Cola kids

Public school students become a captive audience for corporate advertisers

Early in the morning, children line up on sidewalks to wait for the yellow school bus, much as their parents and grandparents did in their time. This time, though, something's a little off. The bus has a sign on the side. Dr Pepper, it says. The kids get to school, and rush off to classes, passing vending machines along the way. They say Dr Pepper too. In gym class, they exercise under Dr Pepper banners; on the weekends, they attend their high school's football games, and check the score on Dr Pepper scoreboards. They open the athletic programs, and there it is: Dr Pepper. Passengers in airplanes flying over the school look down and see the familiar soft-drink logo painted on the school's roof.

Shrinking school budgets have sent administrators scrambling for new ways to fund programs and buy books, and corporate America has been happy to help out--in exchange for the right to advertise or push their products on students.

Soft-drink giants, notorious for aggressive marketing campaigns, have been quick to recognize that potential and to take the cola wars to the playground. Contracts in which a soda company pays for the exclusive right to peddle its pop to students in a district have become pervasive in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Kids at Keller ISD enjoy Coke, and only Coke, while students at Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD have joined the Pepsi generation. Dr Pepper's the taste at Plano, Grapevine-Colleyville, Highland Park, and 17 other local school districts.

The trend, the latest example of the broader commercialization of schools, touched off an outcry in some quarters about the advance of the profit motive on publicly financed schools--and the health hazards inherent in increasing kids' appetites for sugar- and caffeine-laden drinks.

In spite of those concerns, these deals are being closed at dizzying speed.
Marketing companies love this large captive audience--43 million kids attend school--and their tremendous spending power: Elementary school children spend around $15 billion a year and influence about $160 billion of their parents' spending; teenagers spend $57 billion of their own money yearly, and $36 billion of their parents' money. In the world of marketing, where establishing and maintaining brand loyalty is paramount, young consumers-in-training represent invaluable long-term commercial potential. Beverage executives are drawn by visions of thousands of brand-loyal youngsters with a lifetime of consumption ahead, and school board members have a sweet tooth for the easy money, though many represent districts that are well-off and high-achieving already.

The five-year contract Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD signed with Pepsi in 1997 is typical of those welcomed by administrators at other districts. The school district received $500,000 up front. Each year, its high schools will receive $10,000, the junior highs $7,500, and elementary schools $1,000, plus a percentage of the drinks sold. The more soda the kids consume, the more money the schools get.

That brings up one of the stickier sides of the bargain: the health consequences of encouraging soft-drink consumption. Health experts have long pointed a worried finger at the pudgying-up of America's children. Last year, the Washington-based nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest released a study called "Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks are Harming Americans' Health," warning that, in 1996, teenage boys consumed about 2 2/3 cups of soda a day, but only half as much milk. Twenty years ago, they consumed more than twice as much milk as soft drinks. Indeed, the study found that children consume less than a fourth of U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommended daily portions of fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and protein. Sodas pose health risks not only for what they contain--a can has nine or more tablespoonfuls of sugar and half a coffee cup's worth of caffeine--but also for what they replace in the diet.

"Are our children going to get addicted to Coca-Cola?" asks Keith Head, president of Grand Prairie ISD's school board. His school district is considering Coke as its sole soda provider. "Yes, that has been some concern, but it hasn't been a major issue, and we don't anticipate it being. We haven't had major parental complaints."

The decision to bring in soda companies is simply "realistic, when you look at the dollars and cents of it," says Fred Laux, director of purchasing at Hurst-Euless-Bedford. "The bottom line is, no matter what you put there, the kids are going to buy it. It seemed like every time somebody put another proposal out there, there was more and more money in it, so we decided to take a shot."

Of the initial sum given to the district two years ago, $200,000 went to its educational foundation for scholarships and in-class projects not normally funded.

"The balance of the money is invested right now," Laux says. "They don't have any specific purpose for it, but I am sure they will find something to spend it on."

Administrators at some of the more affluent districts such as Plano claim they have to look to soda companies to offset the effects of the Texas school finance plan, which redistributes a percentage of tax money raised in wealthy districts to those whose schools are needier.

"This year we will send $45 million of locally raised tax money back to the state to participate...in what many people refer to as Robin Hood. Next year, it may be as high as $69 million," says Carole Greisdorf, special assistant to the superintendent at Plano. "We are being forced to become much more entrepreneurial and to look to various ways to raise money."

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