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 fromstudents, sometimes without the knowledge of school officials who contractedwith 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 forequipment and lessons often force them to enter into agreements with businessesthat are attracted by the growing buying power of America’s youth.

Wednesday night, Oakland school officials decidedto 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 SchoolBoard President.

Little Regulation

Lawmakers who introduced the report today said they don’t want to force states to adopt or tighten laws against commercialadvertising 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. “Thethree Rs should not stand for retail, resale and rebate.”

Only California, New York, Florida, Illinois and Mainespecifically limit certain types of advertising and othercommercial activity within their public school buildings, thereport said.

Researchers said just 19 state laws even address school-relatedadvertising.

The report looked at how states did, or didn’t, regulate everything fromon-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 andgift-wrap sales — were weak, varied and offered little guidance toschools boards, superintendents and principals, the report said.

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

Channel One earns high ratings from teachers, saysEileen Murphy, spokeswoman for Primedia, Channel One’s parentcompany.

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

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

“Even though predatory commercial advertising has been growingfor years, few state legislatures and school boards have done theirjob to protect children,” said Gary Ruskin, director of CommercialAlert, a Washington consumer watchdog group started two years agoby Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

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

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