Students are greeted these days with a barrage of marketing and advertising as they enter the school year. And there is no let-up. The ads are all over.
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) found ads in corridors, on scoreboards and vending machines, and inserted in the curricula through supplementary educational materials. They were on school equipment (eg, uniforms, cups, water coolers, beverage cases, food display racks) and on school buses. Ads were also put out through school newspapers, yearbooks and the school radio stations.
What is the impact of such marketing on children?
Our book, Sold Out, details the results of our study of marketing and advertising to children in schools over the past 25 years.
We found that while schools often welcome them, marketing and advertising activities in schools threaten children’s psychological and physical well-being, as well as the integrity of their education.
What is sold the most to children?
Unhealthy food products are the most heavily marketed products in school.
In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission reported that 48 major food and beverage companies marketing to children in the US spent US$149 million on marketing to children in schools alone.
Soft-drink bottling companies, in particular, often enter into multi-year exclusive contracts that bring product and branded vending machines, scoreboards, coolers and other paraphernalia into the schools.
A 2008 study found that the average high school in Montgomery County, Maryland, had 21 vending machines – each one both selling the product and functioning as a lit-up billboard.
Another 2012 study found advertising for soft drinks and other “foods of minimal nutritional value” in 85% of the high schools in Maine.
Younger students, in schools without vending machines, routinely receive free coupons promoting food products.
Numerous studies demonstrate that food marketing influences children’s food preferences, what young children ask their parents to buy for them and what older children buy for themselves.
Although no study ties any specific marketing campaign to poor health, it stands to reason that the more children are encouraged to eat foods that are unhealthy when consumed to excess, the more likely they are to suffer from metabolic syndrome, obesity and the host of illnesses associated with them.
Impact of marketing
In one way or another, all marketing promotes the idea that identity, fulfillment, self-expression and confidence are achieved through consumption.
When children are occupied with consumer-oriented activity (shopping, for example, or thinking about products or fantasizing about purchases), they simply have less time and brain-space for other pursuits, such as creative thinking and play, family and friends, artistic endeavors, or spiritual practices.
Materialistic values have been linked to higher rates of such psychological problems as anxiety, depression, psychological distress, chronic physical symptoms and lower self-esteem.
Marketing in schools can have other consequences as well. It can take up class time, contradict what children learn in their classes (particularly about proper nutrition) and create an environment that encourages them to uncritically accept sponsors’ points of view.
When children, for example, learn about “energy balance” from curricular materials provided by a food-industry-funded nonprofit organization, they are encouraged to accept the industry’s point of view that individuals are responsible for balancing their “calories in” and “calories out.”
Assumed in this point of view is that all food products are healthy in moderation; excluded is industry’s role in encouraging children to consume food products that are unhealthy when consumed to excess.
Why do schools allow marketing?
Given the threats posed by advertising and marketing in school, how is it possible that so many well-intentioned principals, district administrators and parent groups are eager to embrace it?
It is possible that these stakeholders are unaware of the threats posed through marketing. People tend to underestimate the extent to which they are influenced by marketing messages. Many reason that children are so exposed to marketing in other settings that adding it in a school setting won’t matter in any appreciable way.
Even if stakeholders are aware of the potential harm marketing can do to children, the immediate need for school funding often overwhelms their concerns.
States have been cutting funding to schools for quite some time now, and school districts across the nation are so fiscally stressed that they are ever more open to the enticements of corporate marketing campaigns, often soothingly billed as “school-business partnerships,” that promise to yield extra cash.
Parent groups, eager to provide needed resources for their children, also seek out corporate fundraising “partnerships.”
Studies examining financial benefit to schools find, however, that marketing actually brings schools negligible financial returns.
In a 2006 nationally representative study, we found that 67% of US schools engaged in marketing activities did not make any money at all from them. Another 19% of US schools made less than $5,000 over the course of the entire school year.
The self-interested commercial goals of corporations and the public interest goals of schools are in fundamental conflict.
Since corporations are legally mandated to prioritize profit to their shareholders over any other goal, by definition, their activities in schools must also serve that purpose.
Cash-strapped schools are a perfect resource for companies that recognize that students are a captive market of great value, a source of immediate business and/or a lifelong customer base.
If we’re honest about the real value and costs of marketing and advertising to children in school, we will find that corporations are the ones emerging as the big winners. Schools make little money even as the well-being of their students is threatened.
It is past time to declare schools ad-free zones.
Author Bios:Faith Boninger is a Research Associate in Education Policy, University of Colorado and Alex Molnar is a Research Professor, University of Colorado