Reality Bytes

FRAMINGHAM (08/01/2000) - About four years ago, I took an adult education class at a local high school. While wandering aimlessly through dimly lit and surprisingly ill-kept hallways, I came across a sight that I found truly appalling. It wasn't graffiti, cracked linoleum or a surly teenager that stopped me in my tracks; it was a full-color, poster-size advertisement displayed prominently outside the guidance counselor's office. Above the larger-than-life bag of candy pictured on the ad was the message:

"M&Ms...better than straight As." A dubious proposition at best but in an institution devoted to learning, downright subversive.

At the time, my high-school memories were a dozen years behind me. The thought of an ad (other than a recruiting poster for the Marines) anywhere in a school, let alone in the vicinity of the guidance counselor's office, was a novel and disturbing one. Since then, I've discovered that the M&Ms ad wasn't an aberration; it was the start of what is now a full-blown trend careering down a slippery slope, helped along in no small part by the migration of computers into classrooms.

Perhaps it was only a natural evolution that high schools would join their collegiate brethren in signing deals with fast food companies, soft drink makers and sporting goods manufacturers. Open up a Taco Bell outlet in the cafeteria, populate the hallways with Coke machines and adorn team uniforms with the Nike swoosh, and schools can reap a nice windfall without annoying the taxpayers. For their part, companies get one of the most coveted prizes in advertising: a captive audience of impressionable consumers with money to spend.

However, natural capitalistic tendency or not, advertising in schools is a bad idea on every level. (Companies that see academia as fertile advertising ground may take exception to this view, which is understandable, although, I believe, ultimately short-sighted.) The big, head-scratching question is why this obvious conclusion doesn't resonate with educators and taxpayers. Shouldn't school be the one place where teenagers are protected from the advertisers urging them, as the saying goes, to buy things they don't need with money they don't have to impress people they don't know?

Schools should not be in the business of providing a venue for advertisers to promote their wares. They are in the business (or they should be) of preparing students to deal with the rigors of a 21st century economy where knowledge is paramount and skills must be adaptable. In far too many cases, schools are doing a fine job providing advertisers with receptive consumers while botching their real purpose: educating kids so that they won't need remedial training to land an entry-level position. Anything that doesn't serve that singular purpose is a distraction that should be kept (much like drug dealers) a mandated distance from school property.

Of course, advertising proponents insist that more good than harm is being done. With money raised from exclusive contracts, schools now have the wherewithal to provide resources for themselves. (I'd personally like to see a correlation between advertising revenue and higher test scores.) Plus, with fast food and soda readily available down the hall, students no longer have to rush to the neighborhood drive-thru during their 25-minute lunch period, thereby reducing the incidence of noontime traffic accidents.

Believe it or not, I've heard a school official use just this argument; I suppose administrators deem banning the use of private cars by students too radical, perhaps seeing it as interfering with their God-given right to drive dangerously. I've also heard a school principal justify his decision to sign a deal with a fast-food company by asserting that students were going to eat the stuff anyway, so why not have the school provide it onsite and make some money in the process?

THE INTERNET CONNECTION

Perhaps the favorite argument for in-school advertising circles around technology and how to get it. As school districts clamor for expensive computer equipment they don't know how to use and politicians push for Internet connections in every classroom, companies are jumping in to provide hardware and software free of charge to fiscally challenged schools. Businesses like ZapMe Corp. of San Ramon, Calif., will provide new computers, the latest software, a rooftop satellite, networking equipment and even support, upgrades and training, all gratis. To round out their donation, ZapMe provides "educational content" in the form of 13,000 websites--selected by editors--cached on Internet servers installed in schools. Of course, there's a catch: Schools have to run ads in the corner of the computer screens.

And there's the problem. While Junior struggles with his essay on the conflict of good and evil in Shakespeare's Hamlet (which, incidentally, he didn't read), what would prevent a company like Amazon.com from running an ad offering $1 off the DVD movie version of the play starring Mel Gibson? (While I admit to liking the movie, let's not forget that the point is to read the text first.) And an even bigger issue arises: Who do we want providing content for students?

Educators or marketers?

Outfits like ZapMe are picking up where Chris Whittle's Channel One left off.

In 1990, the entrepreneurial Whittle launched a company that offered schools news programs via television. Again, the catch was that commercials would be broadcast along with the news. Not surprisingly, Channel One was bashed by many educators who ridiculed the idea of TV in the classroom. But while ZapMe and companies like it have endured their share of criticism, adding a computer and an Internet to the equation lends an air of legitimacy to their approach. After all, it's not an Idiot Box they are proffering but a tried-and-true educational tool!

Advertising is advertising, it's not education, and it shouldn't be associated with it. On billboards, in magazines, during the Super Bowl--that's where advertising belongs and where it should stay. It's ironic, but by subjecting students to a deluge of ads in what should be an intellectual sanctuary, advertisers are ultimately doing themselves a disservice. With each ad a consumer sees, every subsequent ad becomes less effective. As attention spans shrink ever smaller, advertisers find themselves hard-pressed to come up with messages that shock, provoke, entertain or otherwise make consumers take note.

By targeting ads to schoolkids--most of whom gladly welcome any distraction from trigonometry and will click on every banner ad that flashes across their screen--advertisers will ultimately degrade the power of their own medium.

But the real loser in this is society. Already, grade-schoolers are used as fund-raisers for their schools, selling everything from wrapping paper to candy to generate revenues for extracurricular activities. By permitting advertisers to go after schoolkids on school property to raise money for schools, we're letting children be used as revenue-generating pawns. Is this what we want in our public education system?

Better than As, eh? I don't think so.

Are schools sacrificing education for the sake of a few bucks? Let Senior Editor Megan Santosus know your thoughts at santosus@cio.com.

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