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."

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."

Not all school administrators turn a blind eye to the corporate logos multiplying around them. Pamela Moore, the Grand Prairie ISD partners in education coordinator, wonders about the negative impact of uncritically mixing education and advertising.

"I think that is a universal issue: Can advertising be a part of school? Do the funds coming in, and what they do for the children, offset the feeling of just being an advertiser? It is something everyone involved has to address.

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