Advertising has contributed to the fabric of education in America on many levels. Students willingly carry corporate logos on their bodies and learn in rooms with advertising on wall posters and from books with cartoon advertisements on the covers. Their teachers tell them to quietly watch Channel One, then go to their next class through a hallway lined by vending machines with exclusive rights. They leave school on a bus with advertising on the ceiling and come back to school for the football game on the billboard-lined stadium. They sell raffle tickets for a new car and coupon books for hundreds of local businesses.
Advertising in American schools gained legitimacy and rose to prominence during the twentieth century. Corporations desire partnerships with school systems in order to market directly to teachers, students, and community members. Schools favor partnerships with corporations because corporate sponsorship may increase the school’s ability to fulfill certain needs.
There are other aspects of school advertising. Many private and charter schools, for example, use billboards, radio, and television to let the community know about their work and often send promotional material to other schools. In a time of accountability, public K–12s are also required, by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), to advertise school proficiency test scores. NCLB also has provided military recruiters with as much physical space as afforded colleges and universities. Military access to students has been challenged in high schools and colleges. Parents and students may attempt to “opt out” of military contact, but generally must do so on a yearly basis.
The greatest debate over school advertising, however, involves corporate advertising to teachers and students. The question is whether the benefits of revenue, technological equipment, or instructional assistance linked to corporate partnerships outweigh the potential detriment to students who may become more accepting, and less critical, of commercial messages.
The Education Market
The members of American schools are a large portion of the population and are seen by corporations as a likely partner. To corporations, eager to gain hold of a vast and powerful market, teachers represent the largest single-occupation market in America. School employees may be solicited by insurance agents, lending institutions, politicians, and unions within school walls. Beyond their large numbers, teachers also influence school boards in the selection of textbooks, which are the single largest portion of book sales in America. They make decisions on billions of dollars of classroom materials and fundraising options. Teachers often receive “tie-in” curricular materials to supplement the viewing of current television shows and movies. Administrators and teachers are often expected to use marketing messages on students in order to increase the budget through partnership opportunities.
Students themselves influence billions of dollars of consumer purchases in America. Due to compulsory education, American students represent a “captive market” during school hours. Students may be discouraged from questioning advertising messages presented to them by their teachers or schools. Some teachers have discouraged students from obscuring advertisements on book covers because the advertisers who donated the book covers to the school expect the recognition.
American students are exposed to corporate logos, commercial icons, and other forms of subtle advertising on a daily basis. They are often encouraged to bring in cereal box “points” to raise money for their school. Some students are forced into selling promotional materials, such as pizza cards, magazines, theater tickets, or other consumer goods that promote partnerships between schools and corporations. Students may be perceived as undocumented representatives of the corporation, rather than representatives of the school. Many students see this as a necessary part of their school experience.
Opponents of advertising in schools argue that students are encouraged to trust their teachers, and therefore, students may believe that all products advertised within their school are “good” and needed. Research suggests that advertisements in schools may also lead to an overall increase in consumeristic attitudes in students. A clear example of a powerful advertising-driven partnership can be found in Channel One, programming that reaches nearly one third of all students every school day. Channel One offers two minutes of commercial advertising per day. Each commercial spot is worth millions of dollars to corporations lining up to get their message to communities all across America. Proponents of Channel One, and much of the advertisement in schools in general, claim that students are already exposed to these commercial messages at home, and therefore, they should not significantly affect the student’s learning experience.
Research has demonstrated that students in low-income communities are more likely to be exposed to advertising partnerships, such as Channel One, even though the students are often least able to purchase the advertised products. This may cause psychological damage, or an increase in frustration and consumerist attitudes. Proponents of Channel One claim that because low-income schools have such a great need, a partnership is the best way to help the schools get the latest technology and instructional equipment. Cash strapped schools, which have only a small amount of money to spend on instructional materials, are often eager to find opportunities to supplement their budget.
Textbooks in America rarely contain methods of deciphering or evaluating the elaborate forms of advertiser messaging. Opponents of unregulated advertiser access to students claim that this omission may leave students incapable of making responsible purchasing decisions. Textbook publishers are likely to be part of a multinational media corporation and unlikely to want to enable students to question their advertising.
- Barnouw, E. (1990). Tube of plenty: The evolution of American television.
- New York: Oxford University Press. Boyles, D. (2005). Uncovering the coverings: The use of corporate-sponsored textbook covers in furthering uncritical consumerism. Educational Studies, 37(3), 255–266.
- Klein, N. (1999). No logo. London: St. Martin’s.
- Spring, J. (2003). Educating the consumer-citizen: A history of the marriage of schools, advertising, and media. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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