford: Two marketing students, for an assignment, started a business selling a soda product (made up). Coke objected to the posters promoting the product and the students were asked to remove the posters as it was against the Coke contract to promote any other soft drink than Coke. When asked, the principal admitted that the school would hold contests similar to the one described above to promote "school spirit".
  2. Surrey junk mail going home via students to parents: Businesses pay the school district to distribute the advertising. Such things as cell service, quick home delivery (with coupon), Playdium, martial arts, golf packages, and private educational services.
  3. Naming rights: schools, gyms, playgrounds? Anything is for sale for a price.
  4. Advertising on textbooks, buses, interior and exterior school walls, gymnasiums, scoreboards; most of it for snack foods and soft drinks.
  1. J.L. Crowe Secondary, Kootenay Columbia: Students selling magazine subscriptions for the Canadian Community Reading Plan. A fundraiser in which the company allows the school to keep 40 percent of the subscription price and markets themselves as an organization that encourages communities to read. Check out their site at www.ccrp.ca. Although they claim that students are encouraged to sell only to family and friends, Tip #2 on their web page gives the following instructions:
    "Introduce yourself to people: Tell people the name of your school and what funds raised are used for. Let people know how your school benefits by their participation. If possible, show them your student identification."

There are consequences to advertising to students in school and to children in general. Obesity in children has become an international issue, one in which marketing to children has been sited as a factor. In Europe laws are being put in place to ban advertising to children. In the United States similar restrictions are being proposed but have not yet been passed.

A Lifetime Learning System ad directed at clients acknowledges that the corporate world is using schools "to influence attitudes, build long-term loyalties, introduce new products, test market, promote sampling and trial usage and—above all—to generate immediate sales." This agenda compromises the physical and mental health of children. Our children are learning that everything is for sale, it is only the price that needs to be negotiated.

Governments, school boards, administrators, educators, and parents allowing this to happen are betraying the public trust and undermining the integrity of the public education system. Marketing companies have formed to advise other companies how best to exploit the education market. Sophisticated marketing techniques are being used to sell the advertising pitch to parents and educators making the "educational benefit" seem to outweigh the potential harm.

Alex Molnar in his Annual Report on Commercialism in Schools: Cashing In on the Classroom, says it best:

"This situation must change. It is indefensible to direct millions of dollars worth of sophisticated advertising at children to convince them to consume harmful products, nag their parents to buy specific brands, and define their worth in terms of their possessions."

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