Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008
Marketing in Schools
Because the proliferation of media channels has reduced the average audience size for children's programs, marketers have turned to schools as a way to maximize their audience for commercial messages.131 And many financially strapped schools are open to multibillion dollar contracts with businesses.132 Neither schools nor states typically regulate commercial activities in schools.133
Principals, who are often the gatekeepers to their schools, generally see commercialism as a way to improve their schools, as well as their students' educational outcomes. For example, one study found that high school principals in North Carolina did not believe that their students were unduly influenced by corporate advertising in their schools. Moreover, most principals said that they would continue the relationship with their corporate sponsor even if funds were available for school activities.134
The commercialization of schools includes such practices as in-school advertisements, the sale of “competitive” foods (those from vending machines, fast food outlets, and school fundraisers that compete with cafeteria food), and corporate-sponsored educational materials. Efforts to counter the effects of commercial messages are limited by children's age and cognitive level. Schools have used media literacy programs with some success for older children, but the messages of these programs may be muted when they are embedded in a heavily commercialized school environment.
Television and Internet Advertisements in the Classroom
Established in 1990, Channel One broadcasts ten minutes of news designed specifically for adolescents as well as two minutes of commercial messages (86 percent of the messages are for commercial products, 14 percent for public service announcements) into 370,000 classrooms every school day.135 In exchange for a captive audience of approximately 8 million U.S. school children,136 Channel One provides free video equipment and satellite connections to each classroom in participating schools, many of which would be unable to pay for such technology otherwise.137 Early on, Channel One was banned by several states, including California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Washington, for promoting a commercial atmosphere in schools.138 But students in some 12,000 schools, 38 percent of all U.S. middle and high schools, now view Channel One, and 1,000 more schools expect to begin airing Channel One in the next few years.139 An associated website, Channelone.com, is also available.140
An early content analysis of Channel One television advertisements, conducted by Tim Wulfemeyer and Barbara Mueller, found that the most frequently advertised products were jeans, candy, shampoo, make-up, gum, razor blades, breath mints, acne cream, deodorant, athletic shoes, corn chips, catsup, movies, and cough drops. The food products were all low in nutritional value. Classroom observations, however, revealed that students paid little attention to the advertisements and chose instead to talk, joke, and look around the room.141
Other studies, however, have found that commercials on Channel One do affect students. Bradley Greenberg and Jeffrey Brand compared high school students who had been exposed to Channel One for a year and a half with a control group who had not been so exposed. They found that the students who had viewed Channel One commercials in their classrooms evaluated the advertised products more favorably, stated that they intended to purchase them more (though they did not in reality do so), and had more materialistic attitudes than the control students who did not watch Channel One. The findings suggest that viewing Channel One commercials does influence the audience, though the effects seem to be more on student attitudes about the products than on their purchasing behaviors.142
According to Claire Atkinson, Channel One's advertising revenue has been declining of late, dropping 11 percent in 2003 and an additional 12 percent in 2004. The declines are attributable in part to the decision by Kraft Foods to eliminate all in-school marketing effective July 2003. In part because of the nation's obesity epidemic, food marketers such as Kraft Foods and Kellogg's are repositioning their portfolios and messages to more healthful ones, thereby undermining the financial base of Channel One. Although still profitable, Channel One faces the additional financial pressure of upgrading to digital equipment.143
The company Zap Me offers middle schools and high schools fifteen computers plus Internet connections, printers, and access to educational websites in exchange for using the equipment for a minimum of four hours daily. In 2000, Zap Me had been installed in approximately 9 percent (1,800) of U.S. secondary schools. Advertisements are shown on the computer screen, and tracking equipment is available on the computers.144 As soon as students log into the computer, the system knows the user's age, sex, and zip code.145 Students' privacy is an issue as marketers are able to gather very explicit information about individual product preferences, though Zap Me claims to look at data only in an aggregate form.146 Because of the commercial aspects of Zap Me, some school districts refuse the free equipment.147
Competitive foods from vending machines, snack bars, and school fundraisers are available in schools but are not part of the federal school lunch, school breakfast, or after-school snack program. Although a major source of revenue for schools, competitive foods are often high in calories and low in nutritional value, thereby creating concerns that these marketing practices contribute to the current obesity epidemic.148 Pouring contracts, in which specific companies have exclusive rights to sell soda, other beverages, and snacks in vending machines, are a controversial practice in schools.149
Some three-quarters of high schools, half of middle schools, and one-third of elementary schools have exclusive pouring contracts with a company. In return, the schools receive a specific share of sales or incentives such as equipment once they reach a certain level of sales. Obtaining maximum benefits from a pouring contract thereby contributes to an increasingly commercial school atmosphere.150
Fast-food restaurants also negotiate contracts to sell food to youth in school. Branded fast -food restaurants such as Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Subway operate in about 20 percent of high schools.151 One study found that in addition to negotiating contracts within schools in Chicago, fast-food chains placed restaurants within easy walking distance to schools. Such placements, according to the study, expose children to foods of poor nutritional quality, because youth consume more fat, sugars, and sugared drinks and fewer fruits and vegetables on days when they eat at fast-food restaurants.152
Fundraisers whose proceeds allow students to purchase uniforms or go on school trips are also part of the marketing landscape of everyday school life, as are the logos that companies place on uniforms, school billboards, and athletic scoreboards in exchange for donating resources to schools.
Although pouring contracts, fast-food restaurant contracts, and fundraisers generate substantial income and are common in middle and high schools, some state legislatures and school districts, such as those in California, have outlawed them or have created nutritional standards for competitive foods.153 Some school districts now have more stringent food standards than do federal or state laws.154
Commercial Educational Classroom Materials
A final marketing practice within schools involves the content that children read. Specifically, businesses donate industry-sponsored educational materials to schools to supplement the curriculum.155 For example, students may encounter industry- sponsored content such as Domino's Pizza Encounter Math or the Oreo Cookie Counting Book.156 Such material often provides biased or incomplete information on a topic, making it misleading at best when presented as educational material.
Media Literacy Training Programs
Media literacy training involves school-based efforts to teach children to understand media conventions, such as advertising techniques. The programs are effective with older children, but not with children younger than age eight, who do not understand persuasive intent.157
In one effective consumer education program created by Donald Roberts and several colleagues, fourth, sixth, and eighth graders viewed either The Six Billion $$$ Sell or a control film. Children who viewed the treatment film, which taught advertising techniques, were more skeptical about advertisements immediately after viewing the film and were more sophisticated in understanding and applying advertising techniques one week later. The researchers found similar, though somewhat less strong, effects for second, third, and fifth graders who viewed Seeing through Commercials compared with students who viewed a control film.158
Using strategies from mediation research, another study examined an alcohol-related media literacy program. Third graders who were exposed to the program understood the persuasive intent of the commercials, were less interested in imitating the characters, and had more negative views of drinking alcohol than did those in the control group.159