The Consumer Republic: School Daze

Talk about your nonconformist individuals.
A couple of weeks ago, Michael Cameron, a senior at Greenbriar High School in Evans, Ga., showed up wearing a Pepsi T-shirt. During a special “Coke in Education Day,” he stood out–a lone billboard for Generation Next.
“I wanted to mess with my friends’ heads,” the daring dissident told The Wall Street Journal.
Given the school-yard mayhem wrought by kids messing with classmates these days, we’re lucky a mere T-shirt was Cameron’s weapon of choice. Next time, the cola wars may be fought with guns.
Cameron’s act of defiance became a widely reported news event thanks to a vigilant principal who turned a meaningless goof–the kid doesn’t even drink Pepsi–into a matter of principle. The educator, not the Coke executives (who laughed it off), enforced brand loyalty, sentencing the rebel without a cause to a full day of in-school detention for his cheeky display of “rudeness” and “disrespect.” Thus, a blatant play by the local Coke bottler to distribute Coke cards to the target market of the brand’s huge summer promotion became a lesson in the traditional values teenagers are said to lack. That’s educational value for you.
The most outrageous thing about Coke in Education Day, however, was not Cameron’s suspension but the day itself. Only a few years ago, commercials in school, courtesy of Channel One, stirred controversy. These days, Greenbriar High simply turns its classrooms over to marketers outright. Economics class became a lesson in Coke marketing. Social science students learned about globalization from the master global marketer. Lessons concluded with the students’ own salute to Coke. Obligingly outfitted in red-and-white Coke T’s–do I smell a synergy with another hot educational trend, school uniforms?–they lined up to be photographed forming the word Coke.
Pitted against Coke as the guardian of order, Pepsi was cast in its old role as the choice of a new generation. Cameron’s gesture accomplished what Pepsi’s advertising no longer reliably does: give the brand, if only for a nanosecond, its old aura of youth and nonconformism. Little wonder the PepsiCo spokesman lauded Cameron as a fine young trendsetter. A lifetime’s supply of Pepsi Stuff is the least the company can do for the boy.
Of course, we can learn a lot about our world by scrutinizing Coke’s role in it. But I’m not sure Coke executives are the ones to teach it, especially when the lesson ends with a card-carrying student body transforming itself into a living brand logo. Surely, this is one of the creepiest public displays since the old Moscow May Day parades.
Still, this little controversy generated more bemusement than outrage. Being outraged by Coke Day is a little like being indignant about El Ni-o. A brand as big as Coke functions as a force of nature. Schools are just in the path of the storm.
Marketers eager to reach captive young audiences have slipped through the holes created by looser curriculum standards and the new emphasis on “relevance.” The result is such pedagogical perversions as a lesson in self-esteem sponsored by Revlon, in which students are asked to contemplate “good hair days” and “bad hair days.”
If you do find Coke Day shocking, chances are you’re middle-aged and remember a time when school signage was provided by the pep club. The contemporary targets for these ploys, the kids themselves, not only take advertising’s presence in school for granted, they like it. React, a teen-targeted Web-site-cum-Sunday-newspaper-supplement whose journalistic mission is to report back to teens what’s on their own minds, asked its audience how it felt about ads in schools. A whopping four-fifths of respondents said there was nothing wrong with them. Some thought that they made school less boring. Well, duh. Hanging out in the school yard for a photo op sure beats sitting in algebra class.
Educators like Coke Day, too. There’s great demand for resources that are fun and relevant among harried teachers trying to hold their students’ attention. Who are the experts in creating such communications? Not educators, whose job is purportedly to teach young minds what they need to know. Marketers are the masters of the art of relevance. They’re the ones with the know-how to create eye-catching posters and the budgets to produce glossy handouts with high-end production values. Plus, the stuff is free.
Besides, no one is sure what it is we need to know or what we should be teaching our kids. That’s how we ended up with classes in self-esteem in the first place. With the old educational canon gone, there is only one authority qualified to decide what schools should be teaching: the students themselves. Students who don’t know the Civil War from the cola wars know what they like.
The bad news for American education is that the future of the classroom belongs to those who know how to give it to them.