For Sale: America's Students
By Arianna Huffington
April 17, 2000
An amendment by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), approved last week by the House Education and the Workforce Committee, requires schools to obtain parental permission before students can take part in classroom-based market research, which is sold to advertisers to help target children with smart-bomb precision. Miller described the vote as "an important step toward protecting student privacy. If parents do not want their children to be objects of market research firms while in school, they should have the right to say 'No.'"
In fact, the commercialization of our nation's classrooms is taking insidious forms not addressed by Miller's modest amendment. Nearly 40 percent of America's schools start their day with a brief news show transmitted by Channel One that includes two minutes of commercials for products such as Snickers bars, Juicy Fruit gum, Pepsi and Kellogg's Corn Pops. This use of our schools to deliver a captive audience of kids to advertisers has at least succeeded in uniting Ralph Nader and Phyllis Schlafly, who both testified against Channel One at a Senate hearing last year -- and Commercial Alert, a Nader-backed group, with Obligation, Inc., aconservative child-advocacy group.
Miller's amendment will make things much harder for companies like ZapMe!, a marketing firm that provides schools with free computers -- and asks in exchange only to monitor their students' Web-surfing habits, break down the data down by sex, age and ZIP Code and link the information to a specific student's name, address and, potentially, parents' credit card numbers. Sort of a new take on the word free. One would think that something so odious wouldn't have much of a chance of catching on. But ZapMe! has its computers in 1,784 schools, with company officials planning to infect double that number by the end of 2000.
Leading the way into this Shameless New World of Campus Commercialism is Colorado Springs School District 11, which has signed up 50 companies as corporate partners -- including Coca-Cola. For $8.4 million, the school district has agreed to help the soda giant sell 70,000 cases of its fizzy, sugary products a year -- going so far as recommending that teachers allow kids to guzzle Coke during class. ("This quadratic equation is brought to you by Coca-Cola -- the next time you are breaking down square roots, break open a clean, fresh can of Coca-Cola.")
Being able to directly reach consumption-crazed kiddies is, of course, a sponsor's dream come true. In 1999, kids spent $28 billion of their own money. So it's no longer "School days, school days, Dear old Golden Rule days." It's now "School days, school days, Principal's selling out the kids for a shiny new computer days."
We have students in a Massachusetts elementary school spending two days tasting cereal and answering a follow-up questionnaire; students in a New Jersey elementary school filling out a 27-page booklet, "My All About Me Journal," as part of a cable channel's marketing survey; and students in Jefferson County, Colorado, analyzing soda samples as part of a Pepsi-backed science course called "The Carbonated Beverage Company."
Where will this end -- aside from bad education and bad teeth -- unless what is happening is exposed and vigorously challenged? Here's a sneak preview of the gory future that could easily lie ahead. Before long, little corporate logos will appear on the corner of take-home tests, and glossy full-color report cards will feature fold-out booze and cigarette ads on the back. Our classrooms will be covered with more corporate symbols than a NASCAR racer. And like sports stadiums, schools will auction off the naming rights to their playground equipment. So, we'll have the FedEx Monkey Bars, the Blockbuster Video Dodge Ball Circle and the Virginia Slims Sandbox. All in the service of Korporate America Kids (spelling class was preempted by a "learning opportunity" from McDonald's).
But why stop there? Forget about naming our neighborhood schools after presidents or civic heroes like Martin Luther King. That's so passe. Not when corporations would be thrilled to pay for the right to be associated with all that youthful school spirit and loyalty. You know: "Two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar -- all for Microsoft, stand up and holler!" And we can say good-bye to all those tired school mascots of the past such as Tigers, Warriors and Spartans, and hello to corporate-friendly team names such as the Golden Arches, the Pillsbury Doughboys and the Fighting Yahoo.coms.
We'll have math textbooks with more ads than Vanity Fair, breaking up the monotony of all those algebraic equations with some sexy Calvin Klein underwear spreads -- followed, of course, by a demanding questionnaire: "Do you find the model 'very sexy,' 'somewhat sexy' or 'somewhat icky'?"
School lunches will be sponsored by Pepto-Bismol: "After today's Mystery Meat, don't forget your Pepto -- now available in five yummy fruit flavors." And recess will, of course, be brought to you by Nike. "Hopscotch -- just do it!"
If things don't change, how long will it be before Channel One starts broadcasting ads for peppermint-flavored Prozac? "Remember, kids: just pop one in your mouth before every pop quiz, and watch your pre-test jitters melt away!"It's way past time to declare our schools commercial-free zones.
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