Subjecting schoolchildren to the hard sell

Products: Students have enough distractions

they don't need to see advertising in schools and textbooks.

November 21, 1999|By Ron Tanner

The encroachment of advertising upon our lives has grown so pervasive, so unrelenting, that I can easily imagine the day when each of us has a personal contract with a handful of advertisers who have paid us to mention their products, say, at least three times in every conversation with friends, family, or co-workers. Perhaps, at the end of the week, instead of talking about sports or office gossip, we'll talk about our personal product contracts and our placement quotas for the week.

Sound far-fetched?

In a recent issue of American Advertising, a trade magazine, writer Jeffrey Goldfarb catalogs the increase of advertising in our schools: One school district in Colorado, for example, sells ad space in its hallways, though the district spokesman insists that these are "non-academic hallways." Many grade-schoolers are learning to add and subtract using M&M's candy, courtesy of The M&M's Brand Counting Book. Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola pay schools for exclusive franchise rights. And, for the past 10 years, Channel One has piped specially tailored, television news programs to high schools every morning, in addition to some specially tailored commercials.

Recently, I received a questionnaire from one of America's largest publishers of high school and college textbooks, McGraw-Hill. The publisher wanted to know how I, a college professor, would feel about seeing advertising on or in textbooks. The questionnaire was very careful in its wording, assuring me that advertising would appear only on the back cover of the textbook. And, McGraw-Hill hastened to add, such advertising would bring down the cost of textbooks.

Skeptic that I am, I do not believe that McGraw-Hill or any other publisher would pass on substantial savings to the textbook buyer (textbooks are notoriously expensive compared to books of every other kind). Still, I ponder the possibility: Advertising on textbooks -- is this so terrible?

Apparently, colleges are the last institutions in the U.S. education system that have not surrendered to advertisers' relentless efforts. Critics of such efforts consider them unethical in the extreme because students are a captive audience. Even though schoolchildren are given the option of excusing themselves from watching Channel One, say, or from eating M&M's to learn basic math, how many children will do so? Chances are, neither children nor college students would think twice about advertising in their textbooks, since advertising seems to be everywhere else.

Where does advertising belong? The question is more complicated than it appears because "belong" suggests boundaries. Without question, the boundary between the world of commerce and the world of other work has weakened, especially in the last 50 years. Nowadays, advertising finds its way into schools in great part because many of us confuse schools with other public areas such as stadiums and parking lots -- places that have long been overwhelmed with advertisements. Maybe we don't take our schools seriously (certainly teacher salaries suggest this); maybe we don't take our children seriously, either. In any case, we forget that education is a child's primary work, and we forget that a teacher's work might be undermined by advertising.

This is not to say that schools must look and feel like sweatshops. It is to say, simply, that -- as in all places where serious work must be done -- we should minimize the distractions. In other words, we should no more allow advertising in schools or in textbooks than we should allow televisions and billboards in offices or in factories.

Even in the early days of mass commerce at the beginning of the 20th century, advertising was nearly everywhere: on buildings, placards, fliers, post cards, posters, in magazines and newspapers. But there was also more balance in one's personal life. There was no television, for instance, no radio -- no persistent invasion of the home by advertisers. And, for all but the poorest urbanites, there were parks and open spaces where one could find visual and aural silence.

Today we do not allow advertising in our city, state, and national parks for this very reason: We know that we need havens where, for a time, we can think -- we can be -- without distraction or interference. The wonder is that we don't realize this when we think of education. Aren't schools havens of a very special sort?

I understand that McGraw-Hill and the rest are simply trying to make a buck. But my participation in a consumer economy and my support of free enterprise do not presuppose that I should allow advertisers into every nook and cranny of my life. Nevertheless, in the dog-eat-dog, you-could-be-a-millionaire dreamscape of our consumer culture, we are sometimes made to feel guilty if we say no to advertisers. (Would the advertisers allow me into their homes to sell them my services?) At every turn, it seems, we are being told that free enterprise is as sacred as the First Amendment.

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