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The Selling of Our Schools: Advertising in the Classroom

Are our kids for sale to the highest bidder? Do we tell them proper nutrition is important and then plaster the school's walls with McDonald's signs that read "I'm Lovin' It"?

Advertising in schools is nothing new. What's new is the persuasiveness of it and the price tags school superintendents, school boards, and booster clubs are putting on its value. Some schools work independently on requests for proposals to draw in corporate dollars from the companies that are eager to get in their doors. Others join a system-wide approach to snare those corporate dollars, and a few hire consulting firms to help them wrangle the larger sums.

Mike Roumph, vice-president of D.D. Marketing in Pueblo, Colorado, estimates exclusive contracts with soft drink companies alone net a school an average $30 to $35 per student annually. A well-planned soft drink advertising program can generate between $100,000 and $300,000 for a district. Although most schools reject sponsors with political, religious, alcohol, tobacco, and violent or blatant sexual overtones; many are investigating contracts with shoe companies, restaurants, hotel chains, and telecommunication companies as well as the contracts with the cola giants.

As an alternative to fund-raising, school systems have begun to look at corporate dollars to fund just about everything. Schools need funding for in-school activities and equipment, and, in order to reduce the number of children going home to empty houses, they provide and then need to fund many after-school activities. Product advertisements can be found almost everywhere in schools. They are frequently in stadiums, gymnasiums, school cafeterias, hallways, and on textbook covers. In Colorado Springs ads are placed on school buses, and in Grapevine-Colleyfield (Texas) schools ad space is offered on school roofs that are in the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport flight path. In Utah ads are even in some student restrooms.


Instead of placing ads up, some companies provide teachers with curriculum kits that mix educational lessons with frequent references to their products or corporate name. For example, in some communities, children use mathematics worksheets with Disney characters and when done see clips from the video. A nonprofit research group, The Milwaukee Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, recently discovered that these corporate-sponsored classroom materials often subtly steer class lessons in directions advantageous to the sponsor.

School children are a lucrative market. According to the Hartford Courant ("Public Schools Studying Future in Advertising," April 24,1998), "In 1997, U.S. children 12 and under spent and influenced spending at a record $500 billion...increasing by 20% a year, ...that could lead to more than $1 trillion in such spending by 2002. And teenagers age 17 and younger will make up the largest portion of the nation's population in coming years." Since designer labels and brand names play an important role in defining status and social acceptance to many youths, getting them to buy and then become loyal to a particular product at an early age can ensure companies a profitable future. Marketers are starting to hawk not only children's products but also "adult" purchases, such as cars and vacations, supplying their captive, impressionable audiences with arguments they can use to pitch the requests to parents.


What can be done? Some possibilities include:

  • If budgets for education are tight, communities could raise corporate taxes or taxes in general so that schools do not need to rely on corporate-sponsored programs to meet financial need.
  • Schools that do permit corporate sponsorship could review all corporate-sponsored materials used to ensure that they are accurate, objective, complete, nondiscriminatory, and non-commercial except for the corporate logo used only for identification.

In addition, schools and/or parents could teach children media literacy. Some feel that in our media saturated society the ability to "read" advertising and become literate media consumers may be every bit as essential as the ability to read traditional print.

If we increased children's critical awareness of the ways they are being targeted for commercial purposes, if we helped children identify the emotional appeals the advertisers try to make, and if we encouraged children to dissect the images and messages, this might help diffuse the effects of advertising. If we helped children better understand commercial pitches, we might be able to avoid the negative aspects of corporate sponsorship while still reaping its benefits.

Related Resources


In addition, those organizations' Web sites provide great links to other media literacy sites.

Article by Glori Chaika
Education World®
Copyright © Education World

Updated 7/13/2012