Congress Looks at Ads in Schools

Sept. 14, 2000 -- Ads of all shapes and sizes are appearing these days all over schools — at soda machines, in hallways, on football scoreboards, even on in-house TV.

More and more American schools are taking advantage of extra cash doled out by companies and corporations in exchange for the ads, according to a report released today by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The report did not say whether such ads were appropriate. It reported that many companies, while showing ads, were gathering such information as addresses, ZIP codes and purchasing habits from students, sometimes without the knowledge of school officials who contracted with the companies.

Also, the officials rarely needed permission from parents or others to use commercial products, the report said.

The findings bother critics.

“The failure of society to properly fund those schools should not be subsidized by selling the privacy of these children and their families,“ Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said today.

The ads appear anywhere from school roofs, to computers, to hallways. In return, the schools get money, products and services from companies that place the ads, which school administrators say they desperately need.

A Difficult Bargain

Critics say children are particularly susceptible to advertising in schools “because children and youth are an enormous potential market and schools are a place where they hang out. And when they’re in schools they can’t escape,” said Alex Molnar, education professor at the University of Wisconsin.

“This makes them very attractive to advertisers — a captive audience that can be manipulated, bombarded, used for a variety of advertising messages.”

“I’d say it’s evil,” he said. “You have sophisticated psychological techniques and tons of money devoted to manipulating 6, 7 and 8-year-olds to do things which aren’t necessarily healthful to them.”

But for school officials struggling with limited budgets, the need for equipment and lessons often force them to enter into agreements with businesses that are attracted by the growing buying power of America’s youth.

Wednesday night, Oakland school officials decided to scrap a deal from Pepsi that would have given Oakland schools $11 million for the right to be the district’s exclusive soft drink distributor.

“ It’s choosing between two evils, so to speak. We can either choose to maintain our dilapidated sports fields or we can choose to exploit our kids for corporate sponsors,” says Dan Siegel, Oakland School Board President.

Little Regulation

Lawmakers who introduced the report today said they don’t want to force states to adopt or tighten laws against commercial advertising in schools.

“All we’re trying to do is put up a warning sign,” said Sen Christopher Dodd, D-Calif., adding that no state regulates market research in schools. “The three Rs should not stand for retail, resale and rebate.”

Only California, New York, Florida, Illinois and Maine specifically limit certain types of advertising and other commercial activity within their public school buildings, the report said.

Researchers said just 19 state laws even address school-related advertising.

The report looked at how states did, or didn’t, regulate everything from on-campus soda machines, company logos on athletic scoreboards, television ads on Channel One — a free daily TV news service prevalent in many schools — or commercial stations shown in classrooms, to corporate gifts and grants.

Currents laws — mainly covering fund-raisers like candy and gift-wrap sales — were weak, varied and offered little guidance to schools boards, superintendents and principals, the report said.

Company representatives have defended their contracts and sponsorships, saying they provide valuable resources and a high-profile commitment to an embattled public education system.

Channel One earns high ratings from teachers, says Eileen Murphy, spokeswoman for Primedia, Channel One’s parent company.

She said ads on the show are approved by a committee of educators. “We have never had a complaint,” she said.

Critics of these commercial arrangements wonder about the role and influence of private entities on public education.

“Even though predatory commercial advertising has been growing for years, few state legislatures and school boards have done their job to protect children,” said Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, a Washington consumer watchdog group started two years ago by Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

ABCNEWS’ Bill Redeker and the Associated Press contributed to this report.