Cola kids

Public school students become a captive audience for corporate advertisers

Dr Pepper Bottling Company of Texas pays $1 million a year, plus a percentage of each drink sold, as part of its 10-year contract with Plano for exclusive access to the district's 46,000 students.

But districts on the other side of the Robin Hood divide are interested in cashing in too. Grand Prairie ISD, a recipient under the Robin Hood program and one of the last districts without an official beverage provider, is courting Coke.

Such deals often go beyond simply selling access to students for a fee. Frequently the companies ask for--and receive--additional perks, such as the right to prominently display their logos and banners on school property.

"On some of the deals we signed we do have exclusive advertising rights. That goes along with part of our investment to the district," says Bill Clancy, cold-drink business manager for Dr Pepper. "We put our logos on the football field at Plano, at Clark Stadium, on school rooftops in Grapevine-Colleyville, and obviously scoreboards; that goes without question."

And why does Dr Pepper do it? Why, simply because it is a company that "cares and believes in putting back into the community," says Clancy. So they are not trying to instill a love for Dr Pepper in young impressionable children?

"Well, I would have to say, I don't know if that is part of our intention," he says, "but we would hope that when we support the students, they would give that support back to us in the trade, as consumers."

Some districts, like Grapevine-Colleyville, one of the state's wealthiest, have opened the door to advertisers other than soda companies. The district created a tiered system matching the size of a corporation's contribution to varying advertising options. Albertson's, for example, was one of the companies that paid at the $10,000 level, and received the right to put six signs on Grapevine-Colleyville buses and in the district's gyms and stadiums, among other things. At the $5,000 level, a corporation gets four signs on school buses and in the gyms, and so on, down to the $1,000 level.

The money raised through the corporate-sponsorship program has helped improve the Grapevine-Colleyville school newspaper and paid for updated computer software and advanced teacher training. Most of it has gone toward improving the curriculum, says Louise Henry, director of school and community relations for the district.

She defends the district's program, saying this at least gives them control over advertising. Other areas are seeing ads creep into their schools on book covers, telephone booths, corporate-sponsored learning materials, radio programs played in the halls, or cable channels watched in the classrooms, but in these cases, the district doesn't profit, and the ads can become an in-class distraction. At Grapevine-Colleyville, the school administrators can determine where the signs will go and make sure they stay only in gyms and buses and outside of the classroom, she says. The district has also established guidelines for the distribution of fliers and other advertising materials: They must be designed for instructional use by teachers or students, and the primary focus must be instructing, not simply advertising.

It's a good try, but the truth, according to "Captive Kids: A Report on Commercial Pressures on Kids at School," put out by Consumer Union, publishers of Consumer Report, is that few corporate-sponsored materials make the grade as educationally sound and bias-free sources of information. Take Campbell Soup Company's Prego Thickness Experiment. It presumes to "help your kids become aware of the many situations in which scientific thinking plays a part" by asking them to prove that its sauce is thicker than that of its competitor, Ragu. Or look at Mars' "100% Smart Energy To Go" kit, which is supposed to "help students make the connection between food and fitness" by listing candy as one of the foods to be relied on for energy, or Kellogg's "Eat to the Beat" package, which teaches a lesson on label reading with the "sucrose and other sugars" line cut out of the graphic, and names Kellogg's Rice Krispies Treats as a snack to choose more often.

Critics question the wisdom of allowing administrators to turn taxpayer-supported schools into willing agents of corporate strategy.

Of course the proposals are enticing, says Loretta Towne, the state's PTA legislative chairman. "These proposals--Dare I say this of a soda contract?--are sugar-coated. They say, hey, this is the revenue we are going to bring to your district. Can you turn down this much money?"

"Some of [these districts] are desperate, because they really need the money. Others are just greedy, and they think they can get something for nothing--bells and whistles they couldn't otherwise get with taxpayer money. Ultimately the burden is on the kids, because the atmosphere at school is no longer protective. That is sad. Somehow the allure of money is such that they have ethical blinders."

The 1990s have become the decade of sponsored schools and commercialized classrooms, says Alex Molnar, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and director of the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education. He ends a report he published on the subject in August 1998 by pointing out that "at a time when commercialism in schools and classrooms appears to be increasing dramatically, it is more than a little puzzling that educators do not seem to have more to say about it. The seeming failure of the education community to describe, attempt to understand, and assess the impact of commercial activities on the character and quality of schools and their programs is hard to explain, and warrants further investigation."

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