Do Corporations Have a Place in the School?

Educational budgets are tight, and sometimes good programs lack funding. Deficits, program cuts and teacher layoffs may be just around the corner. Your child’s school needs new gym equipment, curricular materials and up-to-date technology, items that the school’s meager budget just can’t cover. What to do?

For years, generous local businesses have sponsored all sorts of community and school projects. Indeed, many schools regularly seek such sponsorships. But today, corporations are increasingly stepping up to the plate by offering financial assistance to schools in return for the opportunity to market their products. This new wave of corporate sponsorship seems different. Should we be concerned?

Although marketing to primary and secondary students is now a billion-dollar industry, many parents don’t realize that the practice even exists. Part of the problem is that governments have enacted few regulations to protect children from corporate marketing campaigns, some of which are disguised as classroom lesson plans. The debate is whether corporate sponsorship in schools improves education or simply creates consumers.

M&M’s, for example, produces a math textbook that it distributes to primary grade students across North America. The textbook teaches students to count using—What else?—M&M’s! Colgate toothpaste distributes classroom kits containing kindergarten storybooks (featuring the company logo), a video, a teacher’s guide and miniature toothpaste samples for each student. McDonald’s offers the Go Active Fitness Challenge, a program that replace the now-defunct Canada Fitness Program. Ironically, McDonald’s fast-food products contribute to poor nutritional health and childhood obesity. Talk about conflicting messages!

Corporate banners and logos adorn many school gymnasia, and “mini food fairs” sponsored by major fast food giants are becoming the norm in thousands of high school cafeterias across North America. What messages do these sponsorships convey to students? Do students receive a better education because of corporate altruism?

Some school districts are tackling these questions. Critics of corporate promotion believe that classrooms should be off-limits to marketers. They fear that corporate partnerships teach students to be good consumers before they learn to be good citizens. Advocates believe that students should benefit from the latest technology, improved equipment and expanded programs that such sponsorships make possible. Solutions to this dilemma are complex, and students are caught in the middle.

In her 2007 documentary Corporations in the Classroom, Jill Sharpe visited school districts in Canada and the United States to study how corporate investments affect schools and school curricula. She concluded that the nonstop flow of covert advertising amounts to “Trojan-horse marketing” that is designed to create brand-name consumers instead of learners. Sponsorships, naming rights and donations of classroom material are all opportunities for corporations to place their products. She contends that school districts should fight to keep classrooms free from marketing.

Kathleen Tyner, founding director of Strategies for Media Literacy in San Francisco, believes that exposing students to the media creates what she calls “McEducation.” Peggy Charren, president of the advocacy group Action for Children’s Television, observes that students are being assailed by advertising in hallways, lunchrooms and classrooms. Jill Savitt, a spokesperson for the Center for the Study of Commercialism, fears that students exposed to corporate-funded curriculum will mistake advertizing hype for fact simply because it is presented in the classroom. She believes that schools should not buy into corporate strategies designed to create new consumers.

Alex Molnar of Arizona State University notes that some schools accept funds from a corporation in exchange for allowing the corporation to display a plaque in the school identifying itself as a corporate donor. This practice, in Molnar’s view, amounts to giving corporations access to what he calls “community bounty.”

Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist and author of Consuming Kids, believes that many children cannot distinguish between advertisements and programs. She observes that children under the age of eight who grow up in a commercial culture do not understand the persuasive basis of advertising and, as a result, cannot defend themselves against it. In her view, marketing is at the root of many childhood problems, including obesity, eating disorders and a distorted self-image.

Whenever corporations compete for advertising space, schools are threatened. Some jurisdictions—notably the United Kingdom, Greece, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Norway and the province of Quebec—have already declared direct advertising to children under the age of 12 illegal. However, as long as schools lack sufficient public funds to meet the needs of their students, they will be vulnerable to corporate marketing strategies. If they succumb, they become participants in the “corporatization of education.”

Further Reading

Ascher, Carol. 1983. School Learning and Corporate-School Alliances. New York: Eric Clearinghouse on Urban Education.

Canadian Center for Child Protection. 2009. Annual Report 2008/2009 .

CBC News Online. May 6, 2009. Junk Food in Schools.

Fiore, Christina. October 5, 2009. “More High Schools Ban Sales of Junk Food, Soda.” Medpage Today.

Harvard Graduate School of Education. Action for Children’s Television.

Knaus, Holley. 1992. “The Commercialized Classroom.” Multinational Monitor.