Teacher, There's a Brand Name in My Math Problem
"Will is saving his allowance to buy a pair of Nike shoes that cost $68.25. If Will earns $3.25 per week, how many weeks will Will need to save?"
So asks the McGraw- Hill math text book currently being used by 11-13 year old schoolchildren. In an effort to make abstract mathematical concepts easier to understand, teachers often use "manipulatable objects," and/or give the math problem a story line. But now, kids get anchored to reality via brand names. Another math problem asks you to figure out the total grams of fat in a Burger King Whopper with cheese if you know the total number of fat grams in the meal and the fraction of the total represented by onion rings. Yet another problem asks you to express the diameter of an Oreo cookie as a fraction in its simplest form, but not before it reminds you that "the best-selling packaged cookie in the world is the Oreo cookie." (See the July/August issue of Adbusters.)
Of course, the Oreo's rank in terms of worldwide sales of packaged cookies is completely irrelevant to the problem of expressing its diameter, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that kids know, recognize, are intimately familiar with, and feel allegiance towards brand names. What matters further is that kids learn the rules of being a good consumer: that is, they ably juggle irrelevant bits of information as if they are important.
According to the "Education and Consumerism" issue of Radical Teacher, a major battle has heated up in the last year between Coke and Pepsi, and it's taking place in U.S. public schools. These multi-million dollar soda companies want to pay schools to exclusively market their product. For the soda marketers, it's a good use of advertising dollars: pay the school to make their brand name central to kids' lives all day everyday. For the school, it's an easy source of much needed funds.
Advertising is becoming ubiquitous in schools. In Colorado Springs, the side of a big yellow school bus becomes a bill board for just $2500. A six-foot commercial banner hung inside the school for one calendar year costs only $700. In Toronto, schools are using screen savers on their computers that mix motivational messages with sales pitches from fast food and soft drink companies. The Pepsi-sponsored screen saver advises kids to "develop a thirst for knowledge." In Braintree, Massachusetts, a company called Cover Concepts has made a multi-million dollar business out of giving away free book covers that are decorated with corporate advertising.
Prego spaghetti sauce sends out free educational materials about viscosity and samples of its sauce so that kids can see for themselves just how thick and rich it really is. Gushers fruit snacks are sent out to teachers along with an educational packet that promises to motivate students' interest in Geology and the Earth Sciences. The teachers are urged to "have each student put [a candy] in their mouths, and discuss the process needed to make these fruit snacks `gush' when you bite into them. Then teachers can ask the kids to describe how the biting process differs from the process that creates erupting geothermic phenomena." [Stay Free! Marketing to Kids issue. Spring 1997.]
Channel One -- the advertising-driven, in-school TV network -- is in about 40% of the country's secondary schools. It got there by giving free video equipment to financially strapped schools. Schools give their students as an audience in exchange. According to Roy F. Fox, author of Harvesting Minds, Channel One now has daily access to 8 million kids in grades 6-12.
Have you ever lost your way in a kid-oriented web site? What appears to be an "exit" button, links you to an ad. Fake "back," "forward," and "home" links shoot you straight to an advertiser's web site. Even the little "x" symbol in the upper right hand corner of the screen - the one that typically closes down the program in all the main operating systems in use these days - is a disguised hyperlink to somebody who wants to sell you something. The stories, games, and attractive cartoon characters featured in kids' web sites are all gateways to commercials.
Corporate America is saying to kids: you can't escape. Every door, every pathway even every math problem leads to a consumption experience. You may not make the purchase, but you will at least take in and store bits of information that are, in fact, irrelevant to meaningful existence, but highly relevant to the continued existence of profit-making. Even if you can't express the Oreo's diameter as a fraction, at least you might retain knowledge of its worldwide sales. And this is a boon to makers of packaged cookies everywhere.
But cookie-makers and soda marketers have other concerns besides getting their brand name implanted in kids' brains. They also hope to teach children to pay a lot of attention to irrelevant choices. They want to accustom children to the notion that it matters which soda they drink, which athletic shoe they wear, and which cookie they dunk in their milk. They want kids to engage mightily in the minute consumer decisions that collectively result in corporate mega-profits. And they want kids to be prepared for a lifetime of consumption. So they have to start working on them young: both to develop brand loyalty and to foster the belief that it's important.
There is cause for optimism, however. The massive human effort and limitless reources that go into marketing should be an indication of how corporate America views the object of its jingles, icons, catchy slogans, and admonitions to buy/belong. Namely, as a challenge. Kids are complex, imaginative thinkers. To have an impact on them, you have to hit them with a steady stream of images, stealthily slip your coroporate message into every nook and cranny of their lives, sneak advertising into their schools, their curriculums and their math problems, and lock them into web sites with no obvious way out.
The challenge for progressives is not just to teach kids to be media literate, recognize advertising for what it is, and resist its basic messages. Our true challenge is to create real and relevant ways kids can participate in life, make choices, exercise autonomy, and express themselves. And this must be a global effort. Because while our children are locked in the no-exit fun house of consumer culture, many Third World children are locked in factories, making the meaningless irrelevant objects that stock the First World fun house.