Search form

Peddling Products to Kids in School on the Rise

According to a government report, commercial activities in U.S. schools are increasing. The report also states that few school districts closely monitor those activities and are not aware of how commercial technologies that gather marketing information can affect kids. Included: Examples of in-school advertising.

A government report says a growing practice among U.S. corporations is to peddle their products to our nation's kids in public schools. The report, Public Education: Commercial Activities in Schools, also said that the practice goes relatively unmonitored in most states.

Bus Ads to Vending Machines

The GAO attributed the growing commercialism in schools to limited school budgets and the purchasing power of U.S. children. Although American schools have historically engaged in product sales -- the earliest traced back to at least 1890 -- school policies have not kept pace with changes in commercial technologies, the report said. Some of the report's findings include the following:

* Channel One provides audiovisual equipment and news programming to middle and high schools for ten minutes in exchange for requiring students to watch two minutes of commercials daily.

* School buses in a Colorado school district are covered with Old Navy and 7-Up logos.

* The roof of a Texas school is painted with the Dr. Pepper logo to be seen by passing planes.

* A math textbook teaches students about fractions by having them calculate how many kids prefer Sony PlayStation to Sega Saturn.

* The cost benefits vary widely. A school might gain several thousand dollars for an exclusive soft drink contract, or it might collect 1,700 proofs of purchase labels in exchange for a single dictionary.

* The most common form of advertising is found on scoreboards and sports banners, where names of businesses appear as acknowledgment of a donation.

"Basically, what we found is that commercial activities are on the increase in the schools, that policies are determined by local attitudes," Marnie S. Shaul, assistant director of education, workforce, and income security issues for the General Accounting Office (GAO). The GAO is a government agency that investigates programs and expenditures of the federal government. "In some places [commercial activities in schools] are a concern, and in other places they are viewed as a welcomed partnership," added Shaul.


Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) and Representative George Miller (D-California) had called on the agency in 1999 to conduct the first investigation ever of commercial activities in schools. The GAO visited 19 elementary and secondary schools from seven school districts in three states for the report.

After releasing the report at a press conference, Dodd and Miller renewed their call for Congress to pass the Student Privacy Act. The bill, an amendment to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act, would require parental consent before children could participate in various forms of commercial market research taking place in schools. None of the districts visited by the GAO had polices that specifically addressed market research.

Although the report noted several commercial activities in schools -- from vending machines to product advertisements on school athletic scoreboards -- Dodd and Miller's primary concern focused on invasion of privacy issues and commercial market research practices.

One of the companies mentioned in the report is ZapMe! The company provides 2,000 schools in 45 states with free computers and Internet connections, reaching about 1 million students. In exchange, the company runs advertisements on those computers and gathers information about the students, said Bob Stern, spokesman for ZapMe!

Stern said the company had no comment until it fully reviewed the GAO report. However, he said, the company does not solicit individual information about the students. "We ask only for anonymous information," he said. "We ask for their age, gender, and ZIP code for internal use only."


The GAO report also mentions Education Market Resources, a Kansas company that has collected information from its Kidsay marketing tool at about 1,000 schools. According to the company's official Web site, one way Kidsay gathers student data involves showing the student stimuli on the computer screen. The student then clicks the picture he or she likes the most, and the response is recorded. The company also shows students commercials, has them test products, and compiles information about their preferences from closed or open-ended responses.

Education Market Resource officials did not respond to Education World's requests for comments about the GAO report prior to deadline. But the following is from EMR's official Kidsay Web site: "Our ability to gain access to students through the Kidsay network is unprecedented. It has been proven that testing inside the school building provides a more comfortable and non-threatening environment in which children respond openly and easily to questions and stimuli." The company says that school staff and parents benefit in the form of money and incentives and that students learn from the experience.


"Would you allow any of these people to come into your house -- to walk into your house and interview your child without your permission or your consent?" Dodd asked. "I don't know a single person who would do that."

"What is becoming clear is that companies are seeking to exploit the educational platform of our schools to launch the sale of their products," Miller said. "If schools are going to encourage students to drink soda at 9:00 in the morning, for example, parents might want to be made aware of that fact."

Miller said the school day is short enough and children should not be distracted by computer pop-up ads for jeans and sneakers, or campus billboards boasting soft drinks and candy.


Not all commercial activities are created equal, and most do not pose invasion of privacy problems, said Sean McBride, spokesman for the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA). "Senator Dodd has got it right. He applauds the public-private partnerships that benefit schools, businesses, and taxpayers," McBride told Education World.

"It's a win-win situation," McBride said. "The revenues from these partnerships are really great, and we think that local folks can make good decisions about business partnerships in their schools."

Dodd agrees. At the press conference, he said there might be noble and worthwhile purposes for corporations to partner with schools. However, his concern was that even principals and superintendents did not know the extent of marketing and advertising going on, let alone parents.

"It's a growing problem, and all we're doing is putting up a warning sign here," Dodd explained. "We're not trying to come up with a bill that bans all of this. But there is no cop on the beat here."

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

Related Articles from Education World

  • ZapMe! Is It an Idea Whose Time Has Come? As students surf the Net, a small advertisement for the U.S. Army or Wells Fargo College Financial Aid flashes in the corner of the screen. That computer might have been provided to the school -- at no cost -- by ZapMe! This story includes interviews with staff at some schools that use ZapMe!
  • 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 signs saying "Things Go Better With Coke"?
  • From Billboard to Chalkboard: Advertising Creeps Into the Classroom Corporate advertisers are spending big buck$ to get their names into classrooms around the world. What can school administrators and teachers do to make sure kids are getting the right me$$age? The story includes media literacy and money managing Web sites for kids!

Originally published 09/18/2000; updated 05/26/2005