You walk through your child’s high school and see a huge advertisement painted across each row of lockers. The school cafeteria is now named after a restaurant chain, and the school gym is named after a popular sports drink. Even the school buses, once humble and yellow, now sport ads along their sides.

Sound like something out of a futuristic horror movie? Not quite. Public schools around the country are inviting corporations into their buildings and selling ad space on their property. Corporations are ecstatic, especially those with products that target children and teenagers. After all, kids spend hours every day in school, so an advertisement on school property can cause brand loyalty in a way that little else can.

And if you think that’s shocking, listen to this. Schools are also using corporate sponsored curriculum materials –touted as “educational” – that promote products, brands, or an industry’s viewpoint. For example, Scholastic put out a curriculum on the advantages and disadvantages of various types of energy, but the curriculum was paid for by the coal industry. Of course, the “educational material” spoke in glowing words about the advantages of using coal energy over other types. Nestlé had a similar deal with Scholastic, in which they produced a lesson plan that was supposed to “spark students’ creativity,” but based the lesson plan on their own products. Other sponsored materials might include curricula that are geared to promoting a recent or upcoming movie – that profess to teach related history or science lessons, of course.

Money Talks

So why do schools agree to this industry encroachment? Josh Golin, the associate director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), sums it all up in one word: finances.

“We’ve seen a huge uptick in schools considering this since the economic downturn,” he says. “It seems that it’s only when schools are desperate for money that they consider advertising in their schools.”

But if schools can use advertising to raise badly needed funds, who could blame them? Golin believes that this argument is flawed. “One thing that tends to happen in these discussions is that proponents of advertising inflate how much money an ad actually makes. Schools make very little money off of advertising. We’re not talking about something that’s going to save the jobs of fifty teachers or allow a school to put in an entirely new infrastructure that will benefit the students. Usually what we’re talking about, when we divide it out, comes to a couple of dollars per student.”

“There are valid reasons for why we don’t want advertising in our schools,” Golin maintains. “These reasons are no less valid just because of the economic times we live in.”

The Dangers of School Advertisements

So why is schoolwide advertising such an issue? After all, students are surrounded by advertisements all of the time – on television, billboards, magazines, and websites.

Here are several possible approaches that Golin gives to this question, which is essential to understanding the controversy behind school advertising:

1)      Kids can always turn off the television or leave the computer, but they don’t have that choice in school. After all, legally they have to be in school. “They’re exploiting a captive audience of students,” says Golin. “Exposure to commercial messages becomes compulsory.”

2)      Yes, kids are exposed to advertisements everywhere – but that doesn’t make them any less effective. “Students need some time where there aren’t these tremendous commercial pressures on them, where they can trust and feel comfortable that these messages are what’s best for them, not what’s best for a sponsor,” Golin maintains.

3)      You can’t underestimate the power of an advertisement in the school setting, since it implicitly has the school’s endorsement. “If you’re telling kids that everything they hear in school is important and carefully selected for their development, that concept is transferred to the advertisement,” says Golin. “It’s a powerful endorsement.”

4)      Educating our children by teaching them various skills and ideas is good for both the children and for society as a whole.  “Part of what we’re supposed to be doing in schools is to teach kids how to think critically. What advertising does to kids is the opposite: it encourages consumption, brand loyalty, and the concept that if we receive certain things we will be “cool” and happy. These ads undermine the education process.”

What Parents Can Do

These decisions to introduce advertising in the schools are often made without significant notice to parents or others who might oppose them. When the decision to open the school to advertising is actually publicized, the result is usually a significant public outcry, as well as many concerned parents.

But what can you do to prevent advertising in your child’s school? Here are some ideas that Golin suggests:

·         Reach out to the school and find out if they currently have any advertisements within the school. If they don’t, make sure not to stop there!

·         Even if the school does not currently have any advertisements, let the school know that there is a concern about them. This alone can prevent advertisers from eventually convincing the school to offer them ad space.

·         Find out whether the school has a policy on advertisements. If they don’t, bring it up as a possible addition to their policies.

·         If you find that there are advertisements currently in the school, contact the board and the superintendent to raise your concerns.

·         Talk to other parents and organize around the issue of advertisements in school. Get as much information as you can about existing ads – any details of the ads, how much money they are securing for the school, and how your group can raise the same amount of money without selling school advertisements. Then present your ideas to the board, staying as unemotional about the issue as possible, and focusing on the bottom line.