Joe Stein got a big surprise last fall when his 11-year-old son Noah asked him for help with homework. On the page of Noah's sixth-grade math textbook was "what looked like an ad for a chain electronics store," said Stein.
Going through the rest of the book, Stein discovered references to a wide array of brand-name consumer products, from Nike and Gatorade to Disneyland and Topps baseball cards, many of which appeared in illustrations as well. And that made him angry.
"He has to use this textbook, and he has to do the work that is intertwined with these advertisements," said Stein, whose son attends middle school in Albany, Calif., north of Berkeley. "I found it offensive that the lesson he was learning was about commercialism and how even the school district and other public forums weren't free from this sort of thing. I also wondered who was getting paid for this. I assumed that textbooks wouldn't put this free of charge in the text."
The textbook, "Mathematics: Applications and Connections," published by McGraw-Hill Inc. in 1995 and revised this year, is used in schools in about 15 states.
A spokesman for McGraw-Hill said the publisher received no payments from companies whose products appear in the book. "We have no commercial or promotional arrangements to use particular brands," said the spokesman, Neal Allen. One of the book's authors said that the well-known products were included to make the math problems more relevant to sixth-graders.
Critics contend that the textbook amounts to a collection of advertisements that press specific consumer products onto schoolchildren. The blizzard of name-dropping and product images, along with almost reverential descriptions of the companies, can only make children more brand-conscious, they say.
"This looks like product placement, as they do in the movies," said David Walsh, director of the National Institute on Media and the Family, based in Minneapolis, which studies the effect of advertising on families. "The effect is the same. It gets at what I call the golden rule of influence, which is when the person being influenced doesn't even know it."
Stein, a lawyer for the federal government in San Francisco, complained about the 1995 edition of the textbook. The 1999 version retains product shots and trivia about everything from Barbie dolls (Mattel), Cocoa Frosted Flakes (Kellogg), Sony Play Stations, Spalding basketballs, characters and entertainment sites owned by Disney and Warner Bros. to fast-food fare from Burger King and McDonald's.
Those who oppose salting a textbook with brand names say it is the most egregious example of advertising's steady march into public education.
"This is the first time we've seen advertising in state-subsidized textbooks," said Andrew Hagelshaw, senior program director at the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland, Calif. Noting that tax dollars paid for textbooks that school districts bought from McGraw-Hill, he added, "It crosses a line that hasn't been crossed before."
He and others trace the trend of school acceptance of advertising to 1989, when thousands of schools began signing up for free televisions offered by Channel One. In return they had to agree to show their pupils current-affairs programming that included commercials from many consumer product companies eager to pitch their wares to children.
Loyalty starts early
School districts are seen as prime targets by computer software publishers, fast-food chains, soft-drink bottlers and other corporations, which believe that brand loyalty begins at an early age. Some offer schools lucrative contracts intended to promote their products and keep their competitors out.
The McGraw-Hill textbook is intended to turn word problems into real-life situations to better teach the principles of sixth-grade math.
For example, the 1995 edition, still in use in many places, introduces a decimal division problem as follows: "Will is saving his allowance to buy a pair of Nike shoes that cost $68.25. If Will earns $3.25 per week, how many weeks will Will need to save?" To the right of the text is a full-color picture of a pair of Nikes.
Another word problem, this one in the 1999 edition, gives a plug to Oreos, made by Nabisco: "The best-selling packaged cookie in the world is the Oreo cookie," it begins. "The diameter of an Oreo cookie is 1.75 inches. Express the diameter of an Oreo cookie as a fraction in simplest form."
A section on surface area in the same edition asks students to calculate the surface area of a box of Cocoa Frosted Flakes, adding some gratuitous information about when the cereal was introduced. Another page, titled "School to Career," highlights Lands' End, the mail-order apparel company. "Consumers can purchase unique clothing and accessories, and products for the home," the section reads.
Not everyone insists on keeping the schools pure of consumer product information. But the math book goes too far, its critics say, in making references to products and companies so specifically and without any real context.
"If you want children to deal with the real world, tell them to go out there and compare the prices of Nike and Reebok and Adidas and a store brand," suggested Charlotte Baecher, director of the Zillions Education Center at Consumers Union, which tries to sharpen children's awareness about advertising. "Then they will be getting a real lesson, instead of just a reinforcement that Nike is the most popular brand."
Pub Date: 3/21/99