Hucksters in the Classroom
CASE 4.1 Hucksters in the Classroom
Increased student lo ads, myriad professional obligations, and shrinking school budgets have sent many
public school teachers scurrying for teaching materials to facilitate their teaching. They don’t have to
look far. Into the breach has stepped business, which is ready, willing, and able to provide print and
audiovisual materials for classroom use. 72 These industry-supplied teaching aids are advertised in
educational journals, distributed directly to schools, and showcased at educational conventions.
Clearasil, for example, distributes a teaching aid and color poster called “ A Day in the Life of Your Skin.”
Its message is hard to miss: Clearasil is the way to clear up your pimples. Domino’s Pizza supplies a
handout that is supposed to help kids learn to count by tabulating the number of pepperoni wheels on
one of the company’s pizzas. Chef Boyardee spon-sors a study program on sharks based on its “ fun
pasta,” which is shaped like sharks and pictured everywhere on its educational materials. The list goes
on. General Mills supplies educational pam-phlets on Earth’s “ great geothermic ‘ gushers’” along with
the company’s “ Gushers” snack ( a candy filled with liquid). The pamphlets recommend that teachers
pass the “ Gushers” around and then ask the students as they bite the candy, “ How does this process
differ from that which produces erupting geothermic phenomena?” In an elementary school in Texas,
teachers use a reading program called “ Read- A-Logo.” Put out by Teacher Support Software, it
encourages students to use familiar corporate names such as McDonald’s, Hi- C, Coca- Cola, or Cap’n
Crunch to create elementary sen-tences, such as “ I had a hamburger and a Pepsi at McDonald’s.” In
other grade schools, children learn from Exxon’s Energy Cube curriculum that fossil fuels pose few
environmental problems and that alternative energy is costly and unattainable. Similarly, materials from
the American Coal Foundation teach them that the “ earth could benefit rather than be harmed from
increased carbon dioxide.” Courtesy of literature from the Pacific Lumber Company, students in
California learn about forests; they also get Pacific Lumber’s defense of its forest- clearing activities: “
The Great American Forest . . . is renewable forever.” At Pembroke Lakes elemen-tary school in Broward
County, Florida, ten- year- olds learned how to design a McDonald’s restaurant, and how to apply and
interview for a job at McDonald’s, thanks to a seven- week company- sponsored class intended to teach
them about the real world of work. “ It’s a corporate takeover of our schools,” says Nelson Canton of
the National Education Association. “ It has nothing to do with education and everything to do with
corporations making profits and hooking kids early on their products.” “ I call it the phantom
curriculum,” adds Arnold Fege of the National PTA, “ because the teachers are often unaware that there’s
subtle product placement.” There’s nothing subtle, however, about the product placement in
Mathematics Applications and Connections, a textbook used by many sixth graders. It begins its
discussion of the coordinate system with an advertisement for Walt Disney: “ Have you ever wanted to
be the star of a movie? If you visit Walt Disney– MGM Studios Theme Park, you could become one.” Other
math books are equally blatant. They use brand- name products like M& Ms, Nike shoes, and Kellogg’s
Cocoa Frosted Flakes as examples when discussing surface area, fractions, decimals, and other concepts.
All this is fine with Lifetime Learning Systems, a market-ing firm that specializes in pitching to students
the products of its corporate customers. “[ Students] are ready to spend and we reach them,” the
company brags, touting its “ custom-made learning materials created with your [ company’s] spe-cific
marketing objectives in mind.” Given the buying power of schoolchildren and teenagers today, not to
mention their abil-ity to influence spending by their parents, it’s not surprising that many corporations
see education marketing as a cost-effective way to build brand loyalty. Corporate America’s most
dramatic venture in the class-room, however, is Channel One, a television newscast for middle and high
school students, beaming into classrooms around the country. The broadcasts are twelve minutes
long— ten minutes of news digest with slick graphics and two minutes of commercials for Levi’s jeans,
Gillette razor blades, Head & Shoulders shampoo, Snickers candy bars, and other familiar products.
Although a handful of states have banned Channel One, millions of American teens see it every school
day. Alloy Media, which acquired Channel One in 2007, pro-vides cash- hungry schools with thousands of
dollars worth of electronic gadgetry, including TV monitors, satellite dishes, and video recorders, if the
schools agree to show the broad-casts. In return, the schools are contractually obliged to broadcast
the program in its entirety to all students at a single time on 90 to 95 percent of the days that school is
in session. The show cannot be interrupted, and teachers do not have the right to turn it off. For their
part, students seem to like Channel One’s fast-paced MTV- like newscasts. “ It was very interesting and it
appeals to our age group,” says student Angelique Williams. “ One thing I really like was the reporters
were our own age. They kept our attention.” But educators wonder how much students really learn. A
University of Michigan study found that students who watched Channel One scored only 3.3 percent
better on a thirty- question test of current events than did students in schools without Channel One.
Although researchers called this gain so small as to be educationally unimportant, they noted that all
the Channel One students remembered the commercials. That, of course, is good news for Alloy Media,
which charges advertisers $ 157,000 for a thirty- second spot. That price sounds high, but com-panies
are willing to pay it because Channel One delivers a captive, narrowly targeted audience. That captive
audience is exactly what worries the critics. Peggy Charren of Action for Children’s Television calls the
project a “ great big, gorgeous Trojan horse. . . . You’re selling the children to the advertisers. You might
as well auction off the rest of the school day to the highest bidders.” On the other hand, Principal Rex
Stooksbury of Central High School in Knoxville, which receives Channel One, takes a different view. “ This
is something we see as very, very positive for the school,” he says. And as student Danny Diaz adds, “
We’re always watching commercials” anyway.
1. What explains industry’s thrust into education? Is it consistent with the basic features of capitalism?
2. Have you had any personal experience with industry-sponsored educational materials? What moral
issues, if any, are raised by the affiliation between education and commercial interests? Does
commercial intrusion into schools change the nature of education? What values and beliefs does it instill
3. Do you think students have a “ moral right” to an educa-tion free of commercial indoctrination? If you
were a parent of school- age children, would you be concerned about their exposure to commercials and
4. If you were a member of a school board contemplating the use of either industry- sponsored materials
or Channel One, what would you recommend? Do you think that industry in general and Channel One in
particular are intentionally using teachers and students as a means to profit? Or do they have a genuine
concern for the education process? In either case, if teachers and students benefit from these
educational materials or from viewing Channel One, is there any ground for concern?
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