Fighting Commercialism in Schools

Sarah Church
Unplug!: A zine for teens by teens

The commercialization of public education is the manipulation of education to make a profit. It sounds pretty messed up, and believe me, it is, but you don’t have to take my word for it – look around your school. Do you see soda machines lining the hallway? Channel one monitors looming over every classroom? Proud Nike executives slapping their logo on every talented soccer/football/basketball/tennis/fieldhockey player? These are all evidence of commercial contracts that your school has signed with corporations wanting a captive audience for their logo, jingles, and repetitive slogans. Why? That’s a pretty heavy question. Corporations do it to build brand loyalty among kids, keep their product “cool”, and ultimately to make money. Schools do it for money, too – our government has placed education as such a low priority that teachers have to hawk products during class time just to have money for textbooks. Why do kids let themselves be subjected to ad after mind-numbing ad? Because they have no choice.

Children and teenagers are required by law to be enrolled in school. Schools sign contracts that require schools to blare TV commercials or use sports equipment covered with logos. Consequently, all students who can’t afford to go to private schools can be subject corporate messages with little or no say in the matter. Here’s a quick list of ways that companies can make their way into schools:

Channel One: A closed circuit TV program piped into 40% of secondary schools nationwide. Schools get TV monitors in every classroom in exchange for a 12 minute daily “news” program with 2 minutes of ads. Students are not only forced to watch, but according to the contract may not turn down the volume or face away from the screen.

Exclusive Soda Deals: Schools sign a contract, usually with Coke or Pepsi, who then install soda machines all over campus. Schools get a flat sum of money, and more is promised if students drink a certain amount of soda; in essence, kids are funding their own education through buying Coke or Pepsi.

In-School Internet Access: ZapMe! AOL in the Classroom, Channel One Online and others follow this trend. These online sites provide school-wide access to the Internet, complete with additional ads. The contracts require that students spend a minimum amount of time online per day, and limit access to select sites that are “appropriate” for school time – these include advertisers’ sites and links to dozens of “cool contests” that ask for kids personal information such as age and address. This information is then used for marketing purposes – sometimes kids are asked about their interests, a tactic which effectively turns them into a focus group for advertisers.

Sponsored Educational Materials: Everything else that is provided by companies to build brand recognition in schools. M&M/Mars Provides nutritional information for kids – with a pile of chocolate bars pictured among fruits, veggies, meat and cheese. Ragu spaghetti sauce has a “science experiment” that shows that its sauce is chunkier than the leading sauce. These materials are usually shipped right to teachers, so the administrations mostly don’t know they exist.

Student Action Guide

If you want to organize in your school around the issue of commercialism, use these tips to help you:

1. Start a student group. It will allow you to do things that clubs can do like put up posters and have meeting space.

2. Learn your school rules. Figure out if you can put up posters, set up an info table in the hall and distribute pamphlets.

3. Get active! Spread the word! Stage skits in the courtyard, slap stickers around, pass around petitions, sit in class with earmuffs, earplugs or masks when you’re supposed to be watching Channel One.

4. Go public. Once people hear about it, they’re usually against it. The school newspaper is a great place to start. Tell your parents and teachers to get involved.

5. Change your school! Get teachers to sign a pledge saying they won’t use materials shipped to them from corporations. Go to your school board and demand the removal of companies from your school environment.

Read Up

Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialization of America’s Schools, Alex Monar

Education in Crisis, pamphlet about universities, Ben Manski, 1999, 608-262-9036


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