The Consumer Republic – Ad And Subtract

Like they say in the anti-drug ads, parents are the last to know.
In 1995, the California public schools began using a new math textbook from McGraw-Hill. It wasn’t until last fall, however, that Joe Stein of Albany, Calif., discovered his sixth-grade son’s math book was liberally sprinkled with real-life exercises featuring real-life brands. As reported in The New York Times, his outrage at taxpayer- financed advertising has inspired a bill in the California state legislature banning commercial references and logos in school texts.
But if the math book says anything about the presence of marketing in public schools, it says it’s too late to draw the line. Stein’s son didn’t show his dad the math book to complain about references to Sony Playstation and Burger King; he wanted help with his homework. My guess is that until his father pointed it out, he didn’t suspect there was anything odd about calculating the cost of Nikes for credit. An 11-year-old probably can’t imagine what school would be like without logos on his or her book covers and brand-name munchies in the school cafeteria. Why not in math books?
Marketers pay for most of the products and ad placements in classrooms and schools. What makes this text remarkable is that the publisher parades these brand names before sixth-graders in 15 states for free. Amazingly, some companies professed not to know anything about their inclusion until a reporter came calling.
While McGraw-Hill defends brand name-dropping as an effective means of making mathematics “relevant” to young minds, some of the references seem so gratuitous and contrived as to be positively goofy. One example quoted in the Times begins, “The best-selling packaged cookie in the world is the Oreo cookie,” then asks students to express the diameter of the “Oreo cookie” in fractions. Now, there are many things one can imagine doing with an Oreo: licking it, dunking it, eating it. But converting its diameter into fractions? I don’t think so.
The most telling detail in the brouhaha is the authors’ claim that they fell into using brand names in a fit of absentmindedness. They neither discussed the wisdom of peppering the text with plugs, one author testified, nor made a conscious decision to do so. It just, like, you know, happened. I wonder.
Where did the date of Kellogg’s Cocoa Frosted Flakes’ debut come from? Someone had to look that up. Is it possible to write copy that describes Land’s End mail-order house as a place to “purchase unique clothing and accessories and products for the home” and not know one is talking in ad speak? Critics of the McGraw-Hill text argue that it takes advantage of children’s inability to distinguish between disinterested information and advertising. Apparently, the same is true of adults with advanced degrees.
In defense of the textbook, at least it requires students to do math. One would like to say the same about the free “educational materials” that are sent to schools from a growing host of kid-targeting marketers. In his book Giving Kids the Business, Alex Molnar describes such grotesqueries as the Gushers Wonders of the World program from Lifetime Learning Systems and General Mills, maker of Gushers fruit snacks. The program suggests that “science educators” invite their students to put Gushers, so generously provided by General Mills, into their mouths and give them a good chomp. Then teachers should ask pupils to hold forth on how a gushing Gusher “differs from [the process] which produces erupting geothermic phenomena.”
And you thought all General Mills cared about was getting kids to eat their products!
Another lesson plan courtesy of the National Potato Board and the Snack Food Association suggests “students interview family members to determine the favorite family snack. They could then write a humorous family snack story.” (Mom to the kids: “Did I ever tell you the one about Uncle Myron and the Rold Gold pretzels?”) Parents and students served by schools that defend such lessons as “educational” are being defrauded. They should march on their school boards and state legislatures post haste.
Which brings me to my paranoid conspiracy theory. Some mastermind hoping to profit from privatized education is coordinating the activities of textbook publishers, brand marketers and school officials in a plot to destroy American public education. It’s the public schools that gobble up expensively produced corporate freebies. What politically liberal parent–the kind who defends the importance of public schools against the privatizers–wouldn’t cash in their school-choice vouchers to rescue their children from the brain-dead pedagogy of Gushers Wonders? Quick, someone call The Wall Street Journal and tell them there’s a new rationale for privatizing education: ad-free schooling. Sign me up.