Teachers today are being overwhelmed with free and unsolicited curriculum material from public relations firms, corporations and industry associations. The great advantage of corporate messages in sponsored learning materials over more direct advertising materials is that any residual scepticism with which conventional advertisements might be treated disappears altogether when it comes to advertisements and public relations material secreted within school lessons.
In a 1995 report entitled Captive Kids, the US Consumers Union analysed 111 different sets of school materials sponsored by commercial enterprises, trade organisations and corporate backed nonprofit organisations. It found that nearly 80 per cent of the sponsored school materials it analysed “contained biased or incomplete information, promoting a viewpoint that favors consumption of the sponsor’s product or service or a position that favors the company or its economic agenda.” The Consumers Union concluded that the commercialisation of education, arising from advertisements and sponsored classroom material containing “biased, self-serving and promotional information,” posed a “significant and growing threat to the integrity of education in America.”
The report concluded:
"In-school commercialism is at its worst, we believe, when it masquerades as educational materials or programs and offers half-truths or misstatements that favor the sponsor of the materials. It may be difficult if not impossible for most teachers to correctly judge the objectivity and accuracy of such materials.... Unfortunately, a teacher’s use of a sponsor’s materials or products implies an endorsement, and any benefits of such use may come at the cost of teaching children to scrutinize marketing messages objectively."
Reference: David Shenk, ‘Investing in our Youth ’, Spy, July/August 1994, p. 91.
“Imagine—your target market not only reads your ads—they get tested on them.”
In the UK the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) encourages the production and use of corporate materials in schools. It states on one of its websites that the benefits to corporations include the opportunity to “gain new and more loyal customers”.
The DfES, the Consumers’ Union and the ISBA (the association for British advertisers) have put together a “Best Practice Principles” for commercial activities in schools that say commercial activities can be of benefit to schools but:
Explicit sales messages should be avoided where possible, but may be unavoidable in the context of collector schemes….
The level of branding should be appropriate to the activity.
Corporate produced educational materials are not new. Schools have been used by corporations to promote consumerism since the 1920s. However today there is a corporate stampede to get commercial messages into schools through ‘educational’ resources whilst potential customers are very young.
US schools receive around $2.5 billion each year from commercial relationships with corporations.
Corporations eager to enhance their public image, increase product visibility and establish consumer lifestyles are responding to America’s education crisis en mass. Just about every major company or trade association now markets flashy, bright education books, brochures, posters and videos, many of which focus on the environment. Curricula, product logos and even advertisements on subjects ranging from recycling and math to financial planning and poetry have found their way into most public school systems across the country.
If you have any examples or updates you would like to contribute please email them to me and I will add them here. Please give references for where you sourced the information.