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In his book on school commercialism, Alex Molnar examines how various commercial initiatives -- from the advertising-driven Channel One, to exclusive vending machine contracts in school districts, to for-profit schools run by companies like the Edison Project and other market-centered charter schools -- threaten the future of American education.

School Commercialism

From democratic ideal to market commodity

Book Review Stuart R. Poyntz, May 2006

School Commercialism: From democratic ideal to market commodity

Most people hold onto a barely concealed skepticism, if not outright disdain, toward marketing and advertising. Both may be ubiquitous in day-to-day life, yet there continues to be a kernel of popular wisdom that resists the hype. Alex Molnar both draws on and wants to reawaken this suspicion in his new book, which examines how various commercial initiatives – from the advertising-driven Channel One, to exclusive vending machine contracts in school districts, to for-profit schools run by companies like the Edison Project and other market-centred charter schools – threaten the future of American education.

Part of Routledge’s Positions Series, School Commercialism (2005) is located at the intersection of “education, politics, and culture” (p. vii). It challenges the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind act; it is short, polemical and intended mostly to bridge the divide between academic research and public debate. Moving between these worlds is never easy, but Molnar is ideally suited for the task. As the Director of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory in the College of Education at Arizona State University at Tempe, Molnar is recognized as the foremost American critic of school commercialism. Research from the Policy Studies Lab has been crucial in tracking the development and impact of commercialism and privatization in the K-12 school system. At the same time, Molnar is also a public intellectual who has had a presence in the mainstream media (e.g., in the New York Times and People Magazine, and on ABC’s Nightline and CBS’s This Morning) since the early 1990s. In this book, Molnar revisits issues raised in his earlier and longer text, Giving Kids the Business (1996). Here, his critique of commercialism in public schools focuses on two central arguments.

On the one hand, Molnar draws on John Dewey to anchor what he and many of us consider a necessary relationship between education and democracy. For Dewey, schools were meant to be “laboratories of democracy in which students [learn] democratic habits of cooperation and public service by living them in the classroom” (p. 80). When schools achieve this all of us are afforded greater opportunity for a vital life within “an engaged democratic community built on rational interactions” (p. 80). The more advertising, sponsored curricula, fast food, and other forms of commercialism seep into public schools, however, the more these institutions fall prey to what Dewey called, “mis-educative” experiences. Such experiences arrest or distort “the growth of further experience” (Dewey quoted on page 81). They don’t create an informed public, or a curious public, or an active public. Rather, advertising and marketing “systematically [set] out to undermine the ability of people to make rational judgments” (p. 78). Instead of working “in the service of the individual and the community, advertising seeks to destroy continuity and fragment experience, and encourages us to give into our irrational impulses for the purpose of manipulating our behavior” (p. 84). In short, marketing produces “sponsored lives” (p. 84).

Commercial activities in schools are of course not new; in fact Molnar traces early developments from the beginning of the twentieth century (pp. 16-18). Yet 1989 – the year Channel One was launched – is a bellwether for the expansion of school-based marketing (p. 10). Since then Molnar provides ample evidence that sponsorship programs, exclusive vending agreements, incentive programs (through partnerships with Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, etc.), electronic marketing, privatization through the use of for-profit companies to manage schools, and other fund raising initiatives have all expanded a commercial presence in schools. Compounding this, outside the classroom marketing is the wallpaper and sound-scape of children’s lives. It fills young people’s days from the moment they wake up in sheets decorated with the latest Disney character until the moment they go to bed in pajamas festooned with other pop culture figures (p. 1-2). Because of this, Molnar tells us, how commercialization alters the democratic nature of school spaces is sometimes difficult to see. “It blends seamlessly with the marketing maelstrom that defines contemporary American culture” (p. 70).

Developing brand consciousness and brand loyalty among children and youth remain the holy grail of marketing. To serve these ends, schools are an ideal and hugely desirous location for targeting kids. In one institution, an otherwise disparate market segment is captive and organized by age. Even more, because children experience school-based advertising in what is otherwise thought to be a public institution, legitimacy is conferred on marketers’ actions (p. 7). By participating in schools, in other words, corporate America is able to buy a degree of community good will while selling directly to kids in a focused environment.

School commercialism also serves two other functions: it provides a podium to disseminate corporate ideas and values; and, most significantly, it provides an essential venue for spreading the notion that consumption itself is the most important framework within which personal and social happiness, meaning and fulfillment can be found (p. 44). This latter function is really where corporate activity poses a significant challenge to the integrity of schools. As Molnar explains, through the increased presence of corporate culture the work of schools shifts from a site that develops young people as engaged learners and active citizens to a site that produces consumers who are brand conscious and brand loyal, and at an increasingly younger age. “The more corporate special interests are allowed to influence what schools teach – and, by extension, limit what they cannot teach – the less students are seen as active citizens-to-be, and the more they are seen as passive consumers-to-be-sold” (p. 45). The legacy of John Dewey thus gives way to the logic of public relations and American schools are the worse for this.

Molnar tells us targeting students in schools is immoral and pernicious because children, by definition, cannot draw on the same critical resources as adults to protect themselves from the sophisticated invitations of the marketplace. Moreover, the danger of such invitations is they contribute to a rising “tide of materialism in young people… [that] is linked directly to personally and socially harmful outcomes, including increased smoking, drinking, and illegal drug use; a series of mental health disorders…; and antisocial behaviours, including carrying weapons, skipping school, and vandalism” (Schor, 2004, p. 9). To this list must be added the growing obesity rates among children, which coincides with the increasing role of fast food companies in schools (p. 57). Where these results suggest the dangers of school commercialism, ironically, partnerships with cola and fast food companies have not proven to be the financial windfall schools have been promised (pp. 55-56). Yet the partnerships, the logo-licensing agreements, and the sponsored classroom resources continue, begging the question, why? This leads to Molnar’s second central argument.

The drive to commercialize schools, Molnar tells us, has to do with the vulnerability of the institution itself, a situation made all the more acute by funding cutbacks in education across the US over the past two decades. “Schools seek corporate money because they find themselves unable to meet the demands of their daily tasks relying solely on the resources available to them from traditional means: local, state, and federal tax dollars” (p. 29). This problem is most acute in poorer school districts where students cost more to teach because schools are asked to fulfill a different and more complex set of roles in students’ lives (p. 105). Because of this, today “marketers are arbiters of the condition of public education” (p. 12). One result is “schools must inevitably be seen and portrayed as failing [because the] nature of marketing is to promote dissatisfaction: Corporations create the itch, then collect the money from us to scratch it” (pp.12-13).

Perhaps the best example of a corporation that has created this itch is The Edison Project, a for-profit learning company that has been at the centre of the school privatization movement. While offering a detailed history of Edison, Molnar marshals the most convincing evidence to suggest that Edison schools have not improved student results, have often produced unstable learning environments, and are more costly to run (because of added marketing costs) than the public schools they were meant to replace. Like much of the privatization rhetoric, in other words, Edison has offered a great deal of talk about the benefits of for-profit education without living up to the hype.

That Molnar would offer this conclusion is no surprise, nor is the general tone of the book. With good reasons, Molnar is deeply suspicious of for-profit education and is clearly disdainful of the increasing role corporations have in schools. He presents a raft of solid evidence to support his position, and yet, one will surely read that School Commercialism doesn’t so much evaluate the impact of the market in public institutions as dismiss such a role from the start. This may be true; but in a book of this length, which is intended to be polemical, perhaps it is enough that Molnar has crafted a strong position. Market values increasingly insinuate themselves into the mainstream of North American schools, and yet they “offer no guidance on matters of justice or fairness, and cannot, therefore, represent the interests of all children” (p. 134). A public education system, on the other hand, is charged with doing just that: representing the interests of all young people so that none are made second-class citizens before they are given the opportunity to be citizens at all.

Marketing to Preschoolers

NPR, All Things Considered, July 31, 2006

For many weary parents of preschoolers, television can be a godsend. And some of the programming might even be educational. But some experts say even the most positive children's television can carry messages that aren't good for children.

Angelica Flores has observed that her 4-year-old daughter, Araceli, wants anything that has her favorite character, Cinderella, on it. With her 7-year-old son Tomas chiming in to ask for items such as SpongeBob SquarePants Macaroni and Cheese, Flores says trips to the grocery store have become more challenging.

"A lot of times I find that I buy it," she says, "and it's stuff that they don't even like."

Flores' friend, Julie Courtney, often digitally records her 4-year-old's shows so she can skip the commercials. Nonetheless, she's noticed that her daughter still recognizes the logos for Coca-Cola.

Research by Vicky Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation has shown that many parents of preschool-age children have an uneasy awareness of the impact of commercials on their kids. "One mom mentioned to me [that] her daughter, who couldn't even talk yet, was humming the McDonald's jingle every time she saw the Golden Arches," Rideout says.

But Rideout's research says that discomfort does not translate into real concern for parents. In fact, most parents see appropriate programming as a godsend. About one-third of children age 6 and younger even have a television in their room, just so they can watch their shows while parents are occupied elsewhere.

Cyma Zarghami, the president of Nickelodeon, says her own company's research confirms that parents aren't worried about television. They focus on issues such as safety, making family life manageable and living within a budget. Zaraghami says some parents do complain that food ads aimed at kids have turned grocery shopping into a challenge. Nickelodeon tries to address that by promoting some healthy products, such as Dora the Explorer carrots.

But ultimately, Zarghami acknowledges, Nickelodeon believes that by putting characters on products, they are serving their real customers: kids.

"We don't ever want to say that we didn't do stuff that kids wanted or loved... within the parameters of being responsible and age-appropriate," Zarghami says.

Mayo Clinic pediatrician Dan Broughton says that parents should be concerned about the impact the media is having on their kids. Broughton speaks for the American Academy of Pediatrics on this issue, and says parents tend to worry too much about statistically remote dangers such as child abduction or cancer.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children younger than 2 years old should never be in front of a television, even watching made-for-baby videos. Toddlers should spend no more than two hours a day with the television on, and should be restricted to quality children's programming.

Vicky Rideout says about one-third of young children live in homes where parents leave the television on almost all the time, regardless of whether anyone is watching.

"They think that, leaving the TV on in the background, the kids are mostly ignoring it," Rideout says.

But Broughton says that children take in a lot, even if they are only occasionally exposed to programming intended for general audiences. A colleague recently told him about a father whose 4-year-old son raised the topic of Levitra while on a doctor's visit for an earache. He notes that children are attentive to messages that aren't necessarily intended for them, and that they may not be equipped to process the information, even with ads on age-appropriate programs.

"It's sad that just about every media experience for children today is designed to sell them something," says Harvard psychologist Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Linn believes that parents don't realize that they're succumbing to a sophisticated, multibillion-dollar advertising industry.

The only way to combat that, Linn says, is through activism against advertising aimed at young kids. But she acknowledges that many parents don't support her position, even though it is restricted only to junk food. And according to Kaiser Family Foundation research, while half of parents say their young children are greatly influenced by food advertising on television, 56 percent oppose policies restricting junk-food ads.


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Last modified: May 5, 2006

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