WHEN THE Boston Red Sox installed a display of giant Coke bottles above the left field wall this season, local sportswriters protested that such tacky commercialism tainted the sanctity of Fenway Park.
But ballparks have long been littered with billboards and ads. Today, teams even sell corporations the right to name the stadium: the Colorado Rockies, for example, play in Coors Field. However distasteful, such commercialism does not seem to corrupt the game or diminish the play.
The same cannot be said of the newest commercial frontier -- the public schools. The corporate invasion of the classroom threatens to turn schools into havens for hucksterism. Eager to cash in on a captive audience of consumers-in-training, companies have flooded teachers with free videos, posters and lTC ''learning kits'' designed to sanitize corporate images and emblazon brand names in the minds of children.
Students can now learn about nutrition from curricular materials supplied by Hershey's Chocolate or McDonald's, or study the effects of the Alaskan oil spill in a video made by Exxon. According to "Giving Kids the Business," by Alex Molnar, a Monsanto video teaches the merits of bovine growth hormone in milk production, while Procter & Gamble's environmental curriculum teaches that disposable diapers are good for the earth.
Not all corporate-sponsored educational freebies promote ideological agendas; some simply plug the brand name. A few years ago, the Campbell Soup Company offered a science kit that showed students how to prove that Campbell's Prego spaghetti sauce is thicker than Ragu.
General Mills distributed science kits containing free samples of its Gusher fruit snacks, with soft centers that ''gush'' when bitten. The teacher's guide suggested that students bite into the Gushers and compare the effect to geothermal eruptions. A Tootsie Roll kit on counting and writing recommends that, for homework, children interview family members about their memories of Tootsie Rolls.
While some marketers seek to insinuate brand names into the curriculum, others take a more direct approach: buying advertisements in schools. When the Seattle school board faced a budget crisis last fall, it voted to solicit corporate advertising. School officials hoped to raise $1 million a year with sponsorships like ''the cheerleaders, brought to you by Reebok'' and ''the McDonald's gym.'' Protests from parents and teachers forced the Seattle schools to suspend the policy this year, but such marketing is a growing presence in schools across the country.
Corporate logos clamor for student attention. In Colorado Springs, advertisements for Mountain Dew adorn school hallways, and ads for Burger King decorate the sides of school buses. A Massachusetts firm distributes free book covers hawking Nike, Gatorade and Calvin Klein to almost 25 million students nationwide. A Minnesota broadcasting company pipes music into school corridors and cafeterias in 15 states, with 12 minutes of commercials every hour.
The most egregious example of the commercialization in schools is Channel One, a 12-minute television news program seen by 8 million students in 12,000 schools, including Baltimore's. Introduced in 1990 by Whittle Communications, Channel One offers schools a television set for each classroom, two VCRs and a satellite link in exchange for an agreement to show the program every day, including the two minutes of commercials it contains.
Since Channel One reaches over 40 percent of the nation's teen-agers, it is able to charge advertisers a hefty $200,000 per 30-second spot. In its pitch to advertisers, the company promises access to the largest teen audience in history in a setting free of ''the usual distractions of telephones, stereos, remote controls, etc.''
The Whittle program shattered the taboo against outright advertising in the classroom. Despite controversy in many states, only New York has banned Channel One from its schools.
The rampant commercialization of schools is corrupting in two ways. First, most corporate-sponsored learning supplements are ridden with bias, distortion and superficial fare. A recent study by Consumers Union found that nearly 80 percent of classroom freebies are slanted toward the sponsor's product. An independent study of Channel One released earlier this year found that its news programs contributed little to students' grasp of public affairs. Only 20 percent of its air time covers current political, economic or cultural events. The rest is devoted to advertising, sports, weather and natural disasters.