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

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.

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.

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.

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