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Captive Kids: A Report on Commercial Pressures on Kids at School

Consumer Reports
January 1st, 1998

In 1990 the editors of ZILLIONS: for Kids from Consumer Reports commissioned Selling America's Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids of the 90's. Prepared by Consumers Union's Education Services Department, it surveyed trends in marketing to kids and pointed to problems that should be addressed by parents, schools, and the government. One area of greatest concern was the increasing trend of marketers to place their messages in schools. This follow-up report looks at the growing stream of commercial messages reaching today's kids at school.

Prologue

It's a typical school day in America.

7:00 a.m. America's School Kid rolls out of bed, rubs her eyes, and gets ready for school. After grabbing a bite, she's ready to go. But while she's walking out the door, she remembers that she left her algebra book on the table. She runs back and grabs it, remembering it's the one with the bright Reebok cover that her school issued her.

8:00 a.m. A yellow school bus picks up America's School Kid at the corner. It's top and sides are painted with large signs advertising 7-Up≠≠"the uncola."

8:30 a.m. The yellow bus pulls up to school, and America's School Kid rushes through its doors, makes her way past a bulletin board beckoning her to visit Jan's Beauty Shop, and ducks into the homeroom class where her teacher is writing today's announcements on a class calendar sporting an insurance-company logo.

As our kid settles down to do her homework, today's 12-minute, ad-financed Channel One news broadcast for students begins to air. Four minutes into the program she looks up to see a hip-looking teen-ager downing a Pepsi on screen -- in the same ad currently being shown on MTV.

Book covers, billboards in school corridors, calendars, and broadcasts -- these are some of the places corporate America places ads for kids to see in school. Commercial messages also reach kids in the classroom through ad-bearing and corporate-sponsored educational materials.

If we tracked our school kid through the rest of the day, we might find her learning about solid waste from worksheets provided free by Procter & Gamble, the makers of Tide detergent, Pampers, Luvs, and other products. The worksheets would guide her through a "product life cycle analysis" and a discussion of how disposable diapers can actually be more "green" than cloth ones. Later, she might see other materials on solid waste from Browning-Ferris and the Polystyrene Packaging Council.

In health class America's kid might use a learning kit compliments of McDonald's or Kellogg's to help her learn about good nutrition. She'd have no trouble identifying the sponsor because its logo would be prominent on all components -- poster, worksheets, and video. But she might have trouble recognizing that much of the information has a corporate slant. And if she expected to see something identifying it as the company's opinion, she'd find none.

Textbooks and other classroom materials produced by educational publishers and/or teachers used to be the fare from which students learned their lessons. But this is changing. As funds for classroom materials dwindle, schools are increasingly looking to corporate America to fill the void.

In this report we'll look at the many ways commercial messages come into schools, what some of those messages are, who's giving them, why, and what the ramifications of all this commercialism is.


Summary

Those of us at Consumers Union who are directly involved with education -- and with teaching children to be informed consumers -- believe that commercialism in U.S. elementary and secondary schools poses a significant and growing threat to the integrity of education in America. We see disturbing trends, such as:

  • Teachers using educational materials and programs in classrooms that are produced by commercial interests and contain biased, self-serving, and promotional information.

  • Pressure on school administrators, teachers, and students to form partnerships with business that turn students into a captive audience for commercial messages, often in exchange for some needed resource.

  • The introduction to the classroom, cafeteria, hallway, or restroom of branded products, licensed brand goods, coupons, sweepstakes and contests, or outright advertisements.

A number of forces are converging that put pressure on teachers and administrators to accept ads and other promotional materials in school:

  • Chronic school budgetary problems;
  • The ever-growing presence of commercialism in all sectors of society;
  • The growing competition among corporations for the burgeoning "youth" market.

This report offers a snapshot of the problem as it exists in 1995, mid-way between our last study, published in 1990, and the symbolically significant millennial year, 2000.


What this Report Contains

Captive Kids first identifies some of the different forms that in-school commercialism takes -- from outright advertising in school hallways to sponsored educational materials that don't necessarily contain ads but often contain brand-name plugs and biased messages.

It examines the reasons why corporations and other commercial organizations are interested in marketing to kids in the classroom, and how they do so. Most significant among these reasons is the corporate interest in capturing the attention and loyalty of today's growing population of youngsters, who are not reachable at home during school hours.

Second, Captive Kids explores the problems that in-school commercialism can create, the arguments for and against allowing such commercialism into schools, and the efforts to control it.

It evaluates and rates a wide selection of sponsored educational materials, in-school contests, and incentive programs that have achieved access to children at school. And it describes numerous other forms of ad-bearing materials that are entering the schools, including sponsored television and radio, ad-bearing publications, and fund-raising programs.

Finally it offers Consumers Unions' recommendations on how the corporate sector, the education community, parents, and government can and should work together to make schools ad-free zones where young people can learn without commercial influences and pressures.


Why We Conducted the Study

Captive Kids is a follow-up to our earlier report, Selling America's Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids of the 90's 1.

In preparing that study Consumers Union found that America's children are targeted by corporations and other organizations with more than 30,000 commercial messages per year.

We found that thousands of corporations were targeting school children or their teachers with marketing activities ranging from teaching videos, guidebooks, and posters to contests, product giveaways, and coupons.

We also found that many of these programs had self-serving objectives, or contained misleading, incomplete, or incorrect information.

We became convinced then that a focused study of commercialism in the schools was needed. We therefore began this project in late 1993.

We believe that requiring kids to view paid commercials on classroom TV or in classroom magazines; to fill the classroom with teaching aids that sport corporate logos or self-serving information; to expose kids to radio commercials or billboards or vending machines that push fat- and sugar-laden brand-name products; or to enlist whole student bodies in contests that promise a reward in exchange for brand-name recognition violates the integrity of education.

In-school commercialism is at its worst, we believe, when it masquerades as educational materials or programs and offers half-truths or misstatements that favor the sponsor of the materials. It may be difficult if not impossible for most teachers to correctly judge the objectivity and accuracy of such materials. In Captive Kids we describe many examples of this.

The more blatant forms of in-school commercialism add to the growing din of advertising aimed at kids in the home, on the bus, and in the malls. We do not believe that any advertisements, coupons, and sweepstakes have a rightful place in our institutions of learning.

Wide variations in resources among our nation's school districts put many schools in a position of need, with little negotiating power when it comes to the content of commercial materials. When sorely needed equipment or teaching materials come only with an agreement to promote the donor's products to kids and their parents, it may be hard to say no.

Unfortunately, a teacher's use of a sponsor's materials or products implies an endorsement, and any benefits of such use may come at the cost of teaching children to scrutinize marketing messages objectively.

We believe the impact that commercialism can have on the education of our young citizens and consumers in training should be a matter of great concern to all who cherish children. It is a matter of immediate concern to school administrators, teachers, parents, educational overseers, and the private corporations who will rely on today's youth to populate tomorrow's government and industry.

We believe that parents and educators must unite to make schools ad-free zones, where young people can pursue learning free of commercial influences and pressures. We applaud corporations that recognize that it is in their own long-range interest to provide relevant work experience to school kids and to donate basic equipment and financial resources to schools -- but that attempts to peddle merchandise, services, or self-serving ideas are inappropriate.

Protecting school children from in-school commercialism requires that schools and school districts treat sponsored materials the same way they treat other curriculum materials: subject them to committee reviews and adopt and enforce guidelines insuring their objectivity and freedom from commercialism. Suggested guidelines are included in the section of this report called Recommendations.

To view the full report, check out Consumer Union's website.