I was struck this week by the juxtaposition of reading a recent news story about the growth of advertising in large and impoverished school districts who are desperate for funding (USA today) and an article from February about districts near Santa Monica where wealthy parents are lavishing private donations on their schools to provide for extra resources and enrichment activities (LA Times). Not long ago I also read a news story about one of the many creative spaces proposed for advertising in some large districts in Florida (and already in place elsewhere) which were identified for their great potential as a massive and untapped market: school buses (Orlando). This reminded me of other reports I’ve read of advertising on grade cards and in bathroom stalls—a place I’ve always thought of as a private refuge from the world. When I talk with my college students in my preservice teacher education course about school advertising they are often quick to say that advertising is no big deal and it’s everywhere. But it’s not everywhere equally. And that fact may be part of the reason why it’s a big deal.
The proliferation of advertisements and their ubiquity in even the most private of spaces sends many messages to students and those who care about them, including “you are a source of profit” and “there is no safe space removed from the market.” Some financially-strapped schools go even further than just permitting passive advertisements inside their doors; they engage students in field trips and class activities that promote products. Rachel Cloues has written about her class of poor students attending a field trip to Nike headquarters, complete with a session of commercial watching. Elsewhere I have read of a school in the Midwest that allows a nearby cereal manufacturer to use their students as taste testers in order to bring in much needed funds.
These activities and the abundant presence of ads in poor schools may be further entrenching social reproduction within our schools. It may be that we are creating/sustaining an underclass who are seen as suitable for being a captive audience to ads (where it’s “no big deal”) or working as cereal guinea pigs, while their counterparts in wealthy schools not only do not need to resort to those funding tactics, but in some cases are receiving funding in abundance. While the poor students sit through product commercials and are enculturated into being consumers, students in wealthy schools may devote their classroom time to activities that develop advanced thinking skills and creativity, thereby preparing the next generation of leaders.
Finally, it’s important to note that as more districts approve widespread advertising, the students within their walls, buses, and bathroom stalls, are a captive audience. Being a captive audience has been one of the deciding factors in court cases regarding teachers or schools that share inappropriate political, moral, and religious messages. Because children have been exposed to these teachings without an exit option, the court has intervened on their behalf. While I seldom wish for litigation in our sue-happy world, I find myself hoping that the courts that interpret our laws and the legislators who create them will have an opportunity to side with some of our poorest children who are being bombarded with economic and socio-political messages as a captive audience. In the meantime, I celebrate the teachers in impoverished schools who develop advanced skills of media criticism in their students and the brave children who reclaim their spaces and challenge the messages conveyed about them through culture jamming and other practices.