Art & Commerce: Market Testing

Companies advertising in schools isn’t a federal issue
Is no place safe from advertising? That’s the question a Washington, D.C., public advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader has asked CEOs of the top 10 ad agencies.
Given the ubiquity of ads, the short answer would seem to be no. Commercial messages have crept into elevator cars, ATM machines and customer-service help lines–all places where the captive audience can’t just escape by changing the channel or turning the page.
“We want to know if you agree that nothing is sacred anymore,” writes Gary Ruskin, director of the advocacy group, dubbed Commercial Alert. “The advertising industry used to recognize boundaries beyond which it would not go. It did not try to lay claim to every waking moment and every inch of space. Are those days long gone?”
Schools are among the sacred spots advertisers should fear to tread, Ruskin says. But reversing a trend that started with Whittle Communications’ Channel One foray, which brought advertising into classrooms via the television set in 1989, will hardly be easy.
I can appreciate Ruskin’s sentiments. Something is indeed wrong when kids learn mathematics by counting M&Ms and teachers use lesson plans produced courtesy of the Snack Food Association. Ideally, schools should be places where kids are free to think, not free to buy.
The reality, though, is that at cash-hungry schools, administrators and teachers may not care much where a computer or lesson plan comes from–even if it sports a corporate logo–as long as it does come. It’s not an easy call, and the answer is not to have Congress step in and make it for all public schools.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) wants corporations to get parental consent before collecting market research from children in schools. His bill, known as The Student Privacy Protection Act, which also calls for a study of commercial involvement in the classroom, gained considerable ground in the House last week, passing a key committee and becoming an amendment to a larger education authorization bill.
What bugs Miller is that a cable TV channel can, unchecked, get New Jersey elementary schoolers to fill out booklets titled “My All About Me Journal” as part of a marketing survey; that a cereal maker can get Massachusetts students to spend two days tasting its product and answering questions about it; and that firms like ZapMe! Corp. of San Ramon, Calif., give schools free computers but then monitor students’ Web browsing habits, breaking down the data by age, sex and Zip code.
“If parents do not want their children to be objects of market research firms while in school, they should have the right to say no,” Miller said last week.
If Miller’s amendment prevails–it goes before the full House later this year–the results will not be entirely rosy. Companies that sell high-school rings may have difficulty reaching students. Without corporate sponsorship, schools that could benefit from communications equipment may languish without it.
“This amendment is an effort by the federal government to say what is appropriate or not appropriate,” argues Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers. “It should be left up to local school boards.”
That makes sense. School boards know their students and parents. They can decide what’s appropriate. Tasting cereal may be a bad idea, but new computers may not be.
Keith Reinhard, CEO of DDB, New York, was among those who received Ruskin’s letter. He believes free-market rules should apply.
“The question is, who is it that is supposed to be the secretary of taste?” Reinhard asks. “The free-market system changed the Benetton ads for death row … [and] spoke up against the content of Calvin Klein ads showing kids.”
The system does work.