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What Is the Controversy about Commercial Advertising in Schools?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 20 March 2014
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Commercial advertising in schools has been controversial since the practice began in the late 20th century. Advertisers and marketers will offer to pay a school or school system a fee in exchange for advertising a product, or sometimes placement of the product itself, in various schools. This benefits school systems by increasing educational budgets, and the marketers, of course, increase visibility for their client’s products. The controversy over commercial advertising in schools involves the legal requirements for children to attend school, meaning they cannot avoid the ads. Some argue this implies endorsement of the advertised product by teachers, schools, and parents.

It has long been established that children have less resistance to advertising than adults, as they are still learning traits such as impulse control, financial responsibility, and comparison shopping. Marketers and advertisers often exploit this fact, as it is also established that parents will often buy an item if their children nag them about it enough. For this reason, advertising directed at children is controversial among some parents and anti-corporate activists. In the 1980s, for example, parents’ groups protested TV ads and cartoons based on toy lines. This led to legislation in the United States, Canada, and other nations restricting ads during children’s programming.

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During the same era, the first widespread commercial advertising in schools appeared. Marketers arranged to have soda machines placed in lunchrooms and provided educational materials and equipment branded with company logos and slogans. This soon provoked controversy from parents’ groups and consumer advocates. They argued that students were effectively a captive audience and that such advertising implies that authorities approve of the product. These, of course, were the exact reasons that marketers sought school advertising in the first place.

For budget-conscious school systems, the advantages of commercial advertising in schools are obvious. When these publicly funded systems face budget cuts, the first casualties are often extracurricular activities, equipment, and facilities. The fees from advertising can replace these funds and can be spent any way the school system chooses rather than being linked to budget requirements like some public funding. It could also be argued that school is meant to prepare students for life in the outside world, and that world is saturated with advertising.

Opponents argue that commercial advertising in schools targets those who are most vulnerable to persuasion. In the case of sodas and junk food, the ads may contribute to childhood obesity and other health problems. Some ads may present unrealistic views of companies or products to children, who often do not have the critical thinking skills to question them. This last point is a sore one for many parents who question the pervasive nature of advertising in the modern world. They see this type of marketing as a means to manipulate their children and, by extension, themselves.

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