Corporate advertising on the school bus and in your kid’s backpack

Here’s a riddle: What’s big, bright, and yellow, rides on four wheels, and markets junk food to kids five days a week?

If you guessed a school bus, you’d be right.  That’s because in many states a school bus is no longer just an old-fashioned, box-on-wheels transporting kids from home to school and back again. From one coast to the other, school buses are now rolling billboards.

 Gone are the days when a school bus was just a mode of transportation.  Gone too are the days when Johnny and Sue hopped off the bus and raced into classrooms to learn the basic curriculum of “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic.”  All that started to change in 1993 when Colorado passed legislation allowing advertising on school buses.

To date, nine states –Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Tennessee—allow advertising on the exterior of school buses.   Today when Jamie and Sophie take their seats on the bus, they become a captive audience for sophisticated, corporate messaging that aims to encourage early-childhood brand-name recognition and budding consumer loyalty.

Eight more states—New York, Rhode Island, California, Washington, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and Kentucky—hoping to jump on the corporate bandwagon considered, but failed to pass, legislation in 2012 legalizing advertising on buses.

Who sent out the invitation?

So who’s responsible for inviting corporations into our educational system?  It’s easy to lay the blame for commercial creep solely on the corporate world and its quest for ever-younger consumers.  After all, there’s a reason why many of America’s largest corporations have seized the opportunity. McDonald’s, Nestle, Staples, and CVS pharmacy are just a few competing for kids’ attention, both inside and outside the classroom. Small businesses are climbing onboard as well. They’re taking advantage of advertising opportunities on school buses to sell their brand to kids on the bus as well as adults sharing the road with the yellow fleet.

Corporations, however, are not the sole players, nor the most culpable, in the new, competitive world of free-market solutions to funding education.  Taxpayers and elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels share the responsibility—and blame—for the perfect storm that has pushed many cash-strapped school districts into the waiting arms of the corporate world.

The truth is when curriculum, staffing, benefits, and administrative costs outpace funding revenues, when federal and state funding are flat or falling, and the financial and philosophical commitment to public education is on the wane, what’s a cash-strapped school district to do?  When infrastructure–buildings, classrooms, computer and science labs, athletic programs and facilities–is substandard or needs refurbishment, where does the money come from? When property owners, state legislators, and governors declare “no more” to property-tax increases that stagnant wages and fixed incomes cannot possibly keep pace with, where does a school district turn for help?

The corporate world and privatization interests were primed to pounce on a new avenue for marketing to school-age kids. And pounce they did.

 How can school districts say “no”?

In states where advertising, promotion,  and sponsorships are allowed in and around schools, the revenue stream can be significant and hard to resist. In New Jersey, ads are expected to generate an annual $1,000 per bus.  According to Alpha Media, a company selling and managing ads on school buses in Texas and Arizona, districts with two hundred fifty buses could generate $1 million in revenue each year.

In Pennsylvania, where state law prohibits advertising on the exterior of school buses, in September 2012, five districts voted to allow advertising in the interior of their buses.  One district, although limiting advertising to health, safety, wellness, recreational and educational topics, estimates it will still generate $150,000 in revenue from advertising on the inside of the district’s forty-six buses.

 Give marketing interests an inch, and they’ll take a mile

Nothing in the school experience seems to be beyond the pale anymore.  In Newton, Massachusetts, schools are considering selling naming rights to the school buildings themselves.  In Peabody, Massachusetts, district regulations permit business-card-sized ads to be printed on the backs of notes to parents sent home with elementary schoolchildren. (Pretty darn clever.  Why worry about finding minimum-wage workers to hand out promotional flyers? Just use the kids instead.)

In Los Angeles, the largest school district in the country, administrators have agreed to sell the naming rights to cafeterias, football fields, and other extra-curricular teams—with potential revenue of up to $18 million. Four Albuquerque, New Mexico, high schools located on highly trafficked streets now lease out space for electronic billboards.  And how much is that space worth?  A tidy $40,000 annually.

A skateboard company’s ad on a Santa Barbara CA report card

And that’s not all. Corporate advertising has made inroads onto the backs of report cards and back-to-school supply lists (courtesy of Staples, coupons gratis), into interior hallways, on school rooftops, in sports stadiums, and—the most insidious of all—into the curriculum itself.

Disguising ads as learning opportunities

If you want to see just how much kids have been sold out to corporate interests, look no further than to the big daddy of children’s publishing: Scholastic, Inc. (publisher of the Harry Potter series and the largest publisher of children’s books in the world).  Just how deep is the reach and influence of this publishing giant? The publisher has books and educational materials in nine out of ten classrooms in the U.S., and the company has admitted that, of those materials, up to 10% come from corporate sponsors.

Scholastic’s lofty mission, according to their own website, is “to encourage the intellectual and personal growth of children” and to “help inspire a love of literacy.”  Those are laudable goals, indeed.  And Scholastic has some powerful and surprising helpers working with them to meet those benchmarks.  Some of Scholastic’s major corporate partners “helping to inspire literacy” are Nestle, Dreamworks/Paramount, the American Coal Foundation, Sunny Delight, Dairy Queen, and the pharmaceutical manufacturer Schering-Plough.

Working in partnership with Scholastic’s InSchool Marketing division, these helper corporations provide sponsored content that the marketing division then packages and distributes.  These promotional materials are then branded by the Scholastic sales team as “learning opportunities” to improve reading and math skills.

And what are some of those learning opportunities?  Nestle’s “Creativity Power Push” promotes the company’s push-up ice cream.  The “Sunny D Book Spree” encourages classroom parties serving the corn-syrupy and sugar-laden Sunny Delight juice drink. Dreamworks/Paramount uses characters and story lines from their films in teaching and reading materials (including branded worksheets) to promote their films, such as “Megamind.”  And Dairy Queen sponsors “DQ Tycoon,” a video game distributed by the Scholastic Book Club that teaches kids the vital skill of learning to “help Emily manage a local Dairy Queen.”

Surely the most outrageous of these corporate-sponsored programs should be called out for how inappropriate they are in an educational setting.  To that end, I nominate pharmaceutical manufacturer Schering-Plough for a Golden Marble Award for Chutzpah. Believe it or not, Schering-Plough’s Children’s Claritin, in partnership with Scholastic, distributed materials to in-school programs promoting their over-the-counter allergy medication. Who could have imagined when we were kids that you could go to school and learn not just your multiplication tables but what medications your parents should “ask your doctor” about as well?

I also nominate the partnership between Scholastic and the American Coal Foundation for the Bottom-of-the-Heap Award. Together these two produced a free, pro-coal curriculum for fourth graders called “The United States of Energy.”  The so-called facts in the curriculum downplayed the scientifically proven health and environmental impacts of coal-powered energy.  After protests from parents, children’s educational-advocacy organizations, and environmental groups, the curriculum was pulled from distribution in 2011.

Score one victory for objective, non-commercialized education for kids.  But what about all the rest of the messaging garbage kids are seeing on their buses and in their schools everyday?  Can’t we do better than this?