In the debate over advertising in school, there are the critics who fling about such fiery phrases as "the commercial prostitution of America's youth." There are the proponents who see corporate endorsements as the only way to deal with budget shortfalls. And then there are people like Michael Boucher, who embraces the positions of both camps and can spend the afternoon arguing with himself.
Sitting in his classroom at Minneapolis's South High School, where he teaches social studies, Boucher is dressed casually in blue jeans and sneakers; his long black hair is held back in a ponytail. He is a longtime subscriber to the Nation ("I suppose you may as well stamp a big L on my forehead," he says) and will start a conversation with a statement like "As a society, we've sold our students to advertisers and multimillion-dollar corporations."
For emphasis, Boucher points to the book he holds in his hand--a glossy organizer provided to Twin Cities students by Denver-based American Student Activity Planner (ASAP). In all, the company has given some 30,000 of the books, worth an estimated $3.50 each, to 14 metro-area schools including three in Minneapolis and four in St. Paul.
A far cry from the workaday vinyl planners found in office-supply stores, the booklets are crammed with full-color pictures, starting with a cartoony cover showing teenagers decked out in space-age armor. Inside are calendar pages printed in a stylized futuristic font, along with space for jotting down phone numbers, URLs and e-mail addresses, and prom arrangements.
And there are ads. Lots of them. Small banner ads sit on the top and bottom of each calendar page, and the sheets in between are crammed with full-page spreads for the likes of Toyota, JC Penney, Kodak, Hasbro, and Unionbay, as well as the U.S. Army and the air force.
"This is problematic on so many levels," Boucher says, pointing to a David's Bridal ad featuring a waifish teenager in a strapless prom dress. "How thin she is, the pouty look on her face. This is obvious sexual objectification of very, very young girls." He flips to the back page and the Unionbay ad that, he says, has the whole school buzzing: It shows a teenage girl, her arms and legs wrapped around a wiry guy in blue jeans.
But despite his misgivings, Boucher has made the planner a requirement in all his classes. While students are free to buy their own, two-thirds of the 150 kids he teaches, and roughly half of South's total student population of 2,000, have opted for the freebies. "My students are involved in eight million sports," Boucher explains. "They have jobs, they have commitments to family, to church. They're incredibly busy. If they're going to do the kind of homework I need them to do, they need the planners to organize their time most efficiently."
For nine years, Boucher explains, he has wanted organizers but didn't require them for fear that some students could not afford to buy one. School administrators told him they couldn't come up with the money either. So when assistant principal Jody Hickman decided to accept ASAP's offer, Boucher kept his complaints to a minimum. "She took a lot a heat from a lot of teachers," Boucher remarks. "But it was the only way. They're a necessary evil because the planners are very necessary and the ads are very evil."
For now, Boucher is trying to turn a paradox into a lesson in civil disobedience. After receiving the planners, he acquired pens and sticky notes, then asked his students to creatively mark up or cover ads they objected to. Four kids, he notes, have systematically ripped out all of the ads--including those at the top and bottom of each page.
They've also made a game of the planners at ASAP's expense. The organizers are riddled with mistakes: August 4 is listed as Independence Day, February is shown to have 31 days, South America is not included on the list of continents, and there are some questionable governmental flow charts that give Congress oversight of agencies of the executive branch. "I gave my students five extra credit points if they can find ten or more errors," Boucher laughs. "Six students got that."
Ryder Clifford, national sales manager for ASAP and one of the company's six founders, is not an advocate of systematic defacement of his product. Other than that, he and Boucher share surprisingly similar views. "In an ideal world, schools shouldn't be in this funding crisis," he emphasizes. "But we're simply offering another way for schools to get needed materials [when they] normally couldn't afford them."
At least, Clifford adds, planners do have a legitimate place in the classroom: "Coke pays a lot of money to have their machines in schools, and they don't promote healthy habits or further educational goals at all," he notes. "But our number-one goal is to provide a useful educational tool." In its promotional materials and sales pitches, ASAP stresses the same notion, that it merely aims to help students learn: Even the answering machine welcomes callers to "the company that donates free day planners."
But ASAP is by no means a group of philanthropists: The firm offers advertisers unique exposure to a group of consumers who last year spent an estimated $141 billion, according to the Illinois-based market-research firm Teenage Research Unlimited. In its first two years in operation, ASAP saw the largest circulation increase of any print-media company in the world, according to Clifford: In the 1998-'99 school year, some 120,000 planners were distributed to schools in Colorado. For 1999-2000, the number is up to one million nationwide, and Clifford says ASAP has already signed contracts to double that number next year.