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Debunking the Myth of "Lucrative" School Commercialism

Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert project monitors the spread of commercial culture, fighting back against its expansion into evermore spheres of our lives. As we track tales of governors selling naming rights to highways and bridges and online games pushing junk food on children, a perennial story we encounter is that of increasing commercialism in our public schools. Not a week goes by without at least a handful of stories of school districts selling students short by allowing (or considering allowing) advertising on their campuses, whether on lockers, school buses, cafeteria trays and menus, sports fields, or right in the classroom.

With massive state budget cuts, school districts are facing tough times – there’s no doubt about it. So when they claim that allowing school advertising will help them manage their budget shortfalls, many parents and community members believe that, distasteful as advertising to kids may be, such measures might just be worth it. But is it? Our just-released report, School Commercialism: High Costs, Low Revenues, debunks these claims, highlighting the miniscule revenue that these programs actually bring in.

How much money are school districts bringing in? Houston Independent School District (HISD), the seventh-largest in the country, has a total budget of $1.58 billion for 2011-2012. In 2010-2011, HISD raised only $62,250 from a combination of signage, scoreboards and school bus advertising. That’s less than 0.01 percent of its budget – and a far cry from the $100 million in cuts the district faced last year.  Also in Houston, Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District, the eleventh-largest district in the country, raised only 0.03 percent of its annual budget through in-school advertising. And in Florida, Orange County Public Schools has allowed advertising from Pizza Hut, the U.S. Army, Buffalo Wild Wings and other, raising just 0.02 percent of its annual operating budget.

If these unimpressive numbers aren’t enough to completely turn you off of school advertising, keep in mind that revenue raised from such programs – not matter how little – is not “free” money. In fact, it comes at a very high cost: It undermines children’s learning, self-esteem and health. Children exposed to excessive advertising internalize materialistic values that teach them to judge one another by what they have, rather than who they are. Advertisers prey on vulnerable students because they know that children are easily manipulated, particularly as they go through the complex process of developing their values and identities. Those corporations prone to selling unhealthful or otherwise damaging products are among those most likely to jump at the chance to advertise to a captive audience in the schools. Moreover, the values and skills we want our education system to promote – critical thinking, civic virtue, public spiritedness, questioning established ideas – run counter to those advertisers hope children will embrace. Can kids really learn to become the next generation of creative and innovative citizens when one of the key messages they encounter at school, a place that ought to be a sanctuary from commercialism, is “buy this”?

While corporations are eager to make children customers for life by targeting them in schools, another group of businesses also wants to cash in on this troublesome practice. In our research for the report released today, we encountered a growing number of “middleman” agencies that broker agreements between school districts and commercial advertisers. These companies take a healthy cut of the already meager profits that would otherwise go to school districts, with some taking as much as 50 percent of advertising revenues. Dozens of these companies exist across the country, and to make sure their businesses prosper, they actively seek out school districts and try to sell them on the financial benefits of school advertising programs.

Next time you see an article in your local paper (or on Commercial Alert) about a school district that is claiming advertising as the “magical cure” to its budget woes, speak up. Let school district officials know that they are unlikely to solve any problems with such plans – and quite likely to do to harm to the people they are trying to protect in the first place: students. It’s worth speaking up because they, and other members of your community, may not actually know how useless (and damaging) advertising programs in schools actually are. In the course of our research we found a lot of misinformation and lack of clarity at the school district level where advertising is concerned. Many of the increasingly desperate school districts that are now considering allowing advertising in their schools will be sorely disappointed with the financial benefits if they proceed.

We believe most school districts want to do what’s best for their students. These days, they face many challenges in trying to achieve this goal, including significant budgetary obstacles. But allowing advertising in the classroom or on school property is not a good solution. Instead, it is likely to create more problems than it solves, enrich those who don’t need the cash, and hurt the students who count on schools to educate them and foster healthy personal development.

Read the report here.

Elizabeth Ben-Ishai is a senior researcher at Public Citizen and the campaign coordinator for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert.