Nov. 15, 2000
Is your schoolchild watching too much television? Eating too many
junk foods and drinks instead of what's healthy? Nagging you to buy
expensive sneakers? Too easily swayed by advertising? If so, why are
the schools encouraging all those things?
Commercialism in the public schools is "widespread and on the
rise," according to a recent report of the Government Accounting Office
requested by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Advertising hits the school children hard, in signs on school buses, in
the classroom, through exclusive soft drink contracts, and through the
in-class television program called Channel One, which includes two
minutes of commercials every school day.
In-school commercialism exists in all 50 states, but only 19
states regulate in-school commercial activities. There is a wide
variety in the way school policies address this issue.
Michigan fails to regulate commercial activities at all, while New
Mexico specifically allows advertising on school buses. California,
New York, Florida, Illinois and Maine have policies expressly
permitting or prohibiting at least three types of commercial
New York generally prohibits commercial activities on school
premises. In California, school boards must hold hearings before
approving many commercial contracts.
In 1994 a preschool teacher launched the fad of featuring brand-
name products in a children's book. After it was turned down by 35
publishers, her "M&M's Brand Counting Book" became Charlesbridge's
Now we see children's books featuring many brand-name candies and
snacks such as Froot Loops, Cheerios, M&Ms, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish,
Reese's Pieces, Skittles, Hershey's chocolates and Oreo cookies. This
trend has become popular with some preschool and kindergarten teachers
who say they like the books because the children can count the candies
or pieces of cereal and then be rewarded by eating them.
More recently, brand-name books have been turning up in elementary
school classrooms. Titles include "Reese's Pieces: Count by Fives,"
"Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bar Fractions Book," and "Skittles Math
Not everyone approves of this trend. Some specialty children's
bookstores have refused to stock these books and some teachers have
described them as "an abuse." Some parents, pediatricians and
educators worry that such books "will engrave snack food brands in
toddler's impressionable minds, hook them on junk food, and lead to
eating problems later in life."
Though books peddling brand-name products have sold millions of
copies ("The Cheerios Play Book" has sold 1.2 million copies) and have
been published by major publishing houses, some publishers disapprove
of the trend. A spokesman for Random House's children's division
called the books "advertising and P.R. for the food manufacturers, and
as such, vaguely reprehensible."
Classroom commercialism began with when an outfit called Channel
One began offering schools free television equipment in exchange for
airing 12 minutes of programming, including two minutes of commercial
advertising, in class every school day. Since 40 percent of middle and
high school students nationwide now watch these commercials every day,
corporations lined up fast to pay prime-time rates to peddle their
products to captive student audiences.
Channel One's commercials advertise junk foods, soft drinks, video
games, expensive sneakers, movies, magazines, and TV sitcoms. The most
objectionable are the many hard-sell ads for movies and television
shows that contain vulgarities, obscenities, blasphemies, sexual
innuendoes, disrespect for parents, or violence.
The legacy of Channel One is that Coke, Pepsi, Burger King, Nike,
Kellogg and other corporations are now paying schools to place their
ads in hallways, gymnasiums, cafeterias, and on school buses and book
covers. Multi-million-dollar contracts have turned some schools into
virtual sales agents for Coke and Pepsi.
One 10-year, $8.4 million contract requires a Colorado school
district to sell 70,000 cases of Coke products per year. A letter from
a district official to school administrators urged them to meet sales
goals by allowing students virtually unlimited access to Coke machines,
locating the machines where they will be accessible to students all
day, and even allowing students to drink Coke products in class.
Some school boards and parents are striking back against this tide
of commercialism. The Bucks County (PA) School Board voted 7-0 in
September to reject Channel One because of its "heavily commercialized
ZapMe!, another corporation that offers computer equipment to
schools in return for advertising to captive students, announced after
its stock took a nose-dive in October that it will turn the company
toward a new direction.
Even some students are waking up to how they are being used. An
enterprising high school sophomore in Oil City, PA has created a web
site to expose what he calls the "problem" of Channel One, principally
its advertising for "junk food, shoes and video games."