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From Billboard to Chalkboard: Advertising Creeps Into the Classroom

Corporate advertisers are spending big buck$ to get their names into classrooms around the world. And schools strapped for ca$h are letting them do it. Why? And what can school administrators and teachers do to make sure kids are getting the right me$$age? Included: Media literacy and money managing Web sites for kids!

Take this surprise quiz and see how many questions you can answer:


1. They spend about $300.00 each, per month, on non-essential items.
a. single women b. retired men c. U.S. kids

2. They spend a total of $11 to $15 billion each year.
a. government lobbyists b. foreign tourists c. U.S. kids

3. They influence the spending of about $160 billion of other peoples' money each year.
a. celebrity spokespeople b. N.Y. stockbrokers c. U.S. kids

The answer to each of those questions is, of course, c. U.S. kids.


"Marketers have come to realize that all roads eventually lead to the schools."

--- Ed Winter, co-founder of Channel One, as quoted in Business Week, June 30, 1997.

In the United States today, kids just learning to add add up to big business for many major corporations. And the schools in which those kids spend more than 20 percent of their time represent an important economic marketplace for those businesses. Since 1989 -- when Channel One, a televised program containing 10 minutes of news and 2 minutes of commercial advertising, first entered America's classrooms -- the corporate presence has been increasingly felt in school districts across the country. Commercial ads now appear on school buses and in school hallways. They decorate gyms, school cafeterias, lockers, and book covers. Team uniforms, billboards, and scoreboards sport corporate logos and company slogans. Educational materials, programs, contests, and awards boast corporate sponsorship -- and sell corporate products.

According to "Captive Kids," a 1995 report issued by the Consumer Union Education Services (CUES), in-school advertising can be classified into four categories:

  • typical, overt advertising -- which includes the visual ads that appear on school buses, billboards, and school corridors.
  • commercial messages -- which are contained in magazines, videos, television programs, and Web sites used in schools.
  • corporate-sponsored educational materials -- which include teaching kits, activity sheets, software, and videos that contain such subtle forms of advertising as product images and corporate logos.
  • corporate-sponsored contests and incentive programs -- which introduce products and brand names to students without actually advertising specific products.

Whichever form their ads take, corporate advertisers all have the same three primary objectives: to influence how kids spend their own money, to affect how kids influence their parents' spending, and to build brand loyalty among future adult consumers.


Despite concerns expressed by reluctant administrators, skeptical teachers, and worried parents, the corporate presence continues to grow in American schools -- and it is probably here to stay. Corporate dollars provide technology many schools could not otherwise afford. Businesses provide grants, scholarships, and incentives that improve the future of many students. Corporate-sponsored educational materials can provide up-to-date information to supplement out-of-date textbooks.

At a time when taxpayers are increasingly reluctant to raise school budgets, when school sports and enrichment programs are in danger because they lack adequate funding, when teachers spend an average of more than $400 of their own money on classroom supplies, those advertising dollars, prizes, incentives, and educational materials can be hard to ignore -- or refuse.

Groups such as the National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association have therefore called for the establishment of guidelines that can allow schools to benefit from corporate dollars while maintaining educational integrity. Those guidelines include:

  • reviewing corporate-sponsored educational materials to ensure that they are accurate, objective, and non-commercial.
  • holding corporate-sponsored materials to the same educational standards as other curriculum materials.
  • pursuing non-commercial partnerships with businesses.
  • educating students to critically evaluate media messages.
  • providing students with the skills to be intelligent consumers.


In and out of school, kids are constantly bombarded by media messages and commercial influences. Effective educational programs in media literacy and money management can help them deal with those messages in intelligent and discriminating ways. Those programs should begin in elementary school and continue throughout the educational process.

The following Web sites provide information and resources for teaching kids how to evaluate the commercial messages they're exposed to and how to make responsible and thoughtful decisions about spending and saving their money.


  • The Media Literacy Online Project Maintained by the University of Oregon Department of Education, this site provides a comprehensive collection of links to media literacy resources.
  • Taking Charge of Your TV: A Guide to Critical Viewing for Parents and Children A guide provided by the National Cable Television Association includes suggestions for helping kids understand and evaluate televised media messages as well as links to additional media literacy sites.
  • The Just Think Foundation This Web site provides student activities and teacher and parent information that help kids think critically about the media and create their own media messages.
  • The Media Awareness Network Ideas for classroom activities, links to teaching units on media issues, and links to chat rooms and discussion groups for students and teachers. Site information includes links to supporting resources, industry associations and standards councils, and sources for learning about ethical standards.
  • Dissect An Ad Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, this site provides information to help kids understand and evaluate political ads. The activity can be adapted for commercial ads.
  • Information Literacy Standards for Student Learning Maintained by the American Library Association, this site provides guidelines for school library media programs and information literacy standards.
  • 1998 National Media Education Conference Information about the conference can be found at this Web site.


  • The Merrill Lynch Family Saving Center The site provides lesson plans and activities to help kids learn to manage their money.
  • The Young Investor Web Site Maintained by Liberty Financial, the site provides fun guides and activities to help kids learn about money. Includes additional information for parents and teachers.
  • Investing For Kids A site designed by kids for kids, examines stocks, bonds, and mutual funds and teaches kids the principles of saving and investing.
  • Kids Bank.Com From Sovereign Bank, this site helps kids learn about money and banking.
  • The FDIC Learning Bank Hosted by Carmen Cents, the site includes activities to help kids learn how to handle their money, tips to help parents guide their children in intelligent money management, and lesson plans for teachers.
  • The First Tech Kids Calculator Helps kids figure out how much money they will have to save over how long a time to have enough to buy a desired item. This site can help teach kids about long range planning and money management.
  • Lemonade Stand The online version of the classic computer game that helps young entrepreneurs learn about buying, selling, and advertising.
  • Tennessee Telco Credit Union's Kid Page Site includes money facts and puzzles, and spending and savings ideas for kids.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World