TOPICS > Education

Ads in Schools

May 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Commercials in public schools: Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

SPOKESPERSON: Last week in Afghanistan…

LEE HOCHBERG: The school day at Seattle’s Hamilton intermediate school began with the news from Channel One.

SPOKESPERSON: There are millions and millions of landmines that have yet to be exploded all over the countryside. (Explosions)

LEE HOCHBERG: The ten-minute youth newscast is sort of a hybrid of a weekly reader and MTV. The Primedia Company provides it free of charge to 40 percent of the nation’s schools, so long as the schools show two minutes of commercials.

SPOKESPERSON: New AOL Version 7.0.

SPOKESPERSON: You’ve got mail.

LEE HOCHBERG: On the day we visited, students told us they had learned from the program.

STUDENT: It’s unfair to Afghanistan because all the people from there are getting attacked and sitting on mines.

LEE HOCHBERG: And they definitely remembered the commercials.

STUDENT: AOL 7.0.

LEE HOCHBERG: It’s those commercials that induced the Seattle school board recently to begin phasing Channel One out of its schools. Board member Michael Preston said Channel One isn’t about educating.

MICHAEL PRESTON: It’s a way to deliver advertising. That’s what Channel One is all about. It was not done for benevolent reason, to deliver news to kids. It was done to deliver advertisements to kids.

LEE HOCHBERG: Channel One says the commercials pay for the program, a program that for many kids is the only news they see all day.

Primedia’s Jeff Ballabon:

JEFF BALLABON: Teenagers are exposed to thousands of commercial messages a day. They wear them on their bodies. They read them; they see them; they eat them every day. It is difficult to imagine that there’s some net impact of materializing teenagers because of two additional ads a day.

LEE HOCHBERG: Still, in Seattle and several cities nationwide, it’s being unplugged from classrooms. And in New York State, it has never even been allowed in– all part of a broad reconsideration of commercialism’s place in public schools.

Five years ago, Seattle public schools were some of the first to embrace advertising and private partnerships as new sources of revenue. But critics say in hindsight, that policy was wrong.

MICHAEL PRESTON: What went wrong with it was everything. What ended up showing up on our doorstep was all of the soft drink companies, coffee companies, junk food companies.

SPENCER MICHELS: Preston says the district hoped selling ads would ease budget woes and fund some student activities. But what it really did was expose students to products that he says are unhealthy.

MICHAEL PRESTON: They should not be subjected to spending a part of their day being pandered to by some company that wants you to consume something that’s not good for you.

LEE HOCHBERG: So pervasive did advertising become in Seattle schools that today, posters promoting reading also promote Airborne Express and Starbucks Coffee. School menus don’t include just cookies and juice, but Otis Spunkmeyer cookies and Nantucket Nectars.

At Nathan Hale High School, a teacher brought us a packet of hygiene products their manufacturer wanted distributed to students.

TEACHER: As you can see, there is a free sample of Clearasil stay- clear lotion, a deodorant, roll-on deodorant, and then we have some shaving cream, compliments of whoever owns Edge.

LEE HOCHBERG: And a teacher down the hall was busy covering textbooks with corporate- supplied covers. In a silent protest, she wrapped them backside-out, so the logos of Nintendo, Gatorade, and Secret deodorant didn’t show.

MICHAEL PRESTON: Ultimately and eventually, the schools will start to look like big ads, and I don’t think that’s where we should go.

LEE HOCHBERG: While ads like these will remain, Preston’s last action before retiring in December was to push through a new anti-commercialism policy that’s just now going into effect. In addition to phasing out Channel One, it discourages advertising on school buses and eliminates advertising on school scoreboards and buildings. And it tones down advertisements on vending machine facades.

MICHAEL PRESTON: This is the way that they all used to look. And it doesn’t say “Drink Coca-Cola,” but there is a subliminal message there. It’s cold; it’s frosty; it’s refreshing. The machines that have this display on them sell more product.

LEE HOCHBERG: He wanted a faceplate that simply said “soft drinks.” But Coca-Cola in 1998 had signed a five-year $5.8 million contract with the district to be its exclusive soda provider, and the company wanted its logo on the machine.

Sean McBride is with the National Soft Drink Association.

SEAN McBRIDE: I think it helps people know that that product is available in the machine, and that’s where they go to get the product. I think it is a matter for reasonable people to judge whether or not that constitutes advertising. And I suspect that most people would agree that that’s not.

LEE HOCHBERG: The two parties settled on this facade, which shows a smaller Coke logo. Parent groups were disturbed. Brita Butler-Wall of the Citizens Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools, says advertisers shouldn’t drive school policy.

BRITA BUTLER-WALL: If they want to provide money, they should be paying their share of taxes, and then people who we elect will decide how to spend that money. We will not have these so-called corporate sponsorships that are nothing but a Trojan horse bringing something, supposedly a free lunch into the building, which is really just a way of getting at small children.

LEE HOCHBERG: Research suggests that advertising does indeed affect children. A Michigan State University Study of 800 high school students found Channel One viewers expressed greater intent to buy the product advertised on the program than non-viewers did.

And in an Advertising Age study of 12,000 youngsters on a youth-oriented Web site, more than one-third of the teens said they often tell their parents to buy things they see advertised.

TEACHER: Has that impacted you? Have you even noticed that they’ve changed that?

LEE HOCHBERG: Yet at Nathan Hale High, students debating the issue on a recent school dress- up day said ads don’t affect them.

MELANIE WELCH, Student: Like, you have to decide what you want more, and I would prefer having sports teams and extracurricular activities over not having them if we have to see, like, Coke ads in schools. I think it’s definitely worth it.

JO LANDIS, Student: We’ve already been bombarded our entire lives with coke ads. Seeing just one more in high school, by the time we’re all between, like, 15 and 18, does not make a difference.

LEE HOCHBERG: School administrators say corporate support is essential to big-city schools right now. Indeed, Seattle’s new policy bans corporate logos, but allows them in the case of so-called corporate sponsorships: Special programs that wouldn’t exist without corporate funding.

Seattle School Superintendent Joseph Olchefske:

JOSEPH OLCHEFSKE: I would not be supportive of any policy that substantially restricts business involvement in our schools, because we fight for business support and involvement in our schools. I don’t think we can live without business support.

LEE HOCHBERG: Olchefske says the district’s Biotechnology Academy, sponsored by the Immunex Company, teaches material schools can’t teach on their own. And in this program with Washington Mutual Bank, bank employees come to schools and help kids set up Washington Mutual savings accounts. Students get prizes if they make deposits. The district says kids learn to save money, but it’s clear they learn brand loyalty, too. Do you guy have a favorite bank?

STUDENT: Probably Washington mutual.

STUDENT: Washington Mutual, because I’ve been saving money with them for a while now.

LEE HOCHBERG: Olchefske says there is no way around that.

JOSEPH OLCHEFSKE: I think those that argue that we’ve got to create a kind of hermetically sealed environment, I don’t think we can get there at a practical level.

LEE HOCHBERG: Nonetheless, other school boards in Washington State and in Michigan are considering anti-commercialism policies of their own. Anti-commercialism groups say the next target is so-called sponsored educational materials used in the classroom, like this one, sent to Seattle teachers by the Chocolate Manufacturers Association. It encourages students to collect candy wrappers as a school project; and this package from Godfather’s Pizza, which uses its pizza to teach math skills, and rewards students who master them with the product itself.