Colonizing Our Future: The Commercial Transformation of America’s Schools



This article is adapted from the John Dewey Memorial Lecture delivered by the author at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Conference in New Orleans on March 26, 2000. The full text of the address and the related Annual Reports on Trends in Schoolhouse Commercialism released in 1998, 1999, and 2000 are available at the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education website at


Alex Molnar

America’s schools are indeed haunted. The uneasy spirit of John Dewey, as Bill Doll suggests in “Ghosts and the Curriculum,”1 wanders the corridors of public education watching and waiting for his ideas to, at long last, be made flesh in the daily life of schools. Doll dares to hope that the second millennium will belong to Dewey. I do not share Dol#146;s optimism. In my view, it is the spirits of Ivy Ledbetter Lee and Edward Bernays that are more likely to be happily at home in America’s schools and classrooms this century than the spirit of John Dewey.

The names Lee and Bernays may be unfamiliar to you. They are not discussed in educational history texts or curriculum guides; however, they are well known to students of business administration as the fathers of American public relations. A little bit of historical background will help explain the nature of their impact on schools and school curriculum.

Ivy Lee, a former newspaper reporter, made his mark early in the twentieth century working for the Rockefellers. He rose to prominence on the heels of a bloodbath. On April 20, 1914, in Ludlow, Colorado, the state militia opened fire on a tent city of striking miners and their families. Fifty-three people, including thirteen women and children, were killed in the massacre. The events in “bloody Ludlow” aroused widespread public sympathy for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company strikers and provoked outrage at the mine owners, the Rockefeller family. In response to inflamed public opinion, the Rockefellers hired Ivy Lee to change the public perception of their mining operation and their family.

To sell the corporate story and discredit the strikers, Lee oversaw the production of so-called “fact sheets,” recruited prominent people to write widely circulated letters in support of the mine owners, and heavily publicized trips to the Colorado mine site by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Mr. Lee’s efforts helped create modern public relations and did, in fact, to a large extent succeed in quelling public hostility toward the mining company. Mr. Lee may have been well paid for his services, but we can be fairly sure that, whatever he was paid, it was certainly a good deal less than it might have cost the Rockefellers to raise wages, reduce the hours worked, or improve safety in the mines.2 Lee was without question a master of the art of what he called “getting believed.”3

A keen awareness of the importance in a democratic society of “getting believed” animated the work of Edward Bernays. Bernays, whose mother was Sigmund Freud’s sister and whose father was Freud’s wife’s brother, sought to harness social science research to the task he called “the engineering of consent.” During World War I he worked for the Committee on Public Information, helping the committee sell the Wilson administration’s war policies. After the war, Bernays signed on as “public relations counse#148; to an impressive list of America’s most powerful corporations.

Bernays preached the gospel that public relations was essential in a democracy and that social science knowledge was essential to public relations. He articulated his views quite clearly in his 1928 book Propaganda.4 He began the book by arguing that “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”5

In Bernays’s view, democratic civic life was a marketplace every bit as much as economic life. He took it as axiomatic that competing political interests would seek to put their views before the public just as competing economic interests would seek to promote their products and services. Bernays did not consider this an evil process nor did he regard “propaganda” as a dirty word. Propaganda was, as he saw it, essential to keep the wheels of politics and commerce turning while preserving social stability.

In his historical analysis, Bernays expounded the view that “economic power tends to draw after it political power ... [and that] the industrial revolution shows how that power passed from the king and the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie. Universal suffrage and universal schooling reinforced this tendency, and at last even the bourgeoisie stood in fear of the common people. For the masses promised to become king. Today, however, a reaction has set in. The minority has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities. It has been found possible so to mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction.”6

Bernays would have us believe that public relations and advertising are progressive tools of democratic governance and the market economy. The conflation of market choice and the democratic political process is, however, problematic. Although the advertising industry is very good at promoting the consumption of goods and services, at its heart it is profoundly anti-democratic.

As Stuart Ewen writes in Captains of Consciousness, “It became a central function of business to be able to define a social order which would feed and adhere to the demands of the productive process and at the same time absorb, neutralize, and contain the transitional impulses of a working class emerging from the unrequited drudgery of nineteenth century industrialization.”7 Education was central to this process. It was, however, education of a very particular sort. Ewen quotes the Boston department store merchant, Edward Filene, to make the point. Filene argued that, “mass production demands the education of the masses” and that, in their education, “the masses must learn to behave like human beings in a mass production world.”8 According to Ewen, Filene wanted to build an industrial and social democracy based on what he termed “fact finding,” and modern education should focus on the “facts” about what is being produced rather than questioning the social bases upon which those facts lay.9 It should, perhaps, not be surprising that it was Filene who founded and initially directed Consumers Union.

The essentially conservative character of Filene’s conception of education in an industrial democracy is suggested in Otis Pease’s study of the development of American advertising between 1920 and 1940. In discussing the consumer movement’s response to advertising, Pease maintains that “while the consumer movement was forced to attack advertising on the issue of its literal truthfulness, the advertising industry itself recognized that the question of literal truth or falsity was largely irrelevant, since the appeal of the advertisement lay not in the factual assertions of its contents but in the associations which it set up in the mind of the reader.”10

One might add to Pease’s comments the observation that a powerful, privately-controlled institution that systematically sets out to undermine the ability of people to make rational judgments is inherently anti-democratic because it subverts the intellectual qualities and debases the civic relationships that make democratic life imaginable. What is, therefore, promoted to the detriment of genuine democratic civic culture is mass consumerism in commerce and politics.

As Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen argue in Channels of Desire, “The goal of the advertising industry is to link the isolated experience of the spectator with the collectivized impulses and priorities of the corporation. If economic consumerism tends to organize disconnected individuals into coherent and predictable markets, it is political consumerism that defines the current state of western democracy seeking to create a vast patriotic unity . . . a unity without solidarity.”11 For the Ewens, the individual in contemporary American society lives “in a visual space consumed by the imagery of commerce, a society organized around the purchase. The ‘constant rapidity’ with which we are encouraged to tire of consumable objects, of our elusive pleasures, is generalized as an axiom for existence. To buy is to succeed.”12

What this cultural value might portend for democratic institutions was described by an advertising executive writing anonymously in The Nation over forty years ago, “Social scientists in the past have paid attention to the irrational patterns of human behavior because they wish to locate their social origins and thus be able to suggest changes that would result in more rational conduct. They now study irrationality . . . and other aspects of human behavior . . . to gather data that may be used by salesmen to manipulate consumers.”13 One outcome is no doubt the creation of what David Riesman termed the “lonely crowd”—a crowd that represents the negation of both the individual and genuine community.14 Members of Riesman’s lonely crowd define themselves by their possessions and express their individuality by looking, smelling, and thinking like everyone else.


Educative vs. Mis-Educative Experiences

The views of Bernays are profoundly different from John Dewey’s conception of science springing out of and inseparable from an engaged democratic community built on rational interactions. Indeed, in every aspect, advertising ideology is the enemy of Dewey’s philosophy. The edifice of American mass marketing is built on what, in Experience and Education, Dewey termed “mis-educative experiences.” Sophisticated marketing techniques conceal but cannot alter the reality that the purpose of mass marketing is to manipulate the many for the benefit of the few. It is, as Dewey characterized traditional education, imposition from above and from the outside.15

In Experience and Education, Dewey wrote, “Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience. An experience may be such as to engender callousness; it may produce lack of sensitivity and of responsiveness. Then the possibilities of having richer experiences in the future are restricted.”16 Mis-educative experiences, according to Dewey, “may be lively, vivid, and ‘interesting,’ and yet their disconnectedness may artificially generate dispersive, disintegrated, centrifugal habits. The consequence of formation of such habits is the inability to control future experiences. They are then taken, either by way of enjoyment or of discontent and revolt, just as they come. Under such circumstances, it is idle to talk of self-control.”17

Modern mass advertising turns Dewey’s philosophy inside out. In the name of freedom and individuality, advertising encourages individuals to give in to their impulses so that they may be controlled more easily by others. The last thing in the world that advertisers want is for a target audience to have self control. For Dewey, in contrast, freedom is expressed through the control of impulse in the service of intelligent purposes. To his mind, “The only freedom that is of enduring importance is freedom of intelligence, that is to say, freedom of observation and of judgment exercised in behalf of purposes that are intrinsically worthwhile.”18 Furthermore, he explained, “No experience is educative that does not tend both to knowledge of more facts and entertaining of more ideas and to a better, a more orderly, arrangement of them.”19

If advertising is, as I believe, the twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week, three hundred and sixty-five day a year curriculum of our culture, then Americans young and old are being relentlessly mis-educated and, as a consequence, our society is correspondingly less democratic.

The scope of modern advertising is almost impossible to quantify. It might well be easier to identify those areas where advertising is not present (there won’t be many) than to document the volume of advertising unleashed on the American public. In 1994, Leslie Savan estimated that television-watching Americans see about one hundred commercials a day. Add other commercial venues such as billboards, shopping cards, clothing labels, and city buses, and the number of ads that clamor for attention from each American reaches 16,000 a day.20 One need only consider the explosive growth of Web-based marketing over the past five years to realize that by now the number is likely to be much higher. There is little doubt that contemporary Americans live in an advertising-saturated environment and lead what Savan termed “sponsored lives.”

If the methods of modern mass marketing to adults threaten the happiness of individuals and undermine the well-being of our society, deploying them against children colonizes our future. No one can seriously suggest that children represent the rational consumer of market ideology; that is, children can in no sense be considered to have the same power, information, and freedom that adults are said to have to freely enter into contracts for goods and services in the idealized marketplace.

Advertising to children is, then, a kind of immoral war on childhood, waged for the profit of adults who should be childhood’s guardians. Furthermore, when advertising is conducted in schools, the immorality is compounded because the power of the state is twisted to the service of special interests, the ethical standing of educators compromised, and orientation of the school shifted toward mis-educative experiences.


Schoolhouse Commercialism: Historical Background

Schoolhouse commercialism is not new. Its development parallels that of the public relations industry as a whole. As early as 1929, the National Education Association’s Committee on Propaganda in the Schools surveyed school officials to determine what sponsored materials had been received and what policies or other mechanisms were in place to deal with them. The committee also conducted a review of state education departments’ laws or policies governing the use of such materials, interview sessions with groups of teachers, school visits, and an examination of advertisements for sponsored materials.

In 1953, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development issued “Using Free Materials in the Classroom.” In 1955, the American Association of School Administrators followed suit with a similar pamphlet, “Choosing Free Materials for Use in the Schools.” Both publications were written to assist teachers in the use of sponsored materials in their classrooms. Both guides warned teachers against uncritical acceptance of sponsored materials but also recommended that they not reject such offerings outright.

In her 1979 book, Hucksters in the Classroom, Sheila Harty described the results of four questions related to teachers’ use of “industry [-sponsored] materials” in the 1976-1977 annual Membership Survey of the National Education Association. The responses of 1,250 teachers suggested that approximately half of U.S. teachers used sponsored materials, and indicated that a wide variety of commercial interests were represented, including banks, utilities, manufacturers, and food processors. Hucksters in the Classroom included an examination of many sponsored educational materials, a review of state education departments’ policies, a survey of teachers, and a review of advertisements for sponsored materials appearing in education-related publications. In addition to discussing the ethical dilemmas inherent in sponsored materials, Harty also described in detail many examples showing bias, racial prejudice and sexism, inaccuracies, and incomplete or outdated information.21

Channel One, the 12-minute current events program that carries two minutes of commercials, was launched in 1990, and is widely considered the bellwether of the recent expansion of commercial influences in the schools. As such, it has been the subject of several studies on the extent of its use, its educational efficacy, and the financial value of the service and equipment provided.22 “Channel One in the Public Schools: Widening the Gaps” found that schools with high concentrations of poor students are almost twice as likely to use Channel One as schools serving more wealthy students.23 Greenberg and Brand found that students who watched Channel One were more likely to express materialistic values such as “Money is everything,” or “A nice car is more important than school.”24

“Captive Kids: A Report on Commercial Pressures on Kids at School,” produced by Consumers Union Education Services in 1995, outlined various commercializing activities in schools. “Captive Kids” provided reviews and ratings of over 100 sponsored materials and contests, included a listing of national education organizations and their positions on school commercialism, and provided a comparison of Channel One and CNN classroom news programs.25


The Growth of Schoolhouse

For the past three years (1998, 1999, and 2000), I have conducted an annual analysis of advertising trends in the schools by tracking the number of citations relating to seven, and now eight, areas of schoolhouse commercialism. (Note: the first report covered the period from 1990-1998, the second covered 1997-1998—1998-1999, and the third covered 1999-2000.) In doing my analyses, I conducted searches of four media databases: the popular press, the business press, the marketing press (through Lexis-Nexis), and the education press (through Education Index). Press citations were used to attempt to understand the scope and the development of marketing activities directed at schools because primary data are largely unavailable.

Firms engaged in school-based commercial activities may, at different times, have an interest in making exaggerated claims about the number of children reached (in order to attract clients), remaining silent (to shield market research and product introduction information from competitors), or minimizing the size of their efforts (to lessen the possibility of a negative public reaction). In addition, the varied and particular purposes for which organizations gather data on school-focused commercializing activities result in information that is fragmentary and often not comparable, and, therefore, not reliable as a basis for identifying overall trends.

The eight areas of schoolhouse commercialism I have identified are:

1. Sponsorship of Programs and Activities. Corporations paying for or subsidizing school events and/or one-time activities in return for the right to associate their name with the events and activities. This may also include school contests. The number of citations related to Sponsorship of
Programs and Activities increased 248% between 1990 and 1999-2000.

2. Exclusive Agreements. Agreements between schools and corporations that give corporations the exclusive right to sell and promote their goods and/or services in the school or school district. In return, the district or school receives a percentage of the profits derived from the arrangement. Exclusive agreements may also entail granting a corporation the right to be the sole supplier of a product or service and thus associate its products with activities such as high school basketball programs. The number of citations related to Exclusive Agreements increased 1,384% between 1990 and 1999-2000.

3. Incentive Programs. Corporate programs that provide money, goods, or services to a school or school district when its students, parents, or staff engage in a specified activity or demonstrate particular behaviors. The number of citations related to Incentive Programs increased 231% between 1990 and 1999-2000.

4. Appropriation of Space. The allocation of school space such as scoreboards, rooftops, bulletin boards, walls, and textbooks on which corporations may place corporate logos and/or advertising messages. The number of citations related to Appropriation of Space increased 539% between 1990 and 1999-2000.

5. Sponsored Educational Materials. Materials supplied by corporations and/or trade associations that are claimed to have an instructional content. The number of citations related to Sponsored Educational Materials increased 1,875% between 1990 and 1999-2000.

6. Electronic Marketing. The provision of electronic programming and/or equipment in return for the right to advertise to students and/or their families and community members in school or when they contact the school or district. The number of citations related to Electronic Marketing increased 139% between 1990 and 1999-2000.

 7. Privatization. Management of schools or school programs by private for-profit corporations or other non-public entities. The number of citations related to Privatization increased 3,206% between 1990 and 1999-2000.

8. Fundraising. The Fundraising category incorporates some elements formerly included in the Incentive Programs category, such as collecting particular product labels or cash register receipts from particular stores. Any activity conducted or program participated in to raise money for school operations or extracurricular programs is considered fundraising. Because 1999-2000 was the first year in which database searches were conducted on this topic, the data for Fundraising are not available for comparison between years.

Figure 1 shows the growth in press citations for all types of commercializing activities during the nineties.


Ethical Conflicts

Stories describing advertising activities in schools have on occasion helped to highlight the inherent ethical conflict faced by educators who jump on the school marketing bandwagon as well as the dangers that advertising poses to the children in their charge. Two types of schoolhouse commercialism, exclusive soft drink contracts and sponsored educational materials, help illustrate the ethical problems created as well as the mis-educative character of advertising in schools.


Exclusive Soft Drink Contracts

On September 23, 1998, John Bushey, the executive director of school leadership for Colorado Springs School District 11, sent a memo to district principals. Normally, a memo from a school administrator’s office outlining expectations for the coming year would not merit press attention. John Bushey’s memo, however, attracted the attention of The Denver Post, Harper’s Magazine, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.26

Mr. Bushey, who oversees Colorado Springs’s exclusive contract with Coca-Cola, is the district’s self-proclaimed “Coke Dude.” In his memo, Mr. Bushey pointed out that District 11 students needed to consume 70,000 cases of Coke products if the district was to receive the full financial benefit of its exclusive sales agreement with the company. In order to better promote the consumption of Coke products, Mr. Bushey offered school principals tips such as: “Allow students to purchase and consume vended products throughout the day” and “Locate machines where they are accessible to the students all day.” He also offered to provide their schools with additional electrical outlets if necessary, and enclosed a list of Coke products and a calendar of promotional events intended to help advertise them.

Mr. Bushey’s zeal may in part be explained by his tardy realization that the district’s exclusive agreement with Coke counted only vending machine sales toward the system’s annual quota; Coca-Cola products sold at cafeteria fountains wouldn’t count. In March 1999, Mr. Bushey told The Washington Post that the district might not meet its contractual goals. In May, he told The New York Times, “Quite honestly, they were smarter than us.”

One of the concerns most often expressed is the negative health impact of consuming large amounts of soft drinks. The Washington Post reports that, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, annual consumption per capita of soda has increased from 22.4 gallons in 1970 to 56.1 gallons in 1998.27 The Center for Science in the Public Interest found that a quarter of the teenage boys who drink soda drink more than two 12-ounce cans per day and five percent drink more than five cans. Girls, although they drink about a third less than boys, face potentially more serious health consequences. With soda pushing milk out of their diets, an increasing number of girls may be candidates for osteoporosis.28

With childhood obesity rates soaring (up 100% in twenty years), William Dietz, director of the division of nutrition at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that “if the schools must have vending machines, they should concentrate on healthy choices like bottled water.”29 Richard Troiano, a National Cancer Institute senior scientist, says the data on soda consumption suggest that there may be a link between childhood obesity and soda consumption. According to Troiano, overweight kids tended to take in more calories from soda than kids who were not overweight.30

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies soft drinks as a “food of minimal nutritional value” and prohibits their sale during lunch periods. In 1995, the USDA issued model regulations aimed at elementary schools that would bar soft drinks (and other non-nutritive foods) from school grounds entirely from the start of classes until the end of the lunch period. Secondary schools, the agency pointed out, have the authority to completely ban the sale of foods of minimal nutritional value. Guidelines similar to those proposed by the USDA have been adopted in Kentucky and Florida.31

Not all school districts and administrators share Colorado Springs’s devotion to exclusive agreements. Middleton and Swansea, Mass., for example, have turned down contracts with soft drink bottlers.32 Pat Ratesic, principal of Penn-Trafford High School in eastern Pennsylvania, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I think we’re going to try and hold off on those kinds of things as long as we can, as long as the budget allows.” However, he added, “Down the road, who knows? Everything seems to be going commercial nowadays. Money talks, I guess.”33


Sponsored Educational Materials

Sponsored educational materials have been around much longer than exclusive soft drink contracts. The magazine Marketing Tools has traced corporate sponsored educational materials as far back as 1890, when a paint company developed a handout on primary and secondary colors intended to be distributed in school art classes. The handout also contained a plug for the company’s products.34 Despite some occasionally harsh criticisms of the practice, over the years sponsored educational materials have become a staple of marketers who want to put a corporate message in the school. In its 1995 publication “Captive Kids,” Consumers Union evaluated over 100 of the sponsored materials provided by corporations, trade groups, and others, and found the vast majority were highly commercial, educationally trivial, or both.35

Producers of sponsored materials include Enterprise for Education, Learning Enrichment, Inc., Lifetime Learning Systems, The Mazer Corporation, Modern Education Services (formerly Modern Talking Picture Service), and Scholastic, Inc. Together, these firms claim to put their clients’ materials in the hands of millions of teachers, kindergarten through college, a year. As an elementary school principal in Washington commented to The New York Times, “We get them every day.” According to Dominic Kinsley, president of Lifetime Learning, the number of curriculum projects the firm worked on in 1997 was four times greater than a decade earlier.36

It is not hard to find examples of sponsored educational materials. The Life and Health Insurance Foundation has a high school education program;37 Merrill Lynch offers “Money Matters in the Millennium,” a “financial literacy” curriculum, and Young Entrepreneur Kits to teach students how to start their own businesses;38 and the Archery Manufacturers and Merchants Organization offers middle schools a kit called “Archery Alley.”39 Lifetime Learning Systems developed the “Quality Comes In Writing” program for the Bic pen company to promote “strong writing skills” in fourth to sixth graders,40 and MasterCard International wanted to help students learn money management skills.41

The efforts by credit card companies to teach “money management skills” illustrate the contradiction in having self-interested corporations take on the role of protecting children from their own advertising campaigns. In 1999, the Consumer Federation of America released a study documenting the severe pressure credit card debt is putting on students and criticizing the marketing efforts of credit card companies aimed at college-age youths. Also in 1999, the American Association of University Women report “Gaining a Foothold” suggested that credit card debt presented an obstacle to pursuing or continuing a college education. It is at least possible, therefore, that the most effective method of promoting good money management skills among young adults would be for credit card companies to stop the seductive advertising campaigns aimed at college-age youths they currently fund.

When and where so-called learning materials turn up is based on a corporate need that usually has nothing to do with curriculum improvement. To get around this problem, companies frequently bill their creations as “supplements” to the teachers’ regular lessons. They encourage teachers to fit in some or all of the materials whenever and wherever they can. Some clever marketers try to make this into a virtue by claiming that the material is therefore controlled by the teacher, who can tailor it to fit the schoo#146;s program. However, even a brief examination of most sponsored materials would prove to most people that it is created to benefit its sponsor, not the teachers or the children.

Corporations try to put materials in schools for a number of reasons. They may simply want to sell something to the kids. Companies that sell snack food, candy, clothing, and personal care products are often in this category. Other companies may want to develop a consumer base for their products down the line. These include computer manufacturers, credit card companies, and even car manufacturers.

Since the marketing firms that create sponsored materials have to keep their corporate customers satisfied, their material is judged, first and foremost, by the extent to which it meets the objectives of their clients. The emphasis is not on providing the fullest and most accurate presentation of information to students. The fundamental difference between marketers and teachers distorts teaching as surely as a funhouse mirror distorts the image of anyone who looks into it. When teachers use products developed by marketing firms, instead of lessons taught to benefit students, the curriculum promotes the objectives of a third party whose interests may well conflict with those of the children, their families, and the country. Bernays might approve. Dewey would not.

If America’s capacity to renew its democracy rests on an educated citizenry making well-informed public policy decisions, every American is poorly served when public schools turn their curricula into an educational flea market open to anyone who has the money to set up a table. Yet that is precisely what the relentless assault on funding for public education and repeated calls for “cooperation” with the business community are pushing schools to do.


What Makes Schools So Attractive to Advertisers?

Schools are attractive venues for marketing activities for several reasons. The United States and much of the rest of the industrial world are saturated with advertisements. By some estimates, the average American views a full hour of commercials a day.42 In attempting to reach children with advertising messages, advertisers must overcome advertising “clutter” to make their messages stand out. Another major problem for advertisers is that children, particularly teenagers, represent a notoriously fragmented and thus difficult to reach market.

For example, television ads may be a good way to reach the over-50 crowd— they watch an average of 5.5 hours of television a day. In contrast, children between the ages of 12-18, according to the “Teen Fact Book” put out by Channel One, watch television only 3.1 hours per day.43 Advertising in schools can help solve the difficulties presented by clutter and fragmentation. Schools are one of advertising’s last frontiers. Apart from places of worship, schools are perhaps the most uncluttered ad environment in our society. And, since children are required to attend, school-based ad campaigns play to a captive audience.

The drive to reach children is fueled by the prospect of an enormous financial payoff. Although estimates of the size of the children’s market vary, everyone agrees it is huge. By some estimates, elementary age children influence almost $15 billion in annual spending.44 America’s approximately 31 million teens spent $144 billion in 1998.45 James U. McNeal, author of Kids As Consumers: A Handbook of Marketing to Children, says that each year children in the United States spend $24 billion of their own money and directly or indirectly influence $488 billion worth of purchases.46

According to the Channel One study “A Day in the Life of a Teen’s Appetite,” cited in the Chicago Sun-Times, “Teens are veritable eating machines, generating more than 36 billion eating and drinking occasions each year.” This represents a rate of consumption that, according to the report, translates into $90 billion in direct and indirect sales, including $5.2 billion on after-school snacks, $12.7 billion in fast food restaurants, $1.8 billion at convenience and food stores, and $1 billion on vending machines. “The whole vending thing is absolutely huge,” commented Tim Nichols, Channel One’s executive vice president for research.47

In the words of James Twitchell, author of ADCULT USA, for advertisers, when it comes to schools: “It doesn’t get any better. These people have not bought cars. They have not chosen the kind of toothpaste they will use. This audience is Valhalla. It’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”48 It is small wonder that commercializing activities in schools are proliferating so rapidly.

If the advertisers are in it for the money, so it seems are many schools. One of the earliest “Corporate Partnership” programs in the country was launched by Colorado Springs District 11 in 1993 to raise money for musical instruments, computers, and staff training. In 1996-97, the program, coordinated by DD Marketing of Pueblo, Colorado, raised $140,000 for the district by selling advertising space on the side of school buses and in school hallways to 29 companies. Asked whether Colorado Springs had gone too far, June Million, director of public information at the National Association of Elementary School Principals commented, “I think it’s going too far. But it’s difficult for me to point a finger at schools and say that it’s wrong because they don’t have the budgets.”49 Christine Smith, director of community partnerships and enterprise activity for the Denver Public Schools was more blunt, “I got tired of begging for money all the time.”50

The justification schools use for entering into marketing relationships with corporations is financial need; however, the monetary reward is often very modest. The San Antonio Express-News reports that school districts in the San Antonio area that had permitted advertising on their school buses did not realize the revenue they had anticipated.51 Even $140,000 in advertising revenue isn’t very much. In a district the size of Colorado Springs 11 (32,000 students),52 it represents approximately $4.35 per student, hardly enough to make a dent in the $4.8 million District 11 announced it had to trim from its budget in March of 1999.53


Opposition to Schoolhouse Commercialism

In a September 1997 Marketing Tools article, Matthew Klein warned advertisers that as far as school-based marketing programs go, “When a community feels a company has overstepped its bounds ... no one is immune from the backlash.” He went on to cite several examples: the backlash Campbel#146;s experienced for sponsoring a phony science lesson designed to demonstrate that Campbel#146;s Prego brand spaghetti sauce was thicker than its competitor’s; the ban on sponsored textbook covers in a Staten Island school because of a father’s outrage when his daughter came home with a temporary tattoo featuring a Calvin Klein logo; the reexamination of all Seattle school district advertising as a result of efforts by the district administration to solicit paid advertising for its middle and high schools.54

Mr. Klein’s concerns may be well founded. Although the trend toward increased commercialism in the schools shows no signs of abating, there are indications that concern about commercializing schools is growing. According to Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, “This [commercialism] has become a very important topic of conversation in many schools, and we’re concerned about it. The number of kids under 18 years old and their purchasing power is astronomical. Companies are going directly after that target market any way they can.”55

In 1998, for example, the Berkeley, Calif., school board voted to ban advertisements in schools.56 Des Plaines, Ill., School District 62 decided against using Channel One and announced plans to implement advertising and sponsorship guidelines modeled after those proposed by the National Parent Teachers Association.57 Wisconsin State Representative Marlin Schneider proposed a total ban on advertising in schools in 1997.58 Faced with strong opposition from educators as well as corporations, Schneider then proposed a less expansive bill that would have barred schools from signing exclusive agreements with soft drink bottlers.59 Although neither version of the 1997 bill was adopted, in 1999 Schneider introduced new legislation that would prohibit school boards from entering into exclusive advertising contracts or contracts for telecommunications goods or services that require students to be exposed to advertising.60

In 1999, California State Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni introduced two bills on the topic of commercialism in schools. Assembly Bill 116, which was signed into law that September, bans in textbooks any “materials, including illustrations, that provide unnecessary exposure to a commercial brand name, product, or corporate or company logo.” Mazzoni’s second bill (AB 117) would have prohibited school districts from entering into exclusive contracts with beverage companies or with ad-bearing electronic services such as Channel One. AB 117 encountered a great deal of industry opposition and was ultimately modified so as to require only that the contract be debated and entered into at a noticed public hearing. The bill passed in its revised form in fall 1999.61

At the federal level, legislation was introduced in the House and Senate to prohibit companies from using a legal loophole to distribute soft drinks and other non-nutritive snacks during school lunch periods.62 Whether the legislative initiatives over the last two years in Wisconsin and California are the start of a trend toward the regulation of commercializing activities in schools remains to be seen.



Commercial activities now shape the structure of the school day, influence the content of the school curriculum, and determine whether children have access to a variety of technologies. Moreover, it appears from a number of citations that there is an emerging trend for marketers to attempt to bundle together advertising and marketing programs in schools across a variety of media and thus gain a dominant position in the schoolhouse market. A leader in this trend is Primedia, which owns Cover Concepts, Seventeen magazine, and Channel One, among other media properties that have an advertising impact on schools and classrooms. Seventeen and Cover Concepts have, for example, launched a coordinated product sampling campaign aimed at adolescent girls.63 And Channel One has signed on as content provider for America Online’s teen area.64

The effort to more fully integrate the schoolhouse into corporate marketing plans by securing control over as many school-based advertising media as possible may well be the trend to watch over the next decade. If so, we can expect schools to serve as launch pads for marketing campaigns that resemble high profile movie releases complete with multiple tie-ins for a variety of products and services aimed at children and their families.

As a measure of how far short the professional education community is of Dewey’s ideals, it is telling that, despite the pervasiveness of schoolhouse commercialism and its rapid growth in the nineties, the education press has had very little to say about the issue. At a time when commercialism in schools and classrooms is increasing dramatically, educators have been largely silent or, worse, cheerleaders for the trend. The failure of the education community to critically describe and attempt to understand and assess the impact of commercial activities on the character and quality of schools and their programs is not worthy of a profession that would lay claim to the legacy of John Dewey.



1. William E. Doll, “Ghosts and the Curriculum,” in William E. Doll and Noel Gough, eds., Curriculum Visions (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, forthcoming).

2. George McGovern makes this point in an interview with Bill Moyers in “The Image Makers,” A Walk Through the 20th Century with Bill Moyers (Corporation for Entertainment & Learning, 1984. Distributed by PBS).

3. The overall discussion of Lee’s work is drawn from “The Image Makers.”

4. Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1928).

5. Ibid., 9.

6. Ibid., 19.

7. Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977), 52.

8. Ibid., 54.

9. Ibid., 55.

10. Otis Pease, The Responsibilities of American Advertising: Private Control and Public Influence, 1920-1940 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1958), 201-202.

11. Stuart Ewen and Elizabeth Ewen, Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 263, 266.

12. Ibid., 74-75.

13. Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (New York: Pocket Books, 1963), 223.

14. David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of Changing American Character (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955).

15. John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Collier Books, 1965), 18.

16. Ibid., 25.

17. Ibid., 26.

18. Ibid., 61.

19. Ibid., 82.

20. Leslie Savan, The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).

21. Sheila Harty, Hucksters in the Classroom: A Review of Indsutry Propaganda in Schools.

22. See Roy F. Fox, “Manipulated Kids: Teens Tell How Ads Influence Them,” Educational Leadership 53, no. 1, 77-79 and “Flavor Crystals as Brain Food: Unplug TV Commercials in School,” Phi Delta Kappan 79, 326-327; Mark Crispin Miller, How to Be Stupid: The Teachings of Channel One (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1997), ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED428460; Hugh Rank, “Channel One/Misconceptions Three,” English Journal 81, no. 4 , 31-32 and “Channel One: Asking the Wrong Questions,” Educational Leadership 51, no. 4 , 52-55.

23. M. Morgan, Channel One in the Public Schools: Widening the Gaps (Oakland, CA:UNPLUG, 1993), ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED366688.

24. B.S. Greenberg and J.E. Brand, “Channel One: But What About the Advertising?” Educational Leadership 51, 56-58.

25. Consumers Union, “Captive Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids at Schoo#148; (Yonkers, NY: Consumers Union Education Services, 1995), 12-16.

26. Cara DeGette, “To Ensure Revenue, Coke Is It; Schools Urged to Boost Sales,” Denver Post (November 22, 1998): B-01; John Bushey, “District 11’s Coke Problem,” Harper’s (February 1999); Marc Kaufman, “Pop Culture: Health Advocates Sound Alarm as Schools Strike Deals with Coke and Pepsi,” The Washington Post (March 23, 1999): Z12; Constance L. Hays, “Today’s Lesson: Soda Rights; Consultant Helps Schools Sell Themselves to Vendors,” The New York Times (May 21, 1999): C1.

27. Kaufman, “Pop Culture.”

28. Michael F. Jacobson, “Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks Are Harming American’s Health” (Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1998).

29. Kaufman, “Pop Culture.”

30. Ibid.

31. Richard Salit and Celeste Tarricone, “Soda Wars: Coke, Pepsi Pay Big for Sole Rights to Sell Soft Drinks in Schools,” Providence [R.I] Journal-Bulletin (March 14, 1999): 1A.

32. Ibid.

33. Roger Stuart and Diana Block, “Advertising in Education,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 14, 1999): E1.

34. Matthew Klein, “School Daze,” Marketing Tools (September 1997): 16.

35. Consumers Union, “Captive Kids.”

36. Deborah Stead (New York Times News Service), “Cash-poor Schools Open Doors to Commercialism,” [Memphis] Commercial Appeal (January 5, 1997): News sec., 6A, Final Edition.

37. David F. Woods, “LIFE’s Already Doing It,” National Underwriter (June 7, 1999): 43.

38. Merrill Lynch corporate press release, “Merrill Lynch Announces International Saving Month, Marking Global Expansion of Six-Year U.S. Initiative,” PR Newswire, (April 5, 1999).

39. Carolee Boyles, “Involve Yourself in a Worthwhile Program; Programs of Archery Associations,” Shooting Industry (November 1998).

40. Bic, Quality Comes in Writing [lesson plan] (Lifetime Learning Systems, 1999 [cited July 16, 1999]), available online at

41. MasterCard International, Master Your Future [lesson plan] (Video Placement Worldwide, 1999 [cited July 16, 1999]), available at

42. Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Get the Message? Growing Up in a Commercial Culture,” in Living in a Material World: Lessons on Commercialism, Consumption, and Environment.

43. Dina Bunn, “Teen Spenders Wield Great Power,” Rocky Mountain News (November 15, 1998): 4G.

44. Erika Rasmusson, “Courting the Classroom: Advertising in Schools,” Sales & Marketing Management (September 1997): 20.

45. Renee Wijnen, “Cataloger, Co-op Program Vie for Slice of Teen Market,” DM News (September 14, 1998).

46. Kent Steinriede, “Sponsorship Scorecard 1999,” Beverage Industry (January 1999): 8.

47. Leslie Baldacci, “Study Reveals Surprises About Teen Eating Habits,” Chicago Sun-Times (October 7, 1998): 1.

48. Dan Carden, “Schools Find Soft Drink Cash Refreshing,” The [Bloomington, Ill] Pantagraph (July 19, 1998): A3.

49. Rasmusson, “Courting the Classroom.”

50. Pete Lewis, “Corporate Sponsors Help with Financing; Funding for Denver, Colorado Public Schools,” Denver Business Journal (November 20 1998): 6B.

51. Chuck McCollough, “Bus Ad Bucks Not Growing,” San Antonio Express-News (January 27, 1999): 1H.

52. Telephone communication with Chuck Phipps, Director of Enrollment and Audit for Colorado Springs School District 11 (July 26, 1999).

53. Erin Emery, “Colorado Springs Schools Face Cuts to Budget; District 11 Proposes Slicing $4.8 Million,” Denver Post (March 16, 1999): B04.

54. Klein, “School Daze.”

55. Rene Sanchez, “A Corporate Seat in Public Classrooms; Marketing Efforts Bring Revenue, Opposition,” The Washington Post (March 9, 1998): A1.

56. Olszewski, Lori, “Berkeley Tones Down Advertising in Schools; Board’s New Policy Limits Logos, Deals,” San Francisco Chronicle (April 2, 1998): A17.

57. Dwayne T. Wong, “District 62 Cancels Television Service for Junior High,” Chicago Daily Herald (April 30, 1998): 4.

58. Wisconsin Legislature, Introduced Proposals: AB 685 [proposed legislation] (1997 [cited September 5, 1999]), available at

59. Sanchez, “A Corporate Seat.”

60. Wisconsin Legislature, Assembly Bill 103 [proposed legislation] (1999 [cited September 5, 1999]), available at

61. California Legislature, AB 117 - Enrolled [legislation] (1999 [cited September 5, 1999]); available at

62. Staff, “Congress May Ban Soda from School Lunch Programs,” Food & Drink Weekly (May 17, 1999): 2.

63. Primedia corporate press release, “Primedia’s Seventeen Magazine and Channel One Marketing Services Launch New Teen Sampling Program,” Business Wire (September 8, 1998).

64. Primedia corporate press release, “Primedia’s Channel One Inks Content Deal with AOL; Channel One to Become Anchor Tenant on AOL Teen Channel,” Business Wire (April 14, 1999).



The impact of advertising on our personal lives and our communal relationships has been explored in a number of recent books.

Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1999.

Frank, Robert H. Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess. New York: The Free Press, 1999.

Kilbourne, Jean. Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. New York: The Free Press, 1999.

Schor, Juliet B. The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer. New York: Basic Books, 1998.


The impact of advertising on children specifically is addressed in these books.

Fox, Roy F. Harvesting Minds: How TV Commercials Control Kids. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.

Steinberg, Shirley R., and Joe L. Kinchebe (Eds.) KinderCulture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.


The nature and impact of marketing in schools has been taken up in the following books.

Boyles, Deron. American Education and Corporations: The Free Market Goes to School. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998.

Molnar, Alex. Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialization of America’s Schools. Boulder, CO: Westview/HarperCollins, 1996.


Alex Molnar is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and director of the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education (CACE).