Advertising in schools

By Louise Weber

Media Literacy Now supports Rhode Island legislation (S2673/H7487) passed by the Senate that would prohibit the advertising of unhealthy food and beverage products in schools. School nutrition policies that support sensible nutritional choices and physical activity can help prevent and reduce child obesity, and benefit overall health and health education, and the marketing of unhealthy options within a school environment is in direct opposition to this goal.

Many schools are cash strapped and desperate for funding support. Establishing relationships with corporations eager to supply funding for educational and extracurricular activities and equipment – in exchange for student access – can be tempting and seem like a mutually beneficial association.

Although it can be framed in positive sounding language – suggesting that a school and corporate relationship is a situation in which everyone benefits – studies suggest that the quality of education received in this environment is compromised. The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), at the University of Colorado at Boulder, suggests that the resulting message is “harmful to (children’s) emotional, intellectual and physical well-being.”

An environment of normalized school/business partnerships teaches children to see that type of relationship as routine and acceptable. The Washington Post noted that “children who are subjected to ‘constant digital surveillance and marketing at school’ come to accept as normal that corporations play a big role not only in their education but in their lives…”

When the school brings in advertising, it appears to be endorsing the brand. Ultimately, school-sponsored corporate advertising is in direct opposition with the schools’ mission to teach critical, independent thinking.

The lure of financial support needs to be countered with media literacy education, which teaches children how to critically evaluate advertising, and increases their awareness of the ways in which they are targets of commercial efforts.

Already, students can be exposed to advertising throughout their school day from food and beverage advertising in the cafeteria to product placement in the gymnasium, to ads on school buses and textbook covers, to sponsorship ads on classroom materials and in educational media, to fundraising activities branded with commercial messages.

And increased use of digital technologies adds to the likelihood that student data, interactions and preferences are tracked as students work in online environments. This makes it all the easier for corporations to target and exploit children for financial gain – by customizing advertising, and threatening student privacy.

The House Health, Education and Welfare Committee held a hearing but declined to move the legislation forward.

Photo: buschap (Flickr)

About the Author:

Louise Weber is researching and monitoring media literacy legislation in states around the country for Media Literacy Now. She is a media producer, project manager and educator, based in Boston. Linked In.
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