Resisting the Commercialization of Public Schools

by ROBERT WEISSMAN

Marketers can’t seem to stop thinking about the spectacular marketing opportunity afforded by schools.

It’s easy to imagine the conversation in the business meeting room: Kids are bored in school — we can grab their attention with ads! Compulsory schooling creates a captive audience for us — if we can just get in the door! Schools are perfectly age-segmented — just what we need!

That’s the kind of thinking that led to the creation of Channel One, which wraps 10 minutes of pap news and entertainment around two minutes of ads broadcast into classrooms. It is the mindset behind billboards at school athletic fields. It explains student book covers that sport corporate ads.

And it is the thinking behind the hideous new enterprise known as BusRadio.

This is the Needham, Massachusetts-based BusRadio’s offer: The company will provide school districts with custom-designed and installed equipment at no charge. BusRadio will pipe in its own network (the company has separate programming for elementary students and for middle school and high school kids), playing pop music, public service advertisements and "age-appropriate" commercials. Not only that, but the company will share some of its ad revenues with the school district.

All the school district has to do is offer up its kids as a captive listening audience.

BusRadio is off to a slow start. It lurched into operation at the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year, and claims to have managed to lure schools with just 100,000 students into accepting its deal.

Its stated target is 1 million kids for the coming school year.

Earlier this week, it hoped to increase its captive audience base by more than half by tricking the Jefferson County, Kentucky school board to sign on the dotted line. Louisville is in Jefferson County. The school district has 60,000 bused students.

Happily, parents — who know all too well how their kids are saturated with commercial messages — are getting wise to the marketers’ efforts to invade schools.

As soon as they learned of the BusRadio proposal, parents and activists scrambled to mobilize opposition. Parents and advocacy groups wrote to the school board. The PTA lodged objections. And parents went to the school board meeting prepared to protest.

There was no need. Their message had already been delivered.

The Jefferson County school board rejected the proposal without even taking a vote.

"The board received a lot of input from the community, and based on what we heard, we decided this was not a contract we wanted to consider," board chair Joe Hardesty announced at the start of the school board meeting, according to a report in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

In a follow-up note to parents and others expressing concern about the BusRadio proposal, school board member Debbie Wesslund wrote, "I certainly share your views about allowing commercial advertising on buses. As most of you said, we spend plenty of time already trying to limit our children’s exposure to advertising, inappropriate music and pop culture in general."

Advertising in schools and school property like buses is such a bad idea that even a majority of marketing professionals believe it is wrong. A 2004 Harris poll of youth advertising and marketing professionals found that only 45 percent "feel that today’s young people can handle advertising in schools." Forty-seven percent believe that "schools should be a protected area" and that "there should not be advertising to students on school grounds."

Schools should be a place for education — to gain knowledge, to acquire a love of learning, to develop and discover one’s own unique personality, to learn how to build friendships and solve conflicts, to internalize community and civic values. Commercial intrusions — already all too present in kids’ lives — undermine virtually every aspect of the educational enterprise.

There is a growing revolt underway against commercialization of the classroom. Channel One was just about driven out of business, before recently being acquired by a new company that will likely keep it going for a short while before throwing in the towel. There is a groundswell to kick soda and junk food companies out of schools. And ridiculous ventures like BusRadio are now finding it is harder to trick parents and schools than they might have expected, or than they might have found five or 10 years ago.

Protecting children from the commercial onslaught is a worthy and vitally important objective in its own right. But it is also is an opportunity to begin, ever so slowly, to address a broader ill.

Marketing madness has overrun our society. It imposes on our time, debases our culture, poisons community ties and even relations among friends (who may duped into becoming company representatives through "buzz marketing" arrangements) and threatens our planet with its hyper-consumerist message.

Jefferson County and many other places are taking the first strides to recovery from this lunacy, by asserting the importance of non-commercial spaces and times, and of protecting children from the corporate predators.

ROBERT WEISSMAN is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, and managing director of Commercial Alert, which joined the protest against BusRadio.


 

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