Reading, 'Riting and Retail

Earlier this year, the makers of the fruit-flavored drink SunnyD launched a national promotion called the “SunnyD Book Spree.” Schools were invited to submit UPC codes collected from SunnyD bottles to the company, which, in turn, would send the schools free books, the number based on how many proofs of purchase they sent in. According to SunnyD, as of last week, the company had distributed more than 75,000 books to schools around the nation.

In these days of slashed school budgets, what’s not to love about a deal like that?

A lot, says the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, among others. In November, the 10-year-old nonprofit—whose simple, powerful mission is to “reclaim childhood from corporate marketers”—launched a campaign against the promotion. Specifically, CCFC called on Scholastic Books to stop promoting the SunnyD program through its Parent and Child Magazine. As part of the program, Scholastic and SunnyD offered “tips for teachers” to encourage kids to collect the labels, including having class parties in which kids drink SunnyD sent in from home.

“Scholastic has been actively promoting the program to teachers despite the fact that SunnyD bears little resemblance to juice or any other healthy beverage,” CCFC said in a press release announcing the campaign. To quote directly from the drink’s label, SunnyD’s ingredients are: water, high fructose corn syrup and 2 percent or less of each of the following: concentrated juices (orange, tangerine, apple, lime, grapefruit). Citric acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), beta-carotene, thiamin hydrochloride (vitamin B1), natural flavors, food starch-modified, canola oil, cellulose gum, xanthan gum, sodium hexametaphosphate, sodium benzoate to protect flavor, Yellow #5, Yellow #6.

“Scholastic is abusing its privileged position in schools,” CCFC Director Susan Linn said in the announcement. “The company is marketing a product that threatens children’s wellbeing to a captive student audience. It is safe to say that no teacher would throw a SunnyD party if it weren’t for Scholastic’s involvement.”

Asked to comment on the CCFC campaign, Kyle Good, Scholastic’s vice-president for corporate relations, sent the Advocate this statement: “The SunnyD Book Spree was made available to parents and teachers through Parent and Child Magazine to help classrooms build their book collections at a time when many schools are feeling strapped financially. Having a robust selection of books in schools and classrooms is a proven cost-effective way to help build critical literacy skills that all students need.The Book Spree was offered to teachers and parents so they could decide whether or not to participate.”

In addition, he added, partipants didn’t necessarily have to buy SunnyD to take part in the contest. “The promotion included an option that allowed entrants to enter via written submissions with a chance to win one larger prize for their school library… no purchase required,” Good said.

This isn’t the first time CCFC has taken on Scholastic for promoting less-than-scholarly products in the classroom. The organization has also called on the book company to stop selling toys, video games and other non-book items, many of them (SpongeBob erasers, Hannah Montana jewelry) tied into movies and TV shows in its catalogs. A few years ago, CCFC led a successful effort to get Scholastic to stop selling items featuring the sexualized Bratz dolls.

CCFC has also been critical of Channel One, the in-school news broadcast that contains two minutes of ads for every 10 minutes of news, and BusRadio, the now-defunct eastern Massachusetts company that pitched its services—a mix of pop music, public service announcements and ads, to be played on school buses—as a tool for keeping kids quiet and well behaved during their rides.

But the often impressively effective efforts of CCFC and like-minded activists notwithstanding, corporate marketing is, more and more, being welcomed with open arms into American schools, as a new report from the University of Colorado makes dismayingly clear.

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The report—”Effectively Embedded: Schools and the Machinery of Modern Marketing”—comes from the National Education Policy Center at Colorado’s School of Education, which has released an annual study on school-based advertising for 13 years.

Why the warm reception? Money, of course—or rather, the lack of it. “In the context of the last two years’ recession, parents, teachers and administrators seem to increasingly welcome school-business ‘partnerships’ that they hope may help ward off program cuts,” write the study’s five authors, faculty at Arizona State University, England’s University of Hull and Ireland’s Corball National School. (In keeping with that diverse authorship, the report looks at school marketing in both the U.S. and U.K.)

The appeal to corporations—who spend a reported $17 billion a year marketing to kids, in and out of school—is even more obvious, the researchers note: “[S]chool-based marketing and advertising programs are perfectly poised to ‘brand’ children at an early age: the school environment is relatively uncluttered, children are a captive and credulous audience, and marketing and advertising programs are normalized and lent legitimacy when they are embedded into the school context.”

With the typical marketing arenas—TV, radio, the Internet—so saturated (kids in the U.S. aged 2 to eleven see, on average, 25,000 ads on television alone, according to CCFC), the classroom represents a new frontier for marketers. “In schools, embedded advertising appears in such activities as corporate-sponsored contests, programs, lesson plans, and fundraising efforts,” the report’s authors write. Among the examples the researchers found in the 2009-10 school year: the oil company BP providing, ironically, environmental curriculum material to California schools.

And you don’t have to look particularly hard to find examples outside the Colorado report. Last month, the Los Angeles Unified School District—which has seen a reported $1.5 billion in budget cuts over the past few years—decided to sell “naming rights” to school sports stadia and other buildings, and offer corporate “sponsorships” on everything from its delivery trucks to its websites. (L.A., while the largest school district to adopt this idea, is not the first; schools in Milwaukee, Chicago and other communities have already done the same. In the Valley, the Springfield School Committee considered, but dropped, a proposal to sell ads on the sides of its school buses a few years ago.)

Corporations also provide schools with free curricula that feature their products; offer free “field trips” to stores like PETCO; and compete for contracts to sell junk food and soda in school cafeterias. In 2007, Seminole County, Fla. school officials allowed McDonald’s ads on student report-card envelopes (the practice was dropped after protests).

According to CCFC, citing 2006 data, two-thirds of all U.S. school kids “are exposed to corporate advertising for foods of minimal nutritional value or foods high in fat and sugar in their schools.”

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Ironically, the Colorado report notes, defenders of school-based advertising argue that it’s OK because kids are already so inundated with ads in all other aspects of their lives. “Often when stakeholders consider the pros and cons of bringing commercial programs into schools, they rationalize that children are already exposed to so much marketing and advertising in their out-of-school lives that a little more won’t hurt them—particularly if it brings needed money into the schools,” the authors write.

But, the report suggests, advertising in schools is particularly insidious, for several reasons. Much of the marketing that takes place in school is “embedded” advertising in which the commercial message is wrapped up inside another message; think of product placements in movies and TV shows, or events sponsored by corporations whose logos and products are prominently displayed. Embedded advertising, the report says, has become increasingly popular with marketers because it’s extremely effective, in large part because it gets to us when our critical-thinking defenses are down. (American Idol fans might tune out mentally when a Coke ad comes on during a commercial break, but when they’re engaged with the actual program, their subconscious can’t help but absorb that the judges all have giant Coke cups sitting before them.)

In schools, advertising is embedded in activities peripherally connected to learning (for instance, SunnyD’s labels-for-books promotion), or even directly in curriculum material itself. “Students are generally unable to avoid these activities,” the authors write (indeed, they’re often expected to fully engage with them). “[M]oreover, they tend to assume that what their teachers and schools present to them is in their best interest.”

Indeed, that rather sneaky aspect of school advertising—using teachers to carry the marketing message to their students—informs a key component of CCFC’s Scholastic Books campaign, which calls on educators to bring their concerns directly to the company.

Exposing kids to this nonstop stream of commercial messages, the Colorado researchers warn, poses a myriad of risks—to kids’ physical and psychological health, to their sense of self, to their development of healthy attitudes. “Specifically, advertising and marketing negatively influence children’s self-esteem, body image, peer relations, and general well-being,” the report says. Insecurity is created when kids are encouraged to compare—unfavorably—what they have, or how they look, with the ideals presented in ads. The “solution,” of course, is to buy the product being hawked.

“The most significant harm done by advertising is carried out ‘under the radar,'” the report continues. “Advertising not only persuades people to buy more, but also convinces them that they can derive identity, fulfillment, and self-expression through what they buy. In addition to promoting a particular product, every advertisement reinforces this underlying assumption, which is central to our consumer culture. That this message is invisible makes it all the more effective, because no one ever thinks to question it.”

And those negative effects start early, the report adds, citing research showing that kids as young as two can recognize brand labels, while some three-year-olds “judge their peers as popular or unpopular, or fun or boring, because of the brands they use.”

That’s probably not the lesson most families want their kids learning—especially not in school. “Schools should be a haven from commercialism,” CCFC maintains in a report on school-based advertising. “Marketing undermines critical thinking and derails public education’s most important mission—helping children become active, thinking participants in a democratic society.

“Schools can either educate students to become good citizens or train them to become passive consumers,” CCFC says. “They can’t do both.”

Author: Maureen Turner

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