What Is the Controversy about Commercial Advertising in Schools?

Alan Rankin

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.

Commercial advertising may be used to pay for extracurricular activities.
Commercial advertising may be used to pay for extracurricular activities.

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.

Junk food ads in schools may lead to childhood obesity.
Junk food ads in schools may lead to childhood obesity.

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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Discussion Comments


I have an essay on this. Both sides are fair, but it seems advertising does more good than bad to schools because of extra-curricular activities and potential scholarships resulting from these activities.


@Melonlity -- I think both scenarios you've laid out are clever marketing, but I don't know that I'd call them advertising directly to children. In the second scenario, the stadium sponsorship isn't strictly advertising to kids because the computer company is looking to reach an entire community rather than a bunch of children. In other words, that is advertising in a loose sense of the word, but the target audience isn't necessary children -- XYZ wants to get the attention of parents and people in the community rather than just children.

In the second scenario, computer companies regularly offer preferred pricing to school and there is certainly a desire to generate more retail sales as a result. However, keep this in mind -- the company is offering something of value at a price schools can afford. Those practices should be encouraged rather than branded as advertising. Yes, the kids will be more inclined to bug their parents for computers like they are using in school, but the benefit -- inexpensive computers for schools -- outweighs the ethical considerations of allowing that company access to impressionable children.


My, what a complicated issue. It is hard to define what, exactly, advertising is when it comes to influencing children and what to do about it.

For example, let's say that XYZ Computer Company slashes the cost of it's laptops substantially for the sole purpose of getting those machines into schools with the goal of getting kids to bug their parents to buy them a similar computer at home. That is a time tested strategy -- the kid gets used to using the computer and wants one of his or her own and that leads to increased sales at the cost of, perhaps, selling a few units at a point just above cost. That's not a bad tradeoff if you can reach thousands of kids by selling hundreds of computers at a steep discount. The school wins in terms of meeting technology needs on a budget and the company wins with increased sales, but is that advertising?

Second, let's say XYZ Computer Company has such a great response to its program at Townsville High School that it contributes a substantial sum to a new football stadium in exchange for naming rights. Again, the school district benefits with a new sports facility and the company benefits by showing its support for Townsville High School. but, is that advertising?

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