Politicians, Government Agencies Question Commercialism in Schools

Politicians and government agencies are again raising concerns about advertising, direct marketing and market research in schools.

Declaring that advertisers were directing a “barrage of materialistic marketing” at young children, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic Senate candidate in New York, yesterday called on the federal government to prohibit advertising inside public elementary schools as well as banning commercials aimed at preschool children in general.

During a campaign stop, Clinton said the Federal Trade Commission should be authorized to ban advertising that it determines is intended for young children susceptible to manipulation. She also called for legislation that would prohibit the marketing of materials to children in elementary schools, such as book covers with advertisements.

“Too many companies simply see our children as little cash cows that they can exploit,” Clinton said. “We know that advertisers target the youngest of our children. … Imagine. They are advertising to children who have not yet even reached kindergarten. They are trying to get these children to be influenced in what they want to buy and own.”

Meanwhile, the General Accounting Office released a report last month that said advertising and marketing in elementary and secondary schools have increased over the last several years, and as visibility has increased, so have concerns.

“In-school marketing has become a growing industry,” the report stated. “Some marketing professionals are increasingly targeting children in schools, companies are becoming known for their success in negotiating contracts between school districts and beverage companies, and both educators and corporate managers are attending conferences to learn how to increase revenue from in-school marketing for their schools and companies.”

In particular, the report found there has been an increase in traditional advertising — such as Coca-Cola machines in school lobbies, billboards or signs sponsored by manufacturers in school corridors or on buses, and the handing out of promotional materials in the form of free samples, book covers and coupons to students. But there also has been an increase in relatively new types of advertising and marketing, such as televised ads aired by Channel One — a company that has provided free audiovisual equipment and news programming to schools since 1990 — and computer-delivered advertisements by companies such as Zap Me, San Ramon, CA.

Zap Me offers schools free computers with screens that include continuously flashing ads. Zap Me also collects information about students that it makes available to its advertisers, including Microsoft and Toshiba, which also supply the computers to schools. In addition, there has been an increase in market research activities with students, conducted by employees of market research firms or through students' school Internet use.

The report found that few states have laws in place to address the practice, and most decisions on commercial arrangements in schools are made piecemeal by local officials. For example, 19 states have statutes or regulations that address school-related commercial activities, but in 14 of these states, regulations are not comprehensive.

The report was requested by Rep. George Miller, D-CA, and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-CT, who together with Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-AL, sponsored a bill that would require all schools receiving Elementary and Secondary Education Act funds to require parental consent before collecting information from students for commercial purposes.

The bill — the Student Privacy Protection Act — establishes a process that ensures informed parental consent. It requires school districts to either seek parental signed permission for marketers to survey students and collect marketing information from them, or have school boards announce the marketers' plans at open meetings. The amendment, which also allows schools to seek federal funds to facilitate providing parental notification, also applies to situations where marketers receive anonymous information with no student names.

The Direct Marketing Association said it does not expect any action on the legislation during this session of Congress, which ends Oct. 6, but said lawmakers will probably try to push for legislation when the 107th Congress convenes in January.

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